No Trouble at Mill

I’ve just spent three days with Ant, Jag and Tony Barnes in the Metallurgy workshop, based within the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences (EPS) at the University of Birmingham. It’s worth writing about. Let me explain.

Earlier this year, I developed a workshop with a postgraduate researcher that would see us supervising year 12 students armed with pillar drills, chop saws, mallets and chisels. It became very clear from the start that even with a detailed protocol, the risk assessment was going to be a challenge. Training and competency was going to be a key ‘get out of jail’ card to play. So we sourced some appropriate workshop training through the professional staff within the College of EPS.

This was the kind of thing I hadn’t really done much of since GCSE Craft, Design & Technology back in 1988. But I was confident. I grew up in a very practically minded family, so there was always access to tools, particularly hand tools. There were always architectural drawings in the living room and I was a dab hand at following instructions for Lego and Meccano.

So I wanted to do the course, and needed to do it, but had no idea of what we were going to do. Apprehension and excitement, always a good combination for me. Within a very short time, I’ve got access to a lump of metal, a room full of tools and a drawing that would showcase my new skills in measuring, cutting, facing, milling, turning, boring, dieing and tapping etc. This is not just any student workshop, this is a workshop inhabited by three artisans who create bespoke elements for research. Nothing here is run of the mill. Under the expert and gentle guidance from Tony, this lump gets transformed into a paperweight to be proud of.

Decoding Stephen Brookes’ drawing wasn’t too troubling. The accompanying booklet was also a worthwhile read in preparation for what I would be doing in the following day; A little reading to accompany a very hands-on course.

Using a range of machines in a variety of different ways, I created a pile of aluminium swarf surplus to requirements, but not more. This was no exercise in rapid prototyping, I was determined to get it ‘cock on’, each measured cut being within accepted tolerances. I still manage to ‘cock up’ the ring to the right of the piece that would later become the threaded section. It should have been 48mm diameter, but I overcooked it, taking it to 47.6mm. Just as well Tony wasn’t insistent on checking my work. Trust me, I was learning by teaching myself at this point and didn’t need somebody to tell me when I’d not got it perfectly right. I knew I’d gone wrong and I knew how.

That said, for someone that has no formal teaching qualification, Tony demonstrates a masterclass in teaching methods. He didn’t just guide me through the process and skills to make the paperweight but with some thought-provoking questions, he embedded lessons such as how to make multi-start threads like you find on milk bottle tops. Hint, it’s not the way I imagined, it’s far more sensible.

I never felt rushed; I never felt out of my depth; I ended three days feeling more confident in the skills I’ve learned. But it didn’t end there. While I joined this course to ‘tick a risk assessment box’, I left it inspired and don’t feel I’ve finished. Rather, I feel challenged. My next step is to make an excuse to get back into the workshop and start chopping. Time to look at what demo kit I fancy making.

Those with an eye for detail will see Stephen’s drawing date is 1994, as this training course has been running for a number of years and has a constant list of people wanting to do it. And I can see why. Not only is it a necessary gateway to gain access to the workshop, but as it turns out, a wonderfully empowering way to invest three days.