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.
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 Patternmakers, Costing and Estimating for Patternmakers, Safety 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.
Bryan Poynton (b. 1939-2020) 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.