oral histories

Longform quotes: Bryan Poynton

Bryan Poynton (b. 1939)
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.

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Bryan Poynton, 2017, photograph by Jesse Adams Stein

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

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Bryan Poynton’s 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. 

 

You can listen to Bryan Poynton’s interview here on the National Library’s digital collection item (timed summary also available).

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. 

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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.