Posts Tagged ‘tales from the machine tool lab’

Failing the Pics-or-It-Didn’t-Happen Test

December 8, 2011 Leave a comment

I’m sitting in the tool crib on a much quieter afternoon shift, looking out through the tool window onto what I can see of the shop floor, and there’s a sudden moment in which I’m seeing the loveliest thing I’ve seen in days.

Off in the far corner of my field of view is one of the MTL’s tall, mullioned windows.  Visible through that window is just the very corner of a neighboring building, Crosby Hall, and beyond that is the opposite corner of another building, Little Hall.  Little is a story taller than Crosby and flat on top, where Crosby has a mansard roof, so the view is of this interesting little angle they make, a sort of triangular open space between the slant of Crosby’s roof and the flat side of Little, then an open rectangular space above.

And while I’m looking at that, pondering the interesting play of perspective and foreshortening that’s involved in creating that triangular illusion, a scrap of cloud drifts through that bit of sky.  Since it’s just coming on for sunset, the sky is still daylight blue, but the bit of cloud is the most amazing shade of pink-orange as it drifts between the white of Crosby’s snow-covered roof and the black of Little’s brick side silhouetted against the sky beyond.

Unfortunately, this trick of light and color is completely baffling to digital photography, and so I could not capture it for posterity.  The best I could do is this poor bit of superfluous prose, a vain effort to prevent the moment from being lost forever.


Crunch Time in the Machine Tool Lab

December 7, 2011 Leave a comment

It’s the last week of the semester, projects are due in both the freshman and junior machine shop courses by the end of the week, and things are extra bonus crazy in the MTL as a result.  I’ve had people I’ve never seen before coming in for night lab the last couple of weeks.  This week night lab has been extended from 6-9 to 5-10, which made for a long night Monday and a longer one today, when I already was scheduled to work 2-5.

We were going to close from 5 to 6 so I could go get some dinner, but one of the guys asked what it would take to convince me to stay and keep the shop open through the dinner hour.  I said I’d do it if someone brought me a pizza.

So he had one delivered.

Who am I to argue with that kind of dedication?

Unfortunately, the only thing to drink in this joint is the kinda-iffy-tasting city water from the fountain out in the shop, and half a pizza and some garlicky breadsticks later, I’m gasping for something better.  I won’t be getting anything for another three-and-a-quarter hours, though, alas.  The MTL needs a soda machine.  One of those old-timey ones that do paper cups with ice in them.  Does anyone even make that kind of vending machine any more?  They were absolutely the best.

Elder Days Story Time

December 1, 2011 1 comment

In high school I was a performing arts nerd.  I was in the concert band and the jazz band, and though I wasn’t a member of the chorus or show choir, I did appear in the fall musical a couple of times, because it was the only student theater option available in that half of the academic year.  My junior year, though, I forget what the musical was, but it was something I wasn’t interested in appearing in, so I spent that fall doing lighting instead.

This is by way of background information so you’ll understand – if you have any background in theater tech geekery yourself – why what I am about to relate has stuck in my memory all these years.  You see, in the spring of my junior year, I was picked to attend one of those state music workshop things, wherein people from the various concert bands at schools around the state gather in a neutral location, rehearse for a couple of days, and then perform as a sort of high school concert band supergroup.  Power Station for brass and woodwinds, basically.

That year the workshop was held at what was then called the Maine Center for the Arts, a big concert hall-cum-museum on the University of Maine campus in Orono.  (It’s now called the Collins Center for the Arts, presumably in honor of some generous alumnus or other.)  At the time the MCA was brand shiny new and something of a showpiece, Maine’s state-of-the-art performing arts venue, and so it was quite a big deal for a bunch of high school bandsters to be given the run of the place for a couple of days.

One day I was moseying around backstage during one of the breaks, snooping around and comparing the facility to the auditorium at my high school (which, he said immodestly, was one of the best in the state), when I noticed the door to the tech director’s office.  It had what appeared to be a brightly colored sign taped to it, but when I investigated more closely I found that it was not, in fact, a sign at all, but a lighting gel.  I have reproduced here a basic artist’s impression of what it looked like.


As a recent veteran of lighting the previous November’s fall musical, this killed me dead.

As Bill Cosby once said, I told you that story to tell you this one.  ‘Cause it’s getting on toward the end of the semester now, and the tools here in the machine tool lab are starting to show the wear.  We’ve got a lot of end mills with broken teeth, snapped drill bits, and the usual debris that piles up as students do what students do… but last night I came across a Failure-Enriched Tool that teaches a whole different, much more specialized lesson, and I thought it deserved immortalization.


This used to be a 1/4” high-speed-steel end mill.  It’s now a reasonably ineffectual paperweight, but not because someone used too much feed and snapped it, or had it set at the wrong angle and snapped it, or tried to plunge with it too vigorously and broke off all the teeth.  Those are what you might call the ordinary failure states for an end mill around here.

No, if this end mill were a sign taped to the tool crib door, it would say, WHY DO WE WATCH OUR FREAKING RPMS WHEN MILLING ALUMINUM?

That is much more ambitious failing, since it actually involved molten metal.  I particularly like how whoever did it had the sangfroid to just put it back in its container and return it to the crib as if nothing untoward had happened.  And now I’m in here with a sharpened markup scribe trying to pry that crap out of there.  Thanks, unknown inept student!

Strange Things Are Afoot

October 25, 2011 3 comments

I was on duty in the tool crib tonight, and nothing was happening.  I didn’t have any customers in the shop, and after some activity elsewhere in the building earlier in the evening, all was quiet.

Until about 7:30, when someone sloped into the shop and walked right past the tool checkout window without comment.  This is not actually all that unusual; you have to go past the window and actually come into the crib to collect one of the student toolboxes, and people often do that first, then claim a machine and get set up before they come to the window for the more specialized tools that are not in the toolboxes.  (The toolboxes contain the most commonly used tools, like digital calipers, Allen wrenches, a Crescent wrench, a deadblow hammer, and suchlike.)

Except the new arrival didn’t come in for a toolbox either.  For a second I thought it must have been the campus police officer who, on making his rounds, often cuts through the MTL and leaves via the outside door at the far end – but the next sound I heard wasn’t the door.  It was the whir of one of the pedestal grinders over on that wall starting up.

There’s another machine shop in the MTL, down in the other wing, where the seniors work on their capstone projects.  I thought maybe my unannounced visitor had come from there, needing one of our grinders to sharpen up the tool he was using or something (it failed to occur to me at the time that surely there’s a grinder in the capstone shop), so I didn’t pay it much mind as the sound of repeated passes on the grinding wheel filled the shop.  This went on for four or five minutes, and then I heard the grinder switch off and start spinning slowly down (they have a lot of inertia, grinder wheels, and keep spinning for quite a while after the power’s off).

A moment later, the person who had been using it walked back past the tool window.  It was a young guy, unremarkable-looking; I didn’t recognize him, but that’s not that unusual, I don’t know everybody in the program by any stretch.  That wasn’t the strange and arresting thing about him.

No, that would have been the fact that he was carrying a fireman’s axe, gleaming and evidently just sharpened.

He noticed me sitting behind the tool counter (having failed to do so on his way in, apparently), looked slightly surprised, then smiled and said, “Have a nice night, man,” and went casually out into the hall and away.

I sat there for a minute trying to absorb what I had just seen, then called the campus police department’s non-emergency dispatch number and told the dispatcher, “Hey, listen, I don’t know if this is anything, but some guy just breezed into the machine tool lab and sharpened an axe on one of our grinders.”

“… What?” came the puzzled reply.

“Yeah, that’s what I said.”

“Uh… do you know who it was?”


“Did he appear intoxicated?”

“Nope.  Seemed perfectly normal.  Except that he was carrying around a fire axe for no evident reason.”

“Uh, OK, I’ll send someone to check it out.”

A few minutes later there was a banging at the lab’s outside door, and I went out to let in the most skeptical police officer by whom it’s ever been my privilege to  be considered daft.  He asked me to repeat what I’d told the dispatcher, then spent a couple of minutes trying to get a handle on why I had reported this evidently trivial incident to the campus police.

“So is the problem here that he was using university property for personal use?” he asked.

“No, I’m not concerned about that, not on one of the grinders.  It’s just… mysterious guy roaming around campus with an axe?  I thought you guys should know.  That’s all.  Civic duty and all that.”

“So you think he’s out there choppin’ heads off right now?”

“Well, it seems a bit stupid when you put that fine a point on it.”

“What kind of axe was it?”

“Like the kind firemen use.”

“So not a hatchet, then.”


“Would you know him if you saw him again?”

“Dunno.  He was only in my field of view for a couple seconds.”

“Well, OK,” said the officer in that I’m-humoring-you-son tone of voice.  “Let’s go look for him.”

We went down to the other end of the building, where there were a few people hanging out in the CAD lab.  I didn’t see the axe guy there.  They looked slightly startled at having the fuzz suddenly show up and eye them for no good reason; one of them asked if they could help us with anything and the officer replied, “Nah, we’re just lookin’ for a guy.”

So we went back to the machine tool lab and the officer said, “OK, well, just one of those things, I guess.”  Then he tapped his radio and added with a laugh, “I mean, if he’d of axed somebody I’d have heard about it by now!”

“Well, if you do hear about any unauthorized axe usage, you can probably find bits of it right here on the floor,” I said.  “He didn’t sweep up, they never do.”

“Right,” said the clearly unconvinced officer.  “Well, night now.”

So, OK, yeah, kind of an anticlimactic story.  The cop certainly thought so.  I suspect he thought there was no mysterious axe guy at all, and I was just bored or stupid.  Either that or it was just somebody stealing a little time on one of the University’s tools to sharpen his own personal axe for, I dunno, wood splitting or something.  Which I suppose is conceivable, it’s the right time of year, but a fireman’s axe?  At 7:30 on a Monday night?  On a college campus?  It was just… weird.

So now I’m in some Potential Cranks file over at Public Safety, probably…

Tool Crib Stool: Phase 2

September 29, 2011 2 comments

I got in to work the other day and found that Joel had, true to his word, upholstered the new tool crib stool over the weekend.


Behold the paddedness.  It really helps, too.  My six-hour day (Wednesday) is still a pretty darn long one, but the days when I’m only in here three hours, it’s a big help.  And it does mean that the Long Day is only partially long, if you’ll forgive the turn of phrase.

Our next step is to add some sort of foot rest that’s a bit better than the stretchers in the steel structure.  They’re too close to the vertical axis for long-term comfort; I can hook my heels on them, but the position makes my hips sore after a while.

I’m thinking a metal ring, maybe three or four inches more in diameter than the diagonal of the base at about the level of the upper stretchers, is the way to go.  We’ve got the equipment in here for bending round stock to a particular radius, and once the circle is made it’s just a question of whipping up some brackets and welding the lot together.  I can’t weld – the curriculum recommends a class they do for it over at EMCC, but it’s only offered in the spring and I haven’t taken it yet – but Joel can.  We just need to finalize a design.

The temptation is very strong to go this weekend and do it up proper-like in Solid Edge, make some process sheets, and generally go all Real Engineer on it.  I’m not taking a Machine Tool class this semester, but it might be worth a few impress-the-boss points anyway, and it’d be a nice refresher of stuff I did last semester.  Keep me sharp for the next CAD class, which is coming this spring.

Tool Crib Update

September 15, 2011 Leave a comment

I got in for my afternoon shift today and discovered that DSS had already reclaimed their extra stool – probably for fear that if they left it any longer we’d dismantle it for parts.

Which, to be fair, we had considered.

Engineers: We Make Stuff Better

September 14, 2011 2 comments

IMG_20110914_152116 In the MTL tool crib, there is a window where the on-duty tool guy sits, and at that window is a stool.  It’s an unremarkable object, as these things go, just a few bits of metal and a wooden disc manufactured, as the logo on the underside of the seat reveals, by Angle Steel, Inc., of Plainwell, Michigan.  There is only one real problem with it:

It’s not very comfortable.

Last week, noting that I didn’t seem to be enjoying it much, Joel (my boss, the machine tool instructor, and the MTL building manager) asked if I’d prefer something a little more substantial and padded.  I said I would, and he said it was OK with him if I got in touch with Disabled Student Services, since they handle special-furniture requests on campus, and made such a request in the department’s name.  So I did.

Monday I came in for my night lab shift and found… a second, identical Angle Steel stool, with a tag on it saying “FOR BEN HUTCHINS, MTL CRIB”.  Apart from the tag and a label with the international accessibility symbol on it (see above), it was exactly the same as the one we already had.

So I sent a note to the grad student in charge of furniture at DSS, apologizing for not being clear enough in my initial email and noting that we had one of those already, what we were hoping for was something a bit more upholstered.  His response was very polite, but basically boiled down to, “That’s what we’ve got.  Talk to your department’s purchasing person if you want something swankier.”

Today I got in for my afternoon shift, when, unlike in the evenings, Joel is here, and we got to talking about the Stool Situation.  I said I’d found a couple of likely candidates online, but then I said, “It’s a little silly for us to pay $200 for a heavy-duty padded stool, I mean, this is a machine shop.  Why don’t we build one?”

He went away to help a couple of the afternoon students cut some threads, I dispensed tools, and we both thought about it for an hour or so, and then he came back and said, “OK, let’s give it a shot.”

IMG_20110914_152054 The first thing we decided was that we didn’t need to start from scratch.  The Angle Steel stool’s metal structure is plenty adequate for our purposes; it just needs a better seating surface.  So we dismantled one of the Angle Steel stools, which was a simple matter of unscrewing the wooden disc from the top of the frame.

Then Joel went and found a donor chair somewhere else in the building (he’s the MTL facility manager, remember, he can do that). IMG_20110914_164054 This was a regular wooden chair, like you would find in a kitchen.  We actually looked at a couple of them and decided that one would come apart more easily, and yield a part more suitable to the purpose, than the other.   So Joel knocked out the stretchers, to make getting the drill in there easier, and we unscrewed the seat base from our donor chair.  Then it was a relatively simple matter of marking out a radius (that’s what’s going on with the big metal ring and the square board in the photo above) and trimming the corners of the seat base a bit.

The result is not much different from the old version, but with a more substantial seating area, and provides a better platform for adding upholstery later, which Joel is rather keen to do once he has a chance to assemble the materials.


(You may notice that it’s turned so that what was the back of the seat when it was part of a chair is now facing toward the tool window workbench, at right.  This is because it’s actually more comfortable that way; we didn’t radius the front corners enough.  But we may not bother, since it works fine backward, the extra corner area provides more rear support, and once it’s padded the slight contour planed into the wood, from when it was a chair, won’t be relevant any more.)

I’m sitting on it right now for my night lab shift, and I have to confess it’s not that much better than the old version.  I mean, it’s still hard and there’s still not much of anyplace to put my feet.  Still, it does offer better support, and once it’s upholstered it should be very nice indeed.  And besides – it’s an engineering project!