Friday, 2 December 2011

Workshop Days

Whenever I see a geometry set in a bookshop (you know, that tin box that holds the compasses, divider, protractor, etc) I am reminded vividly of my technical stream studies in secondary school. That all took place in the  late 70s, a period which saw great economic expansion in Singapore. Many factories were being set up and the call for engineers was frequent and loud. As my family had a history in engineering services, I was naturally channeled  into this so-called "sensible profession". Folks of my generation never thought of becoming authors, stage actors or ballet dancers. If we did, we would be told that we would starve and die unhappy. In some cases, even our families would disown us.

In those days, streaming in secondary school was done at the end of Sec 2. You were either in the Science, Arts or Technical streams. You had a choice, but to be in the Science Stream, you must have the results to back up your claim, especially in the subject of Science.

Gaining freedom
My results in Sec 1 and Sec 2 weren't too bad, but their were not as stirling as I once had in primary school. Back then, I had good reason to perform: my ultra-strict father made sure of that with his cane. In secondary school, he was largely absent from my life, so I was like a monk without a frock, praying TGIF and out imbibing spirits so to speak. Even as I enjoyed school life more, I made sure my results were good enough to win me bursaries. Even de-frocked monks can remain filial and I had still my poor mom's aspirations to consider.

And so, in a twinkle of an eye, I was inducted into the Technical Stream. We TS students sat in the same class as the Arts students because we shared similar lessons in English, Math and Science. That last subject was the only thing that displeased me. I didn't want to do General Scence, which was a diluted combination of Physics and Chemistry. I wanted to do the pure sciences. But my results weren't that fantastic and so I got stuck with GS.

A love for science
To this day, I regret not fighting for it more. Science was and is a subject close to my heart. I think I am one of those fellas who'd do well in the fundamental sciences, that which concern how atoms interact and are put together. I've always had questions that drilled down to the bottom of the matter (no pun intended). But in that school and time, questions like these were dismissed becaused it deviated from what the textbook said, even if what was said wasn't much then (and perhaps now even). They just didn't encourage that sort of inquisitiveness and sec sch science was mostly simple physics and chemistry concepts. I find it sad that we would spend so much time pounding repeatedly on such simple and obvious phenomenon. It's like turning hammering a nail into a high-faluting art form. (Why I probably don't make a good apprentice chef. Peeling potatoes day after day was not my idea of 'training')

Science is about the Before, Present, and the Future. In my school and textbooks we mostly got stuck in the past, always trying to replicate what those long-dead scientists have done. I've always wondered why that is so. C'mon, they have proven it, so let's move on to the more presssing 'today' concerns! Trying to always show what was done before was boring and often unnecessary, and actually blunted our natural tendency to 'what if...'. After all, at the end of the day and lab session, we had to submit results that tallied with what was said in the textbook. What fun is that? In short, the exploratory part, both hands-on and inquiry, were both missing. I felt dulled by the whole process and it  reflected in my results.

A fun bunch
So, that was one part of TS I didn't like, the watering down of GS. The rest of it wasn't so bad including Add Math. My classmates (together with the Arts students) turned out to be quite an extroverted bunch and we had loads of fun even when class was in session. One of our teachers, Mr William Choong, never took himself seriously and liked to joke with us even. He was the reason why I tried so hard to write well and was always challenged to come up with the next complex word, much to his amusement. (One day, he asked me "TC, do you know the meaning of bombastic?" As usual, I looked it up. Since that day, I started using words more simply and sensibly.)

Everything was quite peachy until we met our TS teacher. He was a certain Mr Lim and he turned out to be quite the Nazi.

Nazi teacher
He looked the part with his small mustache, black-rimmed spectacles, extensively Tancho-ed hair, slight paunch, and excessively neat shirts. He carried pens in his shirt pocket and a black vinyl school bag always, something that was a throwback to my pri sch days. He was quite fair. If I had to hazard a guess, I would say he was a stingy bas**** and a Mama's boy who lived alone.

This Mr Lim was very anal about what we did in tech drawing class. He would shout and reprimand us sharply if our pencils were not sharpened to a fine chisel point.  Or if our lines were not fine or differentiated enough. He fussed over the way our block lettering was written. In class, he would walk around brandishing a metal ruler observing how we worked. He would whack our knuckles if our work was not up to his standards or deviated from his teachings.

A thing with pencils
At the time, we still used lead-filled wooden pencils (I think they were Steadtler). We had to sharpen these pencils to a fine chisel point. As opposed to a single point, this method allowed you to draw a fine, even line for much longer - a fact I did not know before.

Our TD pencils came in three grades: H(ard), HB or B(old). H and B grades were numbered to indicate how hard or soft the pencil leads were. For example, a 2B pencil drew darker and bolder lines than a H pencil. A HB pencil was considered in-between and hence average. To sharpen these pencils to a chisel point we would use a piece of fine sandpaper, usually kept in a small matchbox to keep the lead shavings in. The box was soft and often leaked, making a mess in our pencil cases. I kept mine in a small ziplocked bag. Still, handling pencil lead is like handling charcoal: it gets everywhere!

We had mechanical pencils by then, which were just getting popular. But even though they were convenient to use, they were not really suitable for TD because they did not have a rounded tip. This made drawing lines uneven. Only the very fine mechanical leads (like 0.3mm and 2H) were OK for use.

At times, I wondered why Mr Nazi had to speak and instruct us in the way he did. It was as if he didn't trust us. I felt his so-called high standards and constant berating to be counterproductive. In retrospect, he came across as one spoilt kid who must have things his way. Mr Nazi spoke well, so maybe we all got brainwashed by him and did not rebel. It's easy to mask cruelty with high expectations.

Fancy teacher
Our metal working teacher on the other hand, was totally different. He was calm and collected, and in a quiet and macho way, quite the handsome chap. What I cannot forget is that even though he was in-charge of metal working (a dirty class), he always came dressed as if he was going to a club. His shirts were patterned, colorful and expensive and it was he who inspired me to dress well. I am not sure, but I think most of his shirts were silk. They were also sheer, which made them doubly dear and exotic, I would think. To this day, he remains quite the inspiration and anomaly in my mind.

What TD is
In TD class, we mostly drew stuff on paper - things like cross sections of nuts and bolts, pipes, flanges and the like. Our drawings were divided into two parts: mechanical and geometric. In GD, we drew ellipses, solid shapes that intersected. Objects were also presented in orthogonal, isometric and perspective views. The assignments that we were given often tested us on our ability to figure out how these objects meshed and behaved - much like what you'd find in IQ tests.

But it was all on paper. We used our compasses, dividers, protractors, French curves and flexible rule, tee square and board to help effect the shapes and lines that needed to be drawn. We also used our calculators on occasion.

Hands-on workshops
The other classes in woodwork and metalwork gave us more tangible results. We made things with tools, machines and our bare hands. One of the first things we learnt was the different types of files. I still remember a very coarse one called the Bastard file. Another thing was the vice, which came with aluminium jaw protectors. The hacksaw was another oft-use tool that we learnt. Together, we used these three tools to shape, file and beat stuff into submission. As for machines, the drill press was indispensable. It allowed us to make holes and counter-sink holes of different diameters.

Of lathe, drill press and coolant
Of course, the mother of all machines was the lathe - a machine that essentially turned things so they could be cut by a cutting tool held against it. It's like peeling an apple by holding the knife still and turning the apple instead. Lathes came in all sizes, even table-top ones for hobbyists. With this, they could churn out rounded miniature table and chair legs.

The lathe in our workshop was the heavy-duty floor type. We often looked at it wide-eyed and wondered when it would be our turn to use it. You only got to the lathe when in Sec 4.

Whether lathe or drill press, the one thing that was quite unforgettable is the use of coolant. This was a white milkish liquid whose sole job is to run itself over hot objects to cool them down. Metal is hard, so cutting it generated a lot of heat for the tool as well. Coolant kept them both under temperature and from breaking up or damage. Burning metal has an unpleasant smell. Coolant prevents that and by itself, emits a slight and unique smell. It's not all that unpleasant.

In any case, everytime I watch that robot Bishop in Aliens break up and spill his milk-white juice, I am reminded of workshop coolant. It also splashes all over like that.

Duck tail, what?
A memorable lesson in metal workshop was learning the subtle properties of metal. There's malleable (can be beaten into sheets), ductile (can be drawn into wires) and plastic (can return to shape). We also learnt that something could be hard yet brittle. And besides pilot whales, there's also such a thing as a pilot hole. It's a smaller hole you drill first before drilling a bigger one. Another name for it was "guide hole".

At woodwork, we used whole woods and plywood to make things. The tools involved were quite different as wood was softer, had grain and would split. We used the saw, chisel and mallet most often. Sandpaper wrapped around a block of wood too. The only tool that presented us kids with a bit of a problem was the wood plane. Getting an even shave with it required technique and practice. Most of us ended up like novice barbers, you know, snipping a bit here a bit there until nothing was left. Just like hair, one cannot amend mistakes in wood with glue. But I did love seeing curly wood shavings appear from the plane and drop to the floor.

What we made
Some of the common things we made at woodwork were a letter cum pen holder, a rectangular letter box, a sliding pencil box and a paper tray. Through these we learned about butt and mitre joints, dovetail joints and comb joints. An unforgettable tool was the marking gauge. It looked like ruler sliding through a lump of wood.

The stuff we made at metal workshop was also similarly practical, things like door latches, tin trays, paper weights, etc. I was one of the more advanced students so I was allowed to make extra things with the lathe machine. Pretty and small 'Monopoly' stuff like a tiny steel vase, chalice cup or whistle.

Preparing for TD and workshop
The night before going for workshop practice meant quite a bit of preparation at home. I had to make sure that I have my clean apron with me. Mine was first blue, then grey. Both had a pocket in front. I next checked to make sure my drawing instruments were ready, pencil leads all sharpened so that that anal TD teacher have little reason to pick on me. My drawing instruments were kept in a roll-up cloth that was sewn with tiny pockets to keep each instrument in place - kind of what an artisan leatherer might have. Instead of leather, mine was made of dark blue felt with an extra soft side. When rolled up, two strings at the ends tie up nicely.

There were also the set squares and French curves, which I didn't put in my school bag for fear of crushing them. These I would put into a huge carrier bag that my mom had sewn for me to carry the drawing board with. This board had a slot for a T-square, which was quite neat. With this carrier bag, I was able to carry all my TD stuff like a shopping bag on my shoulder; no more struggling to carry the board under my armpit. But bringing it aboard a crowded bus in the morning remained a challenge. I'm sure I knocked a few elbows and knees unintentionally. But there was little I could do other then apologise, grin and bear with it.

Note: Part of this story continues in the next story, Beauty World Market.

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