Welcome to Issue #07 of
brought to you by:
wooden box maker.com
Wood Shop News
In this issue:
plywood and engineered wood
new and for sale
on a personal note
Plywood and Engineered Wood
Solid wood is wonderful to work with, but there are times when it isn’t practical, whether because of cost, design details or some other reason. It's helpful to know what options are available and when to use them.
Check out my article on plywood and composite woods for more information.
(Located S/SW of Boston)
Learn new skills or hone old ones in small group sessions tailored to the individual.
Classes are limited to 3 people and take place in my shop outside Boston. They generally meet once a week for 2-3 hours. The sessions go on as long as students are interested, a few months or a few years.
As students progress, class becomes "open shop" time when they work on the projects of their choice while I answer questions and give suggestions as things come up.
Individual instruction is also available.
Click on the links below or contact me
for more information.
New & For Sale
Visit my sale page
for new work and sale items.
Or visit wooden box maker recommends for ideas on books and tools (category list top right of page).
One of the projects I've been working on recently is a bathroom vanity. To read the artlicle about using biscuit joinery to make it click the link below.
using biscuit joinery
On a Personal Note
Imagine an old factory building with 20-foot ceilings and windows covered with dust and safety wire. Give it worn wooden floors and the pervasive smell of metal and oil and you have the Starrett factory in Athol Ma.
I took a tour of the Starrett factory with my local woodworking guild recently. (I was the only woman and I managed to arrive late, so I walked into the room to 15 male faces turning to see the miscreant. It was a bit intimidating. However, the tour was fascinating.)
We weren't allowed to take photos in the factory, so the photos here are from their museum. Most of the tools in the photos are from the 1800s.
Starrett makes high quality, precision, measuring tools, especially micrometers of all sizes (I saw ones from 3-4 inches long to one that hung from a hook on the wall and was big enough to measure me from head to toe). The factory makes all the parts involved (except for anything plastic) and they work with tolerances into the millionths of an inch.
The place is huge, with 5-600 workers scattered through out several old building connected by tunnels and enclosed bridges. The woman who escorted me to meet my group said that despite working there for over 30 years there were still places she hadn’t seen.
Our tour just touched on the place. We wandered up and down narrow stairways and through passageways with 6 feet of headroom then into 40-foot long rooms filled with machinery that looked like it weighed tons. Our guide said the wooden floor was over 10” thick.
Some of the machines I recognized, lathes and massive drill presses, others were strange conglomerations of gears and pulleys. A couple looked like they had enough high tech to fly to the moon.
We stopped at one machine with an enclosed section about the size of a small car. A 20-foot tube, 6 or 8” in diameter, protruded from one end. Stacked next to the tube were several equally long trays holding metal rods. The rods, stock for different parts, were various diameters, all as long as the tube. The operator set up the machine for a particular part and fed one of the blanks into the long tube.
When I saw the machine, the stock (it was so thin, perhaps “strand” would be a better word) was mainly inside the tube with a portion in the main section of the machine. The machine gave a small click, almost a hiccup and the strand moved forward a quarter inch or so. A complicated array of gears, chucks and pulleys fed the stock, revolving rapidly, into several cutter heads. The cutter heads moved up and down against the stock while a steady stream of oil flooded the whole thing.
After about a minute, a scoop came from the far end of the machine and caught the finished part as it dropped from the cutter heads. This would have been fascinating in and of itself, but the parts were so small I thought at first I was seeing shavings of waste material. The machine was making blanks for screws the size of ones that hold eyeglasses together. (Blanks are pieces that have been cut to rough shape prior to milling.)
Then we moved down the line to a different machine that cut the slot on the head of the screw. The pieces were so small that the majority of the process seemed to be lining up the blanks so the heads were oriented in the right direction.
The last machine we saw in that area was cutting spirals into parts that were probably ¼” long by maybe 1/16th in diameter. The blanks were stacked in a slot that held them, one on top of another, in a single column, in the correct orientation. One tiny blank dropped into a gear that rotated into an arm that grasped the blank. These blanks were about the thickness of a pencil lead.
The arm swiveled down and held the blank while a chuck lined up with it. It looked like a vacuum sucked the blank into the chuck while the arm released it. Remember, this is all happening to a single blank that was so small I could barely see it.
The chuck then moved forward into a part of the machine I couldn’t see. Presumably, it was a cutter head, because there was another flood of oil and some whirring sounds, then the chuck retracted again and the blank was transformed into a tiny rod with a tapered spiral on one end.
At this point, something looking like a covered spoon approached the chuck. There was a burst of air and the brand new part was blown into the spoon, which then retracted again while the next blank dropped towards the chuck. The whole process took about a minute. Amazing. All that work, on a machine the length of my house, for something that was smaller than the head of a pin!
Each part, each screw, each spring, each gear was made one at a time. In one area, our guide said that precision was so important that each individual part was inspected before moving on to assembly!
What is even more incredible is that all those screws, pins, springs and gears are assembled by hand. Yes, you read that right: all by hand.
I spoke with a woman putting together pieces of a small micrometer. She showed me how she uses tweezers to pick up a spring and place it in a round cup that would become the inner workings of a micrometer.
She put the unit under what looked like a drill press and pulled a lever, which twisted the spring into place. She then had to give it an extra poke with the tweezers before setting it aside. I asked her how many she had to do and she showed me three trays with about a dozen parts in each.
After that she said she would switch to screwing a cross brace into each of the cups. She had a magnetic screwdriver (and magnifying glasses) to help her pick up each screw and fit it into the appropriate hole. She said she made them from start to finish so she didn’t go completely crazy with all the small work. Her hobby is needlecraft. Bet she’s good.
Now is a good time to add that I was surprised – perhaps unfairly so – by how cheerful and friendly people were. Starrett’s is definitely not a sweatshop. In fact, I got a sense of quiet pride from the workers, not only in what they are doing, but pride in the company as a whole.
Despite the sense of work being done, most of the areas we went through were sparsely populated. Some had only one or two people moving from machine to machine in a room that would have made a good size factory in itself. I saw one woman working what looked like a cross between a drill press and a lathe, otherwise all the machine operators I saw were men, while I only saw women doing the assembling. I also only saw one person who looked grumpy. I, on the other hand, would be throwing things across the room after my first ten minutes looking for a dropped screw! But, back to the tour.
In other areas of the factory, different (and larger) processes were going on. Four by four blocks of metal were sprayed with water while grinding wheels shaved them to exact specifications, added grooves or cut-outs. Thin steel was etched with lines for rulers. Finished squares were polished to final tolerances.
The machinery was massive, with occasional hoists and tripods that looked big enough to move cars. Through out the tour it seemed that everything was oversize: the rooms, the ceilings, the machinery, even a 12 foot metal door held open with a huge counter-weight hanging from a chain. Everything made for a giant. Except those tiny screws and springs and gears!
At one stop our guide proudly showed us the newest machine; a $500,000 behemoth that turned out aluminum disks about 1 ½” in diameter. Each disc was precision drilled for screw holes and other small parts. He said the machine took the place of three older machines each of which required perfectly coordinating set-ups. With one machine doing all the work it is easier to get to the required tolerances.
Through out the factory the smell of oil permeated everything, along with the steady click-thump of machines moving with assembly line precision, or the rush of water or oil splashing onto metal as it was ground or turned, burnished or polished. Only one area that we visited was loud enough to require ear protection, but still it was a relief to walk into the occasional oasis of calm as we passed through a suit of offices or up another dark, musty staircase.
We ended in the museum where various old tools remain to entertain visitors. I wasn’t allowed to take photos in the factory, so you have to imagine what it was like from the museum pictures. While the apparatus is different, the feel is the same with huge gears and pulleys.
Originally a waterwheel, churning through a stream running next to the factory, powered everything. In some of the photos you can see the huge wheels that powered the belts that drove the machines.
While it’s obviously all electric now, they are currently renovating their water system so the same stream can provide electricity to the plant. From water power to water power. I like the balance.
Follow this link to a few of my favorite Starrett tools.
Final Words and Errata
I hope you have enjoyed reading this ‘zine. Do you have ideas for future topics? Comments? Feedback? I'd love to hear from you. Just hit reply and tell me what you think.
If you know someone who might enjoy this newsletter, please feel free to send it on.
If a friend passed this on to you and you like what you read, please subscribe by visiting my website.
Brought to you by the good people at
Kate Taylor Creative Woodworking