When Patternmakers write Memoirs

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.

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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 PatternmakersCosting and Estimating for PatternmakersSafety 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.

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. 

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.