The Machine Age


My last post “Being G. Moffat” lead to an exciting conversation about tools with some of you readers. Fellow blogger Stu’s passionate comments about his South Bend bench lathe and his milling machine inspired me to do some research on that company. I discovered that South Bend Lathe Works, founded in 1906 in Indiana, was the largest manufacturer of precision lathes in the world. In 1975 it became the largest employee-owned plant in the US. And another interesting fact is that they supplied their machines to 75% of schools and colleges in North America. That reminded me of a place where I once taught Continuing Ed. jewellery classes, at Vancouver Technical Secondary. 

Van Tech Metal Shop

Van Tech Metal Shop

The metal shop was located in a wing built in the 1920’s. I loved that it was a large space, brightly lit by tall windows and skylights, but what intrigued me was that it was filled with rows of mysterious machines, some of them clearly from another time, and most of them no longer used. I took a lot of pictures before I left, and then forgot about them. Now I wonder, was there one of these legendary South Bend machines in the Van Tech metal shop? I shall investigate.

Examining my pictures, looking for clues, brings me back to my university days, when as an archeology student I would clean and inventory hundreds of pieces of Roman ceramics. The cleaning part was really no more glamourous than washing a pile of broken old dishes, but the detective work was what I loved. What were these pots used for? Where did they come from? From what workshop? That was always exciting!

Archeology Lab - Universite de Poitiers, France

Archeology Lab – University  of Poitiers, France

But today, these are the artifacts I need to inventory: shears, grinders, punches, tube and pipe benders, hydraulic presses, rolling mills, and of course lathes and milling machines. And now too, I look at the shapes, colours, trademarks, anything that can help me get a better sense of the world they come from. Some are newer models, and some go back several decades, with peeling paint, dents and scratches left by many generations of students.



DSCF7242 (1024x768)

In the casting area, abandoned tools are so rusty that they really do look as if they came right out of an archeological dig, a bitter-sweet still life set against the proverbial institutional green walls.


Logos and names tell a story as well. These machines come from all over the world: England, Austria, Canada and the United States, to mention just a few. These machines are giants with intimidating names like “Invicta Major” that speak of national pride, and of a time when Western countries reigned supreme over their manufacturing empires and were thought to be invincible.

DSCF7183 (1280x959)????



Today the reality is different. For the first time ever, for a student graduating from a five-year machinist programme, job prospects are declining as manufacturing jobs are leaving North America and relocating overseas. China is now the largest manufacturing country in the world, overtaking the United States only a few years ago.


Sadly and slightly surprisingly, I did not find a South Bend machine in my Van Tech metal shop photos. But stepping back, I see the bigger picture. This shop is a time capsule of a world that we may take for granted, but is surely fading away and may soon disappear. As an instructor teaching Metal Techniques in a Jewellery programme, I do believe in the value of the skills I pass on to the next generation of goldsmiths. But, what will their place and their role be in the new age we are moving into?


PS: For those of you who are not familiar with Stu’s blog, here‘s the link.





6 thoughts on “The Machine Age

  1. artdoesmatter

    What a fascinating place to have been as a teacher, Dominique. Your photos of the metalworking facilities are incredible! It is always so enthralling for me to see how other schools have laid out its studios – and your photos really draw such a detailed picture for me. The room w/ the lathes all lined up as well as the table vises show a level of seriousness and dedication to the study of metalworking that reinforces (just as you said) the profound history found here in this school. And the photo of the casting tools now rusted looks almost poetic and VERY still-life – to the point that I thought that patina was formed on old tools used for gardening and working in soil! What an incredible portrait you’ve shared w/ us; thanks Dominique!

    1. metalandmettle Post author

      Yes, Van Tech has had an interesting history. Founded in 1916, it moved to its present location in the 30’s (a large Art Deco structure which has been used as a filming location many times in recent history), and with its laboratories and technical shops, it was a very modern school. It was a boys school at first, but “an event of great significance took place in September 1940. Girls were at last admitted to Tech! They were given their own wing (…). Even today the area is nostalgically called the ‘Girls Building'”. (Van Tech website).
      Thank you for your kind comments, Patricia. I always enjoy your visits!

  2. stuiesilversmith

    Thank you very much for that, just in case you are still interested in old machinery;

    A Yahoo group dedicated to all things South Bend, I’m a member – no really 🙂

    This is a fantastic site for referencing pretty much any machine tool ever made. I had some help from the chap who runs this site, getting spares for my machine. He still has stocks of original spares for many ‘obsolete’ machines. Lots of old manuals and line drawings to get inspired by as well.

    When I see a modern machine, a vehicle even. I see the machine that made the machine.
    When looking at an old machine I see the people who made that individual machine, thats what I mean by ‘signatures’ left by the, sadly now all but lost, hand working skills that can, to my mind anyway, be interoperated as a form of art.

    Again many thanks, it was such a thrill to see someone else derive such pleasure from seemingly innate lumps of metal. I will try to take some decent pictures of my very cramped workshop to include another ancient relic. My Alba shaping machine, a hypnotic masterpiece, look at one on the lathes site and think precision scoring for box making and the like. If too big, you can get hand powered versions. Please do keep in touch.
    Very best wishes.
    Stu 🙂

  3. metalandmettle Post author

    Thank you for the links, Stu. I feel I have just discovered a whole new world!
    I am impressed by the dedication and wealth of knowledge of groups like yours (also, I confess, a bit intimidated). Your passion is contagious, and I am more hopeful that these hand skills you write so well about will live on for a long time.
    I am very intrigued by your Alba shaping machine. I went to the Lathe website, but being such a dilettante, I wasn’t able to tell how it could be used in a jewellery making context: i.e. for small scale objects and with different metals. I’d love to hear more about that.
    And I am wondering, how many of these machines do you have (And just how big is your workshop)? I hope you’ll share more with us in your next posts. I look forward to that.

  4. stuiesilversmith

    Great to hear your interest, not all machines are ‘bad’. I don’t know where I heard it, someone said if Leonardo Da Vinci had been introduced to a pneumatic drill, he would most probably have embraced it to make more art, if not all the work, almost certainly the time consuming less precise task of roughing out a large piece. I write this as some people may frown upon using machines as an aid to making handmade work. In the face of the CNC and rapid prototyping revolution, it almost feels like a retrograde step anyway.
    The shaping machine, both hand and motor power, is nothing more than a ram with an adjustable stroke length. The mass and rigidity of this means it can create perfectly straight lines. Think box making when the traditional way is to sharpen an old tang end of a file, bent to make a scraper. Now imagine being able to guarantee the straightness of each pass, micro adjusting the depth with a graduated hand wheel making the tool descend into the workpiece 100% accurately and consistently. The cutting tool is commercially available, inexpensive HSS tool steel blanks, shaped however you want it with a bench grinder, or belt sander, if required honed on a sharpening stone, then held in the tool holder with a retaining nut.
    Expanding the possibilities, think if you wanted to make a coved large wire, or surround in metal. You can free form the cutting edge of your tool and pass it, taking your time to increase the depth until your shape emerges. For reference look at old coving woodworking planes and the beaded edges created by them, all can be replicated in metal on a shaper, great stuff eh 🙂 ;

    Yet another group for you to explore, should you so choose to do so. Many how to articles and links to further learning and PDF copies of out of print machine shop books to freely download.

    I’m aware I’m writing too much so I will wrap it up with another mouth watering use for the shaper – it cuts curves. Trickier to set up, think custom silversmithing stakes and the like.

    I hope to sort a picture of my workshop as soon as possible, night shifts are, I feel bound to say, tearing my endurance to pieces.

    I am an old tool freak that can bore for England if not jabbed in the ribs by someone who knows me, preventing the poor ‘victim’ I’m talking at from gently sobbing, eyes darting uncontrollably looking for an exit 😉

    I will introduce on my blog, to save space on yours, more of my older tools, including more of the tinsmiths workshop I purchased from a chap who retired, having worked all his life with the tools I now am the custodian of. He showed me one punch tool, used with a fly press, explaining this was the first job that was assigned to him as a 15 year old apprentice, I have that tool and the press.The bad news is, many are in a poor state, so rolling restoration is the name of the game. Oh well, gives me more to present on my blog, including an ancient machine that, when restored, reportedly made curved bottom bowls.

    Thank you very much for your interest. The good news is you don’t have to be a bored victim of me, like the example above eh. 🙂 The beauty of the internet.

    Kindest regards and very best wishes.

  5. metalandmettle Post author

    Thank you, Stuart. I agree with your comment “not all machines are bad”. As you point out, they are an aid to making our work – work that also needs to be backed up by solid, meaningful concepts and design.
    I don’t know what else to say, and, no I am not a “bored victim”, just … speechless. There is so much I need to learn. You better start working on these blog posts!


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