Sunday, 6 February 2011

Observations on the Manual Arts

While this week has been an entirely progress free one as far as the BMW is concerned, that's only because I've been slaving over a hot frame in an effort to render it fit for powder coating. Basically, the frame has been the subject of a degree of attention, and had a few brackets modified here and there. Since the thing is due to be powder coated ivory through the good offices of Reality Motorworks and it had, and indeed still has, a few places that would let the side down badly, I've spent most of the week shaping metal.

Mostly that's consisted of making welds that are in places that aren't supposed to look welded sit flush with the surrounding material, and removing the last part of some of the headstock bracing that needed replacing. Since the yokes are also due to visit Reality, I also gave the lower one a bit of a seeing to, smoothing out the casting marks and relieving the welds on the head light mounting bracket. I was struck by the thought that the first time I'd done something like that, I was probably 14 years old and I, and indeed quite a lot of the rest of the world, had yet to make the acquaintance of the 4" angle grinder.

All of that sort of work used to be done with files and emery cloth. Unlike some of the people I know, I possess a reasonable selection of files and don't mind using them, but I still came to realisation that I was struggling to do some areas of the job with a grinder, that would be much easier to do with the more traditional manually operated tools.  Somewhere down the line, we seem to have lost sight of the fact that power tools are only there to make some aspects of the job easier. There is a tendency to assume that a simple hand tool is simple to operate effectively, but that's a lot like assuming that a simple baseball bat must be simple to operate properly. It's fairly obvious that despite the simplicity of the tools the job requires, being a competent baseball player is a lot more complex than just buying those simple tools.

If there was such a thing as a power operated base ball bat, it wouldn't make us all into Joe DiMaggio over night, as all "power operated" means is that it takes the effort out, the operator is still required to judge the path of the ball and position the bat accordingly. In other words provide the talent and skill.

Without wanting to go and wade through several dictionaries to check, I've always rather assumed that a talent was something you were born with, but that a skill was something you learnt. We speak of people being "naturally talented" and if you serve an apprenticeship and learn a trade, you become a skilled workman, so in this context the assumption is at least logical. The reason for labouring that particular point is that there is a distinction between being talented and being skilled, and something like using a file or a hacksaw is a skill and not a talent.

Frankly, and you can ask my Father about this if you like, I have no natural talent for working with metal, in any way shape or form. I am, I suppose, reasonably skilled at it, because I have learned how to do it through education and observation. Being able to use a file to produce a flat surface is really a matter of having some basic knowledge of the tool, and practicing some technique. Cutting on the line that you wanted to cut on with a hacksaw is easily accomplished if you are prepared to fufil the same requirements, but I still meet people who don't even KNOW that hacksaw blades come in different tooth pitches, let alone how to chose the one best suited to the job. It usually easy to tell them as they're the people that are visibly amazed at how quickly you cut something with a hacksaw.

Somewhere along the way, the idea that hand tools are perfectly capable of doing the job, has given way to the idea that buying a power tool will make you good at the job. Having grown up using hand tools to work metal with I had little choice but to achieve some level of competency with them (bleeding to death seemed like the only alternative...) and that makes a difference to the way I build motorcycles. If I'd had £10 for every person that assumed that the levers I made for the BMW's rear sets were milled on a machine, then I might not have had enough money to actually buy a milling machine, but I could certainly have bought a set of rear sets instead of hand carving the buggers.

Tube notching is another area where the motorcycle building noviate often falls into the trap of thinking that power tools are a substitute for skill. I'm told that using a hole saw based tube notcher it's possible to notch a tube in very few minutes indeed. "Very few" minutes, according to some sources, meaning as many as 20. Whereas, by hand, using only manual tools, it takes me 94 seconds to cut, and finish, a tube mitre in 1.25" OD 12 gauge tube. It's fair enough to assume that I use a carefully selected set of handtools to do that, but those would be an £8 file, along with a hacksaw blade that wasn't made in China and cost more the £1 for 10 examples. Though, the retail on the hacksaw frame was nudging £90 last time I looked...

I suppose my point is that buying power tools, is not a substitute for taking the time to master the manual skills.  

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