Thursday, November 18, 2010

Metal-workers blues

My eternal DIY quest has, in the past, largely been confined to carpentry, electricity/electronics, cooking, gardening and the like. When it comes to woodworking, I considered myself pretty competent - at the level of the serious amateur, and I have some nice furniture pieces to show for it. Wood is comfortable to me, but I have to admit that I've always been fascinated and impressed by those who can work with metal.

Not being one to respect confinement, or the division of labor, I've recently been trying to make useful things out of metal. I decided on a project - a universal coil winder designed by the imminent late genius David Gingery. I really can't rave about Mr. Gingery enough. The was a man who knew how to make things, as I understand it, he was a high school shop teacher, and he wrote several books - many of which can be found at Lindsay's Technical Books. Lindsay's, by the way, is a Luddite's paradise, and really has to be experienced to be believed.

Gingery considers this contraption to be easy to make, and a good introduction to working with metal. Everything you need to make it can be obtained at your local hardware store, as can all of the tools needed, if you don't have them already. I have a lot of tools, and I had a lot of the materials needed, so I got to work.

I learned a couple of hard lessons really fast. First, when Gingery says that this is an easy project, you have to remember that this is coming from a man who casts metal in his back yard, and writes books on how to build lathes from scrap metal. Second, while a background in wood working is useful, metal is a very different material from wood, and things like, say, the ability to cut a straight line along a mark to with less than 1/8" of variance don't necessarily translate directly. Third, the metal equivalent to a plane is a file, and getting rid of that 1/8" of variance is a lot more difficult when you're working with steel.

As a woodworker, I pride myself on being competent with un-powered tools. When I use a powertool, it's usually to avoid tedium rather than reliance. I've found that I get far more accurate results with hand-tools than I do with power tools, particularly when doing joinery. Initially, I took this stance with metal as well. When I needed to make a cut on a piece of 1 1/2" x 1 1'2" angle iron, I got out my hacksaw, set ip my miter box, and got to work. Just getting a clean starting kerf turned out to be a major chore, and the final result was less than satisfying. Disappointed, I took my stock to work, where we have a metal cutting bandsaw, and found the results to be equally, if differently disappointing and accuracy to be just as elusive. So out came the file, and what seemed like an eternity of trying to true up my cut.

I'm sure that accuracy comes with practice, but man is it hard, tedious work. I'm going to keep at it, even if I have to buy more angle iron, but until then, I'll be singing the metal workers blues.

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