“Mike” owns a small job shop in South Carolina. He started from scratch building a machining business from a turret lathe and a mill. He loves the business and asked to write a column about life on the front lines of the machining world, clawing to make a few bucks, sometimes just holding on. -Lloyd
This week’s been rough. If we were playing Blackjack I’d be in “stay” mode, knowing that if I “hit” I’d go bust, but not sure this “13” is going to pull me through.
The life of a Charlie Brown screw machine shop is getting more tense as the holidays draw close. Of course we are up against deadlines with customers’ projects as the year draws to a close, but most of the stress will come from the money, or maybe a lack of it. It’s happened pretty much every year of the 18 years I’ve been in business. But we have pulled it off. But that doesn’t seem like much of a consolation as I look over at my wife Laura. I can see that oh-too-familiar look—you know it, that worried, uncertain, getting ready to ask me the same question for the fourth time today look.
This week Laura’s out in the shop operating our Fanuc Robo-drill on a second op. job. Lucky for me I’m on a turning center right across from her. Laura wears many hats here. From accounts payable, receivable, invoicing, and bookkeeping, to being my best machine operator and maintenance mechanic. I like to hold the position of “Janitor” (my self-proclaimed title when anyone asks what my function is here at the shop). It’s roughly two weeks from Christmas and she knows all too well about our account receivable status. You see, this shop is flying by the seat of its pants at the moment. We’re standing out there on a limb. But what worries Laura is that not only are she and I out there, 100 feet up in the air standing on a 1″ diameter limb on a weeping willow tree 15 feet away from the trunk in gale force winds, but that there are people living right under this stress cracked branch that I’m jumping up and down on like a 500 ton obi press at work.
There are a few people that work for us, that depend on us, for their livelihoods and their Christmas. It’s a tight ship right now, and we depend on our customers to pay us promptly so we can keep the ball rolling. As quick reassurance I stop the chuck boring operation I’m doing on some soft jaws and take Laura in the office, scan over the office computer, and for a minute go over the finances. “See,” I say, “even if nothing else comes in, and I’m sure something will, there is enough to pull it off, money wise to take care of the little bonus’s and buy the Butterballs and handle our business.” And with a lower voice I say, “uh… we will just be a little light personally, so, uh… forget that new GMC Dually I asked for, ha-ha-ha.” Of course she didn’t find this funny and I had to hear, “how it’s always the same, every year! Barely getting by!” I then quickly change the subject about how I liked the lighted wreath she put on the shop entrance door, and quickly things go back to semi-sane.
Its lunchtime now and on Fridays we usually run out for lunch. Laura likes this little lunch spot right up the street called Alfies, a sort of upscale mom and pop type place, old school, a rarity in this area—they have the best tuna melts. As I go out to wash up I stop to talk with Brad, our shop foreman of sorts. Brad’s not a machinist by trade, but he’s been with me on and off for over 16 years. He’s one of those guys you can trust with anything. I tell him to “kill the Double Ought until I get back, it’s running and I’m down to my last circular cutoff.” I’d rather wait and keep my ear out for it when I get back. So I’m home free, for lunch that is.
Well wouldn’t you know, I spoke too soon. As I enter the office I see Danny standing there speaking with Laura and holding what looks to be some sort of giant lollipop. Danny is a local guy that owns a fairly large fabrication shop. He specializes in larger welding projects for chemical plants in the area, and primarily works with stainless steel. Danny recently got work from a local aircraft manufacturer, in one of those unfortunate “who you know gets the work” scenarios. He gets a good deal of work from this customer, and about a year or so ago started coming to me with any machining needs for these projects. Most of the work was not a good fit for us at the time, but I have become accustomed to a “do what ever comes your way” mindset in this economy. And most of it really isn’t that bad, just milling work, though a little large for our capacity, and low quantities.
Danny always needs it “right now.” I think he has no clue what it takes to precision machine a piece of 316 stainless that’s maybe 3″ thick and 36″ long. To top it off, he always waits until the last minute to get in touch with me, so it’s very hard to schedule. I’ve come to the conclusion that if you want to stay in business in this “new order” machining world then you need idle equipment. Ironically, you need everything else running wide open and pumping out parts as fast it can.
Those lollipops he brought in through me for a loop. Danny went on to explain that he’s in a jam. These 10 parts are hangers for the job we finished yesterday. They’re basically just ½” diameter 316 SS round bar, and they have a 6″ diameter eye rolled around the end. The shanks are 30″ long, and they need a ½-13 thread cut, 10″ of thread. Danny says, “No big deal for ya, I know you’s the screw machine guy.” “Danny!” I said, “why the hell didn’t you bring the stock over, let me thread it, and then you could have rolled the eye on the end?” Danny started, “I thought I could thread ’em with a die, you know, save me a little something for Christmas. Damn die couldn’t do nothing!”
Now you have to remember, we are in the South, and Danny is a hard-boiled good ole’ boy. You have to adapt to all kinds, and who am I to question his five-man shop with sales in excess of $5 million annually? Then he says he’s got to deliver at 3pm, (It’s now 12:30) and all hopes of that tuna melt have left the building with Elvis. “I’ll just wait on ‘em. I know you can knock ’em right out.” So I’m looking hard at this part. Bare with me now and visualize. An I-bolt, ½” in diameter shank, 6″ diameter eye, and over 3 feet long. I’m thinking, how the hell am I going to thread this? Not to mention doing it with one of my biggest pet peeves, a frickin’ studio audience!
By this time my lovely bride is in tune with my mental condition and softly offers to run up to McDonald’s and bring me something back. Okay, I’m running out of time, I don’t have a lathe with a large enough hole for the 6″ eye to sit in the spindle so I can thread, you know, spot a center, and hold with the tailstock, and single point. Obviously, I can’t cut the thread with a geometric head, because I can’t chuck up the part.
Then all of the sudden, while staring at my old girl in the back, (no, not Laura) the redneck rocket scientist in me kicks in. Who’s the old gal you ask? Well she is my old Warner & Swasey #4 turret lathe. She’s old, she’s green, she’s a ram type, and she’s not easy on the eyes, but damn she’s one of the most useful pieces of iron ever made. I quickly fasten the ¾” Geometric head in the 10″ Cushman chuck, I then move the turret saddle all the way back. I grab a ER-32 collet drill holder and fasten the part stationary through the turret hole and into the drill holder on the other side.
I’m thinking I’ll spin the Geometric head in the chuck and feed the part through, tripping the dead stop on the turret. I’ve never tried this before, but what choice do I have? Well, in about 30 minutes we had 10 beautiful ½-13 threaded 316 SS I-bolts. Danny said, “Damn I knew ’em screw machines could do it.” Whew, and another one bites the dust.
Later that night at home we were putting the final touches on the Christmas tree and my son and I were on the floor assembling my grandfather’s old Lionel trains around the tree. My son picked up an old switch engine locomotive, probably dating back to the late 1930s and said, “Look at all these parts in here Dad, all made in a machine shop.” And I could only think of Captain Billy Tyne of the Andrea Gail during her last voyage. I thought to myself, “That’s right Mike, you’re a machinist. Is there really anything better in the world?”
Question: I What was the best thing that happened to you this week?
Question II: Could you work with your wife?
Note: Do you have something to say and want a chance to be published? Consider writing for TMW. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.