Being G. Moffat

1388 title photo copy

G. Moffat’s set square.

Is there anything more exciting that browsing through a tool catalogue? (Don’t answer that, it was a rhetorical question) Of course, the printed ones are the best kind as you can write on them and put sticky notes on your favorite pages, but I love them all. To me, tool catalogues are fun because tools are synonymous with possibilities.

Many years ago, when I was still a jewellery student, I was given an old set square
by a friend. It had been passed on to him when he was apprenticed to a
shipwright, designing and building wooden boats. I’ve always treasured it as a
symbol of our friendship and appreciated its beauty and elegance.

1381 e preston and sons copy (1280x960)1384 G Moffat copy (1280x960)

Its patina and slightly worn edges betray a long working life. And it is intriguing; it has a trademark logo with the letters “E P”, and “E PRESTON & SONS    BIRMM, ENG.” stamped on one side of the body, and on the other, a name, “G. Moffat” engraved in an old-fashioned cursive. The trademark, sometimes called the Bird’s Eye, is from Edward Preston & Sons, a tool manufacturing company that operated from 1825 to 1932 in Birmingham, England; catalogues from the early 1900’s can be found online. As for G. Moffat, I don’t know who he was – a machinist perhaps – but I’ve always felt connected to him, and through him, to the brother/sisterhood of metal workers.

1375 - german set square Copy1374 german set square detail copy (1280x960)

Fast forward a few years. I set up my own studio and gain more experience. I feel I can, with more confidence, set for myself higher standards of precision, and decide I am ready for a brand new made-in-Germany set square. Several years later, it is still as crisp as new and milled to perfection; when ultimate accuracy is required, that’s what I rely on. For goldsmiths, as with machinists, precision is essential, and our measuring tools – and set square – are always within easy reach on top of the bench. When you need a straight edge or a straight angle, or to check for squareness, place the blade of the square against the metal edge and put it in front of a light source. No light should shine through.

1376 both squares copy

But no matter what project I am working on, G. Moffat’s set square is always right in front of me on my bench, next to its German-made pristine, younger counterpart. Yes, its edges are a bit too soft, its surface pitted and worn, but it is smaller and lighter and fits comfortably in my hand. What it may lack in accuracy, it makes up with ergonomics. G. Moffat carefully and proudly engraved his name on his set square; that tells me that he cared for his tools and valued his work. It is a reminder of where I come from, the sum of skills, knowledge and experience accumulated by tradespeople who’ve come before me.

If any of you have stories about tools that are meaningful to you, please share in the comments section.

6 thoughts on “Being G. Moffat

  1. artdoesmatter

    It’s funny – but the tools I value the most were actually purchased when I took my first metals’ classes as a student (and ironically, when I could least afford to buy them!) I use practically every single one of these, from the Swiss needle files set that cost more than a week of groceries to the saw frame and other small things that every entry metalsmith needs. But the teacher told us to buy good tools and referred us to a supplier that back then, only sold quality tools in the jewelry district of NYC. Although it was a really tough struggle financially to buy these – 23 years later, I’m still using all of them! I think that is amazing that you have a special memory tied to a favorite and ultimately useful tool in your studio, given to you by a friend. I wish I could say the same. But I do credit having an amazing teacher for my first class to steer her students in the right place. Lovely post, Dominique!

    1. metalandmettle Post author

      That’s a great point, Patricia. I agree with you, by buying cheap tools we are really cheating ourselves; they are of course making things more difficult, therefore wasting time…and money! And that’s especially true of basic, essential tools like files.
      I remember one of my teachers explaining what a good quality file/hammer, etc. should be like, and what to look for, and why. I had always assumed that a file was a file, was a file. This was such an eye-opener for me.
      Thank you so much for sharing!

  2. stuiesilversmith

    To continue with your precision point, I’m just plain blown away by what was achievable by craftspeople and engineers of a bygone age. A bit left field for our chosen crafts, though I do use machines sometimes, I am the very proud owner of a South Bend 9inch bench lathe. I picked it up from an online auction site, originally from USA.
    South Bend are still trading, they hold all the original records for every lathe they made, mine dates from 1941. It was not in tip top condition, I purchased a rebuild kit and spent two weeks taking it apart and getting to know it. I once heard a woodworker say he was very excited every time he planed a new shaving of wood, he being the first person to see it as it was revealed. I felt a little this way with this machine. All of the sliding serfaces are hand scraped, each person has a different touch, like a fingerprint if you will. I was imagining the engineer in the 1940s lovingly paying attention to detail, working their awesome hand working skills to this, to me anyway, work of art. I feel like a custodian of this wonderful machine, ‘signatures’ abound the more you look.
    By comparison I have a modern milling machine, made by machines with metal that is nowhere near comparable, just a throwaway tool, not something you could say about my ‘time capsule’. As a self confessed tool addict, where possible I always buy old tools, or make my own from old stock. For example, I can’t seem to get decent punches, like you I know the value of a good file. New ones, in my experience, rarely cut it (no pun intended 😉 ) I make many of mine from old discarded files people throw away, or I get for pennies from markets. The quality and durability of the steel used is far superior, as you say also, the patina is also more beautiful. Hope you don’t mind the ramble, any opportunity to talk tools me 🙂
    Very best wishes.

    1. metalandmettle Post author

      Stu, thank you for this, sharing your thoughts and your experience. I was intrigued by what you said about your old South Bend milling machine. After visiting their website and finding out about the long, rich history of this legendary company (founded in 1906, “the largest employee-owned plant in the US”), I understand why you are so passionate about it.
      I love what you wrote (so poetically) about being a “custodian” of this machine, and about the “signatures”.
      Like you, I think making your own tools, or modifying old ones, is a must, and so deeply satisfying, although I have only done it on a very small scale. You, on the other hand have taken this to another level! Very impressive. I look forward to reading more in your next posts.

  3. Pingback: The Machine Age | metal+mettle

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