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.