Research Blog

oral histories

Longform quotations: Peter Williams

Peter Williams (b. 1961)
Engineering patternmaker, violin assistant repairer, paperboy, boat repairer, RMIT patternmaking trade teacher, high school teacher
Apprenticed at Malcolm Cole’s patternshop, late 1970s.

 

 

If I’m a patternmaker and I’m not making patterns, then what am I? And that hit me like a train. That hit me like a freight train. If I’m a patternmaker, and I’m not makin’ patterns, then what am I? And it was a really sobering thought.

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Peter Williams, 2017, photograph by Jesse Adams Stein

 

I think I was naturally fascinated by the process of casting metal – the whole metal casting and machining thing fascinated me. I didn’t want to cast metal, I didn’t want to work in a foundry, I didn’t want to produce moulds in sand and you know, operate a furnace and pour metal. It was dirty, hard and hot work. It just didn’t appeal to me, my passion was with working with timber. But the metal casting thing fascinated me and it still does. The machining of castings interested me, although it didn’t hold the same sort of fascination as the casting itself. But then, at the core of that was the patternmaking, where an idea grew legs, literally grew legs, an idea from a you know, and engineer’s / designer’s mind, made it on to paper in two dimensions, and then through the skill of the patternmaker it gained a third dimension and became real.  And that really had me, I mean I wanted to be a part of that. That just fasci-, because I could see, I think, that without me, without the patternmaker, it just wasn’t going to happen, it wouldn’t have happened.

***

One of the most exciting parts of my job, and I can remember it as an apprentice, you know, the most exciting thing was going up to Dave’s office, the manager’s office, tapping on the door, and saying,
“Dave, I need a job, whaddya you got for me next?” And Dave would go to the plan file, and take out the next job, and we’d roll that drawing out onto the bench, and I’d look at it and go, “yep, yep, righto,” and Dave would say, you know,
“We need 400 castings, aluminium bronze, these surfaces are machined, that’s caught out that way, this is caught out there,” and we’d nut it out there. Sometimes we’d sit there and look at a drawing for 2 hours on a bench, and nut that out, and see it in our minds, and agree on things. And then I’d go away and get started. And that – I found that just enthralling. And then to go away and make it happen was- it was almost secondary, making it happen was almost secondary to that initial excitement of reading a drawing, and seeing the thing in three dimensions in my own mind.

***
On finding a Jeremy Rifkin book in a bookstore, shortly after realising that his teaching career at RMIT patternmaking trade school was coming to an end:

I saw the book in a bookshop, on my way to the railway station one night, and it had a very stark cover, a black background with big red letters, that said The End of Work. The subtitle being: the decline of the global labor force and the dawn of the post market era. And I bought the book and immediately started to read it. I read from back to front fairly, front to back fairly quickly. Because all I could see this fella was talking about, you know, the demise of manufacturing, among other things, that I could see that it was happening it was happening around me. I was a part of it. I had been a part of manufacturing. Now I was part of the demise of it. I could see it, it was as clear as day. I actually became quite depressed about it, because it was, it was now clearly evident to me that everything I loved previously about more trade and more I learned, the skills I’d developed. The kids that I’d taught. The facility that I was now working in as a teacher. Wonderful facility that it was. I could see that it was all doomed. It was. … It was all gonna go, one way or the other.

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Peter Williams’ interview is available online to listen (with accompanying timed summary) on the National Library of Australia’s digital collection item. 
Peter’s story also features in History Lab’s Invisible Hands podcast.

oral histories

Longform quotations: Jim Walker

Jim Walker (b. 1930)
Engineering patternmaker, Head of Patternmaking at the George Thompson School of Foundry Technology, RMIT, Melbourne
Apprenticed in engineering patternmaking at the Commonwealth Government Ordnance Factory, Maribyrnong, c. 1946 / then Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation.

 

The George Thompson School of Foundry Technology: and that combined, at that stage, patternmaking trade and the moulding trade. … we had metallurgy, we had plastics technology, and welding. … I was senior enough at the time to get the job as a sort of Deputy Head. … At one stage we had about eighteen teachers … and a couple of thousand students per year. As RMIT grew, and their standards rose, so the bureaucracy rose. And I finished up quite literally an office boy … and I hated it, doing budgets and timetables, and you know, all that nonsense a clerk would do, really. But look, my time at RMIT was terrific. I had a wonderful time. 

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Jim Walker, 2018, photograph by Jesse Adams Stein

 

Tools were always a problem for patternmakers. Very specialised gougers and chisels that were used, and they’re only made in England. And they were always in short supply. We used to haunt the tool shops in Melbourne. You’d go to Trade School, and at lunchtime you’d whip down to McEwan’s, or whatever, and see what they had in, and you’d hear there were some tools coming in, and you’d wait and order them. … But basically, most of the tools were hand-me-downs from other tradesmen, and the thing in those days, no superannuation, and the tradesman retired at sixty, sixty-five, and the first thing he did was sell his tools. You’d get two-hundred pounds, which was a lot of money in those days. Five thousand, six thousand dollars in today’s money. And so, I started buying tools. Some poor old guy who’d retired, been put in an old-person’s home, and the family wanted to get rid of his tools, and they’d got no idea how much, so they used me as a central point. … “Would you like to buy them?” And I would buy them off the people, and resell them to the students. … I’ve kept a few myself.

[Because of the decline in apprentice numbers]
We had to find new avenues for the teachers. … That’s where the woodturning lathe came in. […] It was John Wilkins’ idea. Not mine. I went along with it because it got me out of a hole. We had too many teachers for the student numbers, and they were at me to sack some of them. The three or four youngest teachers. But, you know, I didn’t want to sack them. I found some money in an account called …  Staff Development. Staff Development Account. It had been accruing for a number of years. We used it for John Wilkins’ degree. He was paid by RMIT to get that degree with that money. Then after that, he decided he would like to make a lathe, and I said,
‘OK. Well, look, what have you got in mind?’ So he dished up the plan to me, and we recruited four other teachers, and we worked on it and we made the drawings, the patterns, the castings, machined them, and we made the lathe over a period of about eighteen months. We made ten lathes. One for each member of the committee, and one for the boss man. I haven’t got my lathe now. I’ve got a bought lathe at the moment. A top of the class, very expensive lathe out there. And it’s just that when I was coming up to retirement, looking for something to do, I thought I’ll take on wood turning, and I wanted to have good equipment. The one we made at RMIT, John Wilkins got the original one, and it’s a beautiful lathe. It was more or less Rolls Royce. Built by hand. The one that I had had a fault in the transmission. It was not aligned properly, and you had to (slight laugh) you had to hold your hands just right to get it to work properly. That was a bit of a nuisance, but basically it was a damn good lathe for the money. We only paid a few hundred dollars each for the lathe, because we made everything.

 

Jim Walker’s interview is held in the National Library of Australia.

 

oral histories

Longform quotations: Deborah Tyrrell

Deborah Tyrrell (b. 1962)
Engineering patternmaking business manager and owner, CAD technician, Sydney

 

They were very stressful, difficult learning times, but we have got there. The reseller for the Mastercam … he used to go and everybody would say,
“Well, how difficult is it?”
“Well, I’ve trained a fifty-year-old housewife how to do it, so yeah, you can do it if you’re determined enough!” So, more or less, I have learnt SolidWorks and I have learnt Mastercam. I have not had any formal training in either, so it’s been a big learning curve.

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Hiring a patternmaker is very difficult. Going back, when we first started, yes there were some, but I would probably be able to name all the qualified patternmakers in New South Wales that were working, and there’s not very many of them. The younger guys have almost all gone out into the building trade, where their skills are highly sought after. And there’s just so few of us. When we advertised for the apprentice patternmaker, he was the only phone call out of three weeks’ worth of ads. And again, speaking to other patternmakers, they’ve had the exact same issue. … They haven’t had any applicants.

I think there’s … more of an issue of the lack of value [Australia] puts in tradespeople, and, from there, a lack of understanding of patternmaking as well. More or less, people don’t value trades … I’d say they’re starting to value tradies a bit more again now, but there was a stage when they were very lowly-valued and more or less everybody was encouraged to go to university, and then because we were then even one of the lesser-known trades, we had even wider repercussions in that area.

So we are even losing the ability to train people up to do these things. And we’re not being phased out because of technology: we’re getting phased out because it’s being moved offshore, and with the Aussie dollar where it is now, back down, and the wages that have gone up in China, it’s not necessarily cheaper to manufacture in China anymore. But all these big companies have taken it offshore, they’ve set up over there, and it’s all running over there, and in the meantime, companies here that do that style of work have gone, or wound right back. Even when they try to bring it back in, half of what they need is not here any longer. So we’re losing the ability as a country to be self-sustainable.

We should be looking at added value in Australia. Not taking our raw materials and sending them offshore, having them processed offshore, and then buying them back at astronomical prices. 

 

Deborah Tyrrell’s interview is held in the National Library of Australia.

oral histories

Longform quotations: Scott Murrells

Scott Murrells (b. 1964)
Former engineering patternmaker, automotive clay modeller, woodworker, artist, hardware expert
Apprenticed in engineering patternmaking at John Williams Patterns, Melbourne, c. 1981-85.

 

I guess, in a way, patternmakers solve problems. There’s a design, that comes along, and it gets turned into a drawing … and you solve that problem, you turn it into the three dimensional object that they want. 

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Scott Murrells, 2017, photograph by Jesse Adams Stein

 

When I first started patternmaker, I remember a tradesman saying,
‘Why’d you pick this trade? It’s not gonna be around in the next few years.’
They knew it was coming. … the teachers knew it was coming to an end. I think it’s just normal human nature just to hang on until you’re pushed over the edge. … It was all starting to be mechanised, I guess, or computerised.

The majority of the work that I did when I started was metal casting patterns. And then there was a slow down in metal casting components for machinery, and plastics was taking over. I guess the automotive industry is the easiest way to illustrate it. You go back to the early cars and a lot of it was stamp metal and cast metal. Then it became very plastic, so the plastic side of patternmaking took off, it had a peak there for a short time … and then CNCs came in. That’s how I see what happened to patternmaking. It was labour intensive, long lead times to produce a pattern. … I never sort of thought about it much back then. But I think they were always looking for quicker turnaround. So once computers became, you know, CAD systems got off the ground, they saw an opportunity to do it digitally.

I wasn’t really frightened of [technological change], but you thought well, the work became less and less fun. Because you’d get these CNC-cut things, and all you were doing was, you know, making sharp corners round and the round corners sharp, sort of thing. So it was boring. I guess that’s the reason I didn’t stay in patternmaking – because it became boring. You know, there was no real, there was no problem solving, you didn’t have to think. That was all taken off you. … It basically means that you no longer become the problem solver or the creator of the pattern. It’s done for you. You then became you become the finish[er] of the pattern. … All that creativity comes away from it. So there’s no fun, there’s no fun in it any more.

 

You can listen to Scott Murrells’ interview on the National Library of Australia’s digital collection item here.

oral histories

Longform quotations: Bruce Phipps

Bruce Phipps (b. 1933)
Retired engineering patternmaker & second-generation patternmaking business owner, tennis player, Sydney
Apprenticed as an engineering patternmaker at Cockatoo Island shipyards, late 1940s – early 1950s

I actually made a wooden pattern of the Sunbeam Kettle which is still – that same model is being used today. So, I made that kettle out of wood. 

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Peter Phipps, 2018, photograph by Jesse Adams Stein

On his apprenticeship at Cockatoo Island: 
Well, you see, it was a shipyard, so they made all the patterns for the valves, and all the parts that used to be in the ships.  That was interesting.  But it was a big pattern shop.  There was twenty-three fellas, which was a lot in a pattern shop, and they all – a lot of them had independent jobs. Like, there was a fella downstairs, if you wanted timber, you’d tell him what you want. He’d plane it up. And they had, in those days, which was good, they had special machines – like, special routers which were not just all hand-done, and they used to make patterns for propellers, and I remember, even to this day, Lady Hopetoun on the Harbour – which is still going; it’s one of the maritime boats – I actually made the pattern myself for the propeller on that boat, which – if you know the Lady Hopetoun, it’s a weird thing.  All the cabins are on an angle, and so was the propeller!  Instead of just being a straight propeller, the blades come back on an angle, and that was one of my jobs that I did myself, which I was pretty rapt in.  and not only that, at that time – I was in fourth year; you did five years’ apprenticeship in those days – and all the fellas wanted more overtime.  And the work wasn’t there, but, I don’t know why, they said, “Yeah, OK.  You can have all the overtime you want.”  And they worked themselves out of a job.  … So here I was, no work, so they gave me a job fitting out a model of a frigate with all the valves, the turbines, everything in the engine room, in sections. … very interesting for me because it meant that I went all over Cockatoo Island getting all these different drawings of things that I’d never seen before to make all the different parts of the ship.

 

Bruce Phipps’ interview is held with the National Library of Australia (not available online just yet, but can be accessed via Copies Direct or in person.)

oral histories

Longform quotations: Peter Phipps

Peter Phipps (b. 1965)
Engineering patternmaker & third generation patternmaking business owner, Sydney
Pinball machine repairer, surfboat racer
Apprenticed in engineering patternmaking 1981-84, private patternshops
Son of patternmaker Bruce Phipps

 

Look, if, in my career, I wasn’t the manager of a business, my gut feeling is that I would have gotten retrained. I would have said, ‘this is going nowhere’, and I would have jumped ship. Retrained … I’m pretty sure of that. But I was the manager of a business, and I had people that I was responsible for, and I want to support them, so that really made me committed to stay and make it work as good as I can.

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Peter Phipps, 2018, photograph by Jesse Adams Stein

 

If you can sit down with a customer and they say,
“I want this. Do that,” and I say,
“Well, that’s good, but let’s get a good quality one. Let’s talk to the foundry if they think they’re going to be able to get you a good casting.” If they say,
“Oh. Well, how are we going to do that?” Or they’ll say, “Well, that doesn’t matter to me,” I’ll say, “Well, can we redesign that and make it this shape? It won’t affect what you’re trying to do with it, and you’ll get a good casting from there.”
That’s…a three-way conversation always gets a good result. … often you’ll redesign the customer’s part, and they really want – they often come to you and they expect you to know everything about their industry, as if you’re an expert in their industry.  One minute you know all about petrol tankers; the next minute you know all about mining; you’re an expert in the guy who wants a mould made for a shampoo bottle; you’re the expert with the guy who wants the headlight of a car made.

***

I’d love to put on more staff. I want to advance. I want to do more, but i need a growing industry around me. But ultimately it’s a shrinking industry. … If you went into the local village here in Thirroul, there’s probably eight or nine, and there’ll be a tenth coffee shop open tomorrow, and they’ll still sell coffee, and they’ll be vibrant and making money, because that culture is booming, and people are doing that. But we’re not in that position. I’m in a different part of society that isn’t advancing. We’re going backwards.

***

On going to Trade School during his apprenticeship:

I used to go in there once a week, and that’s where I really loved it, because you had other people your age doing the same thing, and it was really good to share with each other what you did, and where you worked. … It was just a great way to bounce off each other and learn.

 

Peter Phipps’ interview is held with the National Library of Australia (not online just yet… in process. But you can access it via Copies Direct or in person.) Peter’s story also features in the History Lab podcast, Invisible Hands.