Research Blog

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. 

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. 

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.

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.