Research Blog

oral histories

Longform quotes: Bryan Poynton

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.

DSC01907
Bryan Poynton, 2017, photograph by Jesse Adams Stein

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

DSC01888
Bryan Poynton’s 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. 

 

You can listen to Bryan Poynton’s interview here on the National Library’s digital collection item (timed summary also available).

oral histories

Longform quotations: Paul Kay

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.

DSC03248
Paul Kay, 2018, photograph by Jesse Adams Stein

 

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.

DSC03259
Jube patterns, courtesy of Paul Kay.

 

Paul Kay’s interview is held with the National Library of Australia (not available online just yet, but it is available via Copies Direct or in person). You can hear ore about Paul Kay on the History Lab podcast Invisible Hands, and in this article in The Conversation.

 

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.

DSC00105
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.

dsc00110.jpg

 

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. 

DSC03576
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.

DSC03550

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.