oral histories

Meet the interviewees…

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’.


oral histories

Longform quotations: Tim Wighton

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. 

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Tim Wighton, 2017, photograph by Jesse Adams Stein


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. …

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.


Tim Wighton’s interview is held with 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.


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.