Archive for July, 2011

What I want to be when I grow up…

The most insane job I have ever heard of was explained to me on the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and it is this: When they built the bridge, they used many many rivets to hold the beams together. However some really big beams extended out over the middle of the bridge into a nice wide open space with essentially no other supporting structure. For the rivets that needed to go in the stuff along the sides of the bridge the rivet machines could just be hauled along to where the rivets needed to go, the rivets would be dropped super hot out of the machines and right into the appropriate holes. But for the middle part, there was nowhere to put the machine. So it was the job of one man to go out and stand in the middle on top of unfinished beams with a bucket, and have red-hot rivets tossed to him from the machine operators at the side. He had to catch the rivets in the bucket, and then drop them into the appropriate place.

Now that’s a skill. Not exactly useful in modern times admittedly (at least I think we do not still use rivet-catchers when we build bridges). But imagine being able to tell someone that your job is to stand a mile above the ground and catch flying pieces of red-hot steel. That is a category of hardcore you just can’t fucking argue with.

I’ve come across lots of obscure jobs. Yesterday I met someone who earned a living by making and selling humane snake traps on the internet. I have met people who drive hearses for pet cemeteries, teach amateur taxidermy, or design spoons. But though these are frankly quite odd they are all real explainable jobs. I’ve heard it said that if you can’t explain your job to a 5 year old its not a real job, but I didn’t even need that rule of thumb to categorise mine. I had one of those jobs that wouldn’t exist if the world wasn’t so complicated. It wasn’t quite in the same ludicrous corporate cliched category as life coach or middle manager, or as frivolous and first world as snowboarding instructor or the guy who drives the parasailing boat. But I’m pretty sure I’d be on the B Ark*.

Or to put it another way, on post-apocalyptic earth my profession is about as useful as a chocolate kettle. As someone who likes to be at least mentally prepared for post-apocalyptic earth this has always been vaguely troubling. So at least part of the reason I am learning to be a welder is the attraction to general potential usefulness. If I can’t actually make a living from a job explainable to a 5 year old I should probably have some skills that are relevant to one. Or maybe I just want to know that its possible. That maybe I really could run away and learn to make swords for a living, or build bridges. That the fact that I might spend my whole life making money from something I can’t explain without 45 minutes and a whiteboard is somehow ok, because I could stop anytime I want to, really I swear.

Right now I think it is enough to have the choice. But I am not sure I can keep thinking that forever. The temptation to scrap my silly life and start again is definitely there. I’m not sure I’d even lose anything.

*Obscure statement explained in the first paragraph of this

Dust, dirt, and more sparks

There are always sparks. The list of ¬†productive things that can be achieved in a metal shop without generating sparks is exceptionally short. In fact so far it consists of “sweeping the floor”.

My welding is improving, though to be fair its not like it could actually go the other direction. But I’m also learning a lot of other things. These things fall mainly into 2 categories, the first of which is “how to use this big/small/dangerous looking machine with the big saw/rollers/giant hammer/gun-like attachment” and the second of which is “what machine exactly is it that I use to make this thing into this thing”. Chances are that if you need to do something with a lump of metal, someone else has had to do it repeatedly ten thousand times for some arcane purpose lost in the mists of time. Or for a really obvious purpose like making cars, whichever. Either way the result is that there is a machine or a tool for absolutely bloody everything. If there isn’t one it probably isn’t because none exists but rather that we are too cheap to buy one.

Specifically, I have learned many different ways to cut things of varying types and thicknesses, many different ways to grind things, how to bend pipes and how to figure out when you have bent a pipe sufficiently for the purpose as opposed to way too fucking much. That’s actually quite a lot of things, before you get all unimpressed with me and my bending of pipes. I also very specifically learned how not to put things on a truck, but I won’t get into that. It involved the sacrifice of one windshield to the gods, and a couple of hair-raising moments.

Everything in the universe is boring if done enough times, even really cool things. In terms of the shop, chances are that if you aren’t bored of it yet you probably aren’t any good at it yet. Things that you may actually manage to be ok at before becoming deathly bored of them include cutting stuff with an oxy-acetylene torch, mostly because it takes a really long time for melting steel to get in any way old. It just looks amazing when molten steel drips in yellow globs through the cutting table and you know that you and your trusty blowtorch have made that metal heat to 5000 degrees fahrenheit just so that you can blast a hole in it. There is something immensely satisfying about that. (Yes, I know I have issues. But I am sure even emotionally well-balanced people think molten steel is awesome).

Things which do become swiftly boring include beveling a 45 degree angle on some mild steel shapes so that they can be welded together. This is surprisingly hard to do quickly and accurately, especially when said shapes are their exact measurements for a reason and if you fuck it up by taking too much metal off the first time you cannot simply cut the end off and start again. Not that boredom is in any way the main problem with this activity, in fact its kind of cool when you realize you might actually have gotten the hang of doing it properly. Sheer effort is definitely up for first place, with incredibly sore wrists in the aftermath of spending a day with an angle grinder coming in a close second. Another important piece of information – this work is really physically tiring. A nugget of trivia which falls into the bucket of things I knew to be factual but did not truly understand the meaning of before experiencing it. While we’re on that tack another thing that has really sunk in both literally and figuratively is the fucking dirt.

Dust, oil, dirt, metal shavings, metal dust, paint… Every type of grime or stain imaginable is on my hands, trousers, face every goddamn fucking day. It’s disgusting. I need two showers a day just to avoid having to wash my sheets every morning. I cannot count how many times I wash my hands a day, but its one more than the number of totally pointless times I wash my hands because they are just going to get covered in more crap in 2 minutes anyway. I was told by a friend lately that after a whole summer of this I will probably have burned out on the whole workshop thing, and he may have a point. ¬†There is a lot to be said for doing real physical work that you can see actual results from immediately. But there is also a lot to be said for not having to use a scrubbing brush to clean your arms every evening.