While I wasn’t able to travel to Tassie to interview John Looker, we did have a great chat on the phone, and I read his self-published memoir, I want to be a Patternmaker(Memoirs Foundation, 2011). Looker was a patternmaker, RMIT patternmaking trade educator and teacher. It contains fascinating accounts of Looker’s time in industry both in Australia and in the UK, as well as his teaching experiences.
Looker must have been a very organised diary writer throughout his life, because parts of his memoir are incredibly detailed. Looker worked with Jim Walker at RMIT, and it was a pleasure to read his account of when they made 10 ‘retirement lathes’ (a very elaborate foreign order project!). When considering the prospect of his own retirement from RMIT, Looker said,
One of my first thoughts was the realisation that I would no longer have the use of a fully equipped workshop, as there was at the College. My immediate concern was to have a lathe. … The thought of retiring and not having a lathe was not acceptable. After some thought I came to the realisation that I was working in the very place where I could produce one. I could make the patterns. The foundry downstairs could produce the castings in iron and the small machine shop attached to our department was just the place to machine and fit all the components together. (Looker 2011, p. 245)
Once the other patternmaking staff got wind of this idea, they all wanted to join in too. This more or less concurs with Walker’s account of the same process (see this post).
The other thing about Looker is that he is the author of six detailed patternmaking training manuals used at RMIT, published in the 1980s. These include, Chain Gearing for Patternmakers, Costing and Estimating for Patternmakers, Safety in the Patternshop, and Conveyor Screws for Patternmakers. While some might dismiss these texts as ‘mere’ functional textbooks, what is marvellous about them is Looker’s ability to distil complex concepts into very digestiable parts, and his illustrations. In his memoir he says, “I was given two days a week to work on it … the sketches that I produced were twice full size, in ink, on tracing paper. … I handed the work, ‘Camera-Ready’, to RMIT Publishing.” (p. 230)
I don’t actually have copies of these manuals – I have some from earlier, 1977 – but if you have copies from this era I would love to take a look.
One of the key problems with oral history is that we don’t often have the time to actually sit down and listen to a whole interview. This is especially the case for long-form oral history, where the interviews can be upwards of 3 hours…
I can’t completely do justice to the life stories of these engineering patternmakers here, but I wanted to provide a quick glimpse into these stories, to show their diversity, the sheer bloody challenge of working in Australian manufacturing today, and the passion these people maintain for the trade, and for quality work in general. In short, I hope what the reader might get from this is the understanding of these skilled tradespeople as complex, whole human beings, not interchangable parts on a production line, nor mere examples of a ‘lost trade’.
Tim Wighton (b. 1986) Engineering patternmaker, woodworker, Victoria
Apprenticed in engineering patternmaking at Bradken Wodonga 2006-2008.
I was quite lucky, actually, looking back. The first three or four years of my apprenticeship there was no rapid prototyping or CNC or anything like that. Through the shop – everything was made by hand. So the original pattern would be all fully machined or hand machined, hand carved, and then from that you would make your blue gel patterns. […] It was another lucky thing, the year I started my apprenticeship, it was also the year that Wally Gore restarted the Trade School down in Melbourne.
Probably the job stands out most to me was in my third year of my apprenticeship: there was a giant gear that drove one of the major bits of machinery in the green sand … and had been made back when the plant was built in the 50s and forgotten about, but by the time I got to third year, it had worn out completely. So as the apprentice, and I s’pose as a way just to test me out, sort of thing, or put me back in my place, one or the other, they gave it to me to make the pattern, so that they could cast the gear themselves …
So I was given the drawing and just told “You can do what you want”. There is no, no one was going to help, you know, the methoders weren’t gonna tell you what to do, you can just decide how the job is going to be made. …
Photographs courtesy of Tim Wighton
Photographs courtesy of Tim Wighton
Photographs courtesy of Tim Wighton
Photographs courtesy of Tim Wighton
Photographs courtesy of Tim Wighton
I found that the original engineer had actually done it wrong. … That was quite, you know, empowering as an apprentice, to sit down with all the other people and actually be listened to and taken seriously. … So that was a really fun job and I felt quite grateful to do that, because now that I’m out in the world I’ve met other tradesmen, other patternmakers.
You don’t get that opportunity anymore. Most people would just machine it … you know, or they’d 3D print the pattern or they’d do something like that, because any of those CAD programs, you know, you put in two or three numbers and it generates the whole gear now. There’s no, you’re not sitting there with dividers and compasses, and doing it all by hand.
I think all of us, and Wally encouraged us, to see what we were learning at Trade School … as a ‘step’, to try and actually go out and get the CAD side of things, … get the CNC experience. Sort of not to be afraid of that change but that was more of an evolution of the training, than an actual end point. But … it doesn’t seem like that these days. I dunno, businesses seem to think patternmakers are hand-tool people, whereas they would rather get an engineering graduate … which is difficult, I s’pose, ‘cos the poor engineering graduate doesn’t know anything about foundry, because foundry is a very specialised thing by itself.
Debra Schuckar (b. 1966)
Currently practicing engineering patternmaker, singer, textiles maker and artist, Melbourne.
Apprenticed in engineering patternmaking at the State Electricity Commission of Victoria, Richmond, early 1980s.
You become a patternmaker once you get your ticket. So probably after my four years, and you come out of your time and you become one of the time, like you are a patternmaker. … I won a couple of awards along the way, made me feel that I am in the right direction. … I remember those times, you just grab your drawing, you know exactly what you’re doing, and you go from there.
I understand we have computers but computers are just a tool. If the person behind the computer doesn’t know what they’re putting in, because they don’t have a practical feel for what they’re doing, it’s going to waste a lot of time. Trades are there for a reason but I know trades have sort of demised. I’m hoping that will open some sort of a – there will be a window open and they’ll start training again. I mean, where are you going to get those skills from, you know? I know machines are taking over but you’ve still gotta understand the machine to do it, and is that machine always going to be able to do it? I don’t know. Machines need to be fixed.
I was the first [woman patternmaker] in Victoria. So that was kind of scary I suppose at the time because I felt a lot of pressure to succeed. I didn’t want to fail anybody because I was the first. I felt like I was, you know, making a wave in the change for women’s vocations, If I didn’t fail or I become this patternmaker, then anybody could do it. I mean, it’s a funny way of thinking, but I just wanted to make sure that the doors would be open. … At the time I did feel a responsibility to be successful so that other women could follow in their own way. But I look back and think well, it’s not a failure if you don’t do well anyway, it’s just that first thing you try out. But that’s how I felt at the time. … No, I didn’t fail anybody. … It’s a lot of pressure.
Serge Haitdutschyk (b. 1950)
Former engineering patternmaker, Victorian Railways (1968-1992) & Graham Campbell Ferrum. Aged-care maintenance worker, artist and woodworker
Apprenticed in engineering patternmaking at the Victorian Railways, 1968-72.
Well, to be quite honest, how did I handle that change? I didn’t handle that change very well. After twenty-five years of working in one place – and people say, “How can you work in one place for twenty-five years, at the same bench?” I could walk in there with my eyes closed. I loved it. I loved it. It was my home. The environment, I loved my job. I loved working, what I was doing. When all that came to an end, I was actually quite depressed. … Forty-two years of age. I don’t want to retire, and I’m not retiring, so what am I going to do?
On the apprenticeship interview:
… The job interview at the Victorian Railways was in Flinders Street in the city, upstairs in Flinders Street Station. That’s where the interview was. And I was petrified when I had to go for the interview, and I said to Mum and Dad, “I’m going to go for the interview. What do I do? How do I dress?” and Dad said, “Don’t worry, son! We’ll go to the city. I’m going to buy you a lovely suit.” And Dad was a lovely man, too. Dad took me to the city, and he spent a lot of money. He bought me this beautiful blue, satin-type suit. I’ll never forget. It was a lovely suit. And I had a tie! So, Dad dressed me up. We had these mock-up interviews at home. … How could my Dad give me a mock-up interview on my trade? But anyway, it was like a pretend thing. The mock-up interview with my dad was more about attitude, and Dad always said, “Listen, son” – and Mum – “It’s your attitude. When you go to this interview, you be a nice fella! Don’t be a smartie. You be a nice fella. And answer the question that they want you to answer. Don’t go raving and ranting stuff that you were running and chasing snakes down at the creek.” So, Mum and Dad had this strict thing about…presentation was very important. It always was. Anyway. I rolled up to this interview at the Victorian Railways Commissioner Board, they were, and there was about three gentlemen there, and I was petrified. They had this – there was this humungous big desk, and there was three gentlemen that sat there, and I thought, “Oh, my god. These old fogies!” I mean, I was seventeen, and these guys were probably about thirty and forty, and I used to think they were old fogies! And they would sit there. “Serge, sit down there. We’re going to interview you about a patternmaking job.” I sat there and I had my folder there, all nicely dressed in my suit, and they said, “Serge, you applied for a job as an apprentice carpenter.” I said, “Yes, I did.” And they said, “We’ve been looking through your resume, and you have got 98 for woodwork, you’ve got 96 for art, and you’ve got very high marks in all the technical subjects.” I said, “Yeah, I’m a hands-on person. I like to do fine work. Fine, delicate work.” They said, “Well, if you like to do fine, delicate work, we believe that you should be a patternmaker.” I said, “A patternmaker? I don’t know what a patternmaker is! I came here to apply for a job as a carpenter, not a patternmaker!” “No, no, no! We believe you would be a good patternmaker!” And I said to the gentlemen there, I said, “Excuse me, sir. What is a patternmaker?” “Oh, a patternmaker is…” They explained to me what a patternmaker is, and it went over the top of my head. And they said, “No, no, no. You make all these lovely wooden patterns. Very delicate, crafty work, and we believe you’re good at that. You’re good at mechanical drawing. You’re good at woodwork. You’ve got talents in fine woodworking. We believe you should be a patternmaker.” And after about five minutes, they convinced me. I said, “OK, I’ll be a patternmaker.” “Oh!” And they were happy. These guys, these people interviewing me, were so happy because they’d got a patternmaker. A Ukrainian patternmaker that’s very highly skilled with his hands. And I was highly skilled. I was. I really was. And I was dedicated. So, they were happy. So, I joined the patternmaking department at Victoria Railway’s Newport workshops. I didn’t even know what patternmaking was, but I got the job. They give me the job. I started January the 18th, 1968.
I remember that moment very well, and that was the moment, in 1972, in June, when I actually got my apprenticeship papers from the government, saying that I have completed my apprenticeship successfully. … I got presented my certificate of completion of apprenticeship, which I treasure. … but when I received my apprenticeship indentured papers on that day, I felt fantastic. … And it’s ironic, because you get this paper and you think, “Oh, this is a free for all! I can do what I like!” So I went back into the pattern shop … “I’ve got my apprenticeship papers! I’m a man! I’m twenty-two years of age. I’ve got my apprenticeship papers! I can do what I like!” And I turned around to this guy, that guy, and I thought, stuff you, I don’t have to listen to you anymore! I’m a tradesman! It’s funny how people think how our mentality is in life. A piece of paper, you think that you’ve got power, and you think that you can say what you like in life to people. In hindsight, I look back now and I thought, my mum said to me, “I have to be nice to people in life, whether it’s your wife, whether it’s your work colleagues, whether it’s whoever in life. You have to be nice to people. And I fall back to this, I have to be nice to people. Just because I’ve got my indenture paper doesn’t mean that “I don’t like that guy, I’m going to start abusing him.” Yeah. And that was an experience. The most important experience was getting that paper and feeling like I’m free.
Serge Haitudschyk’s interview is held in the National Library of Australia. It isn’t available online just yet, but it soon should be, and it is available via Copies Direct or in-person at the Library.
Bryan Poynton (b. 1939) Artisanal woodworker, engineering patternmaker, artist, poet
Apprenticed at the International Harvester Company, Geelong, mid-1950s
I use my sense of judgment, my own sense of what I call my own personal aesthetic, that I’ve built up over the years, to judge what I do, by whether or not it can be altered to become better, ultimately have to come to a stage where you think, “yeah that’s alright. … What I see in something has proper proportion and balance and some sort of grace.
I was always doing something other than patternmaking but it was all still woodwork, what I thought was creative, necessary to my sanity.
Interviewer: In that sense was patternmaking never really enough?
In that sense that’s correct. It was never really enough. If I only was a patternmaker I would be really frustrated, because of my various interests. I suppose I’d be frustrated if I couldn’t do anything else.
Interviewer: What was restrictive about patternmaking?
Um, only the creative part, and I was totally easy about that aspect of it, and I wasn’t complaining, because I wasn’t being creative one during the process of making a pattern. I was always totally locked into doing the best I could to make that object. … I mean, I could no more just be a violin maker, or just a furniture maker, or just a woodturner, because I’m interested in so many different aspects of this.”
On the importance of looking after your sharpening stone
Your first tool, if you like, that you should buy, is at least one sharpening stone, or a couple of them a different grades, and then, having bought the best stone you can afford, You don’t just leave it ticking around in a box or amongst tools, like most carpenters, if they have a toolbox with a sharpening stone it’s always on the bottom and everything’s on top of it … My theory is you have to you have to really enjoy the act of sharpening, it’s such a fundamental thing. So you get a good stone and you make a box for it. I can show you a lovely box made from one here. A lot of people these days, they think you can go and buy a tool at a shop somewhere, and bring it home and start using it, and it’s okay sometimes for general rough carpentry, but patternmakers, you know, they pride themselves on having razor sharp tools. That’s why you would never loan a chisel to somebody else in the shop because their sharpening stone would be worn a little bit and when they tried to rub it on there you’ll get a different wear pattern, and so it’s important to always use your own stone and sharpen your tools and your plane blades and I used to spend hours doing that.
All I wanted to do was surf, and I’ve surfed all my life, and it’s only in the last three years that my knees are a bit rubbish and I can’t stand up quickly enough. … First of all it was body surfing of course, when we first went to Wye River. … In later years after I’d been at school, we still had a connection with Wye River. … I would go [to Separation Creek] all the weekends that I could get away. Even when I was an apprentice, I would hitchhike down on a Friday night, … and I’d surf all weekend, and then get a lift back to Geelong. So I gradually became better at surfing and I was eventually able to buy a surfboard. I surfed for years and years of course without any wetsuit, or leg ropes that they have now. … But eventually, I think it was 1956, when the Hawaiians and some Americans came into Sydney with little boards and there was a sort of revolution in surfing, because up to then, the Surf Clubs that existed all used long boards, one of which I had … they were 16 feet long, very difficult to ride, very narrow, and I did build one at one stage. … But then I saved up and I bought my first Balsawood board, probably in about 1960.
I had already been doing woodwork things, y’know, since I was about six or seven. […] Saturday afternoon I would sneak out to the Eastern Gardens which really only about a mile away from our house and – with a little saw of my father’s – and I’d go around until I found a little Cypress tree with nice curved branches on it and I’d make sure that the caretaker or the Ranger wasn’t around anywhere, and I’d saw off one of these little branches, and I’d take it home, and I’d used my father’s meagre collection of tools, like a little plane and a spoke-shave. I’d shape these bows, and then I’d sneak around the back lanes, and find any paling fences that were a bit loose, because, you know, in those days all the palings weren’t sawn, they were split, in the bush, and I’d split them down again, and make little squares, and then I plane them with a little plane, make round arrows. And then I would go to the local market where they sold chickens and pigs and turkeys, and all those things, and I pestered the blokes to give me some turkey feathers …
And so I’d glue those on to the shafts and then as a result of the War and my uncles coming home, there were a few 303 bullets lying around, so probably very dangerously I’d take the tops off those, and get rid of the powder, but I just had the pointy bit and I’d shaved down the end of the arrow and glue those on. So I had my bow and arrow and, the ones that I made, some used to fire a lot better and faster and longer shots than my other friends’ in the little gang that we had. They could afford to go and buy a bow and arrow from the sports store.
I was under nine when I was doing that sort of thing when I ran out of those arrowheads I contrived to get one of my father’s soldering irons and I’d poke it in the ground and leave a little hollow shape of the soldering iron, and then I’d suspend, with a box of wood and bricks, suspend the arrow inside the hole with a couple of little nicks in it and then I’d light a fire and melt some lead, can’t remember where I got the lead from, probably a few sinkers, and then I’d pour the lead around the arrow as soon as it set or put it in water. So they’re the sort of things I used to get up to at that age.
Paul Kay (b. 1954)
Engineering patternmaker & second-generation patternmaking business owner, surfer, artist. Sydney
Apprenticed in engineering patternmaking 1971-74
I’ve been in patternmaking all my life, never done another job at all. I mean, they talk about people having, let’s say 10 or 15 years ago, that people might have had 3, 4, 5, 6 jobs in their life. I’ve only had one. So I do view myself as being a bit different.
My first impression is, it wasn’t technology that was affecting us, it was people’s decision to manufacture overseas, to find cheaper labour sources. … So that was certainly doing Australian patternshops out of a job. […] I think once they had tried this idea of ‘let’s make it offshore’ then people started thinking ‘how can I still do this in Australia but in a cheaper, better way?’, and that’s when everyone looked a bit harder at what was going on in Europe and in the United States. It’s at that stage, perhaps the late 90s, early 2000s, when people really started to say, ok we’ve got to invest in technology, in digital machinery, in CAD drafting.
I didn’t believe that CAD would help me where I was at” [because of the organic forms and size of jube patterns.] “We started making the confectionery products in 1985 and to give you an example, early on in the piece, one of the more complicated pieces was a … baby with a head and body features. But it was only 23mm long and it had to be a certain volume and the customer said to me, ‘Look, do you think you could do this?’ And I just looked at it, and I’d been doing some wood carving things through my own interest, and I said, ‘I think so, yeah.’ And I think it was better than reasonably well. And I think they were ecstatic with that, and I never looked back after that.
Our client base, when you’re doing one-off shapes, when you’re doing one-off things it’s very difficult to warrant producing an item like that on CNC because it’s purely a one-off … There was not enough there, let’s say, forcing me to change and the client was still happy to meet the expense of me doing it traditionally.