The Metal Trades
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
From the mines of our country come the metals which are the foundation of so much of our trade and industry, and upon which our daily comfort depends to such a large extent. The ores which have been extracted from the mines are transformed in furnaces and mills into molten metal, and this is further refined before it becomes of practical use. Then it is formed into bars, beams and rails, and is ready for still further transformation. Some of the rails are used for car and railroad tracks, and some of the beams go to make up the skeletons of huge skyscrapers or other structures. Much of the metal is transformed, by means of machinery, into household utensils and thousands of other objects. All about us are things which are either made of metal, or have been produced with the help of machinery. And many of the objects which heretofore have been made of wood will soon appear in metal form. As the demand for large-scale production continues to increase the demand for machines to accomplish such production is bound to increase also.
It can be seen that metal plays a most important part in our lives. Everyone has occasion to use it in some form or manner. The builder of houses, ships and vehicles of transportation, the manufacturer, the mechanic, the engineer all depend upon metal for their work. The men who make this metal fit for use, and those whose daily work consists of employing it in various ways, form a large and important part of our working population.
Metal is produced from ores, in the blast furnaces, steel works and rolling mills. Many of the men working there are common laborers, but some skilled workers are needed. The blast furnace is a tower-like structure into which the ore is put, and in which it is subjected to intense heat. The molten metal flows to the bottom of the furnace, and from there is drawn off. The "blower" is the man who holds the position of greatest responsibility around the blast furnace. He must see that the proper amounts of material are put into the furnace, that the temperature and pressure of the blast are properly regulated and that the molten metal is withdrawn at the right time and in the right way. His work is, therefore, more a matter of directing operations than of carrying them out himself. The "dumper" directs the flow of the metal into the ladles or sand beds which receive it. The "pig-iron men" attend to the pouring of molten metal into iron molds, which travel by on an endless chain. "Lime men" spray these molds with lime or clay, so that the metal will not stick.
In the steel mills the iron is again subjected to tremendous heat in the Bessemer converter or in open-hearth furnaces, and is thus turned into steel. Usually these furnaces are operated mechanically, and the men who tend them need not have any great amount of technical knowledge. In the rod mills, where the metal is finally converted into bars and rods, the "rollers" need some rather specialized knowledge. They must thoroughly understand mill processes in the handling of steel, must have expert knowledge of the temperature and speed conditions which will give the best results, and of the resistance qualities of metal.
All the work connected with the production of metal is strenuous and hard, and requires on the part of the worker a strong physique. Frequently the hours are long, for blast furnaces and steel mills are operated the full 24 hours of the day. The workers are often exposed to intense heat, and are obliged to handle heavy loads. The work of the blast furnace and steel mill is of the kind that must be learned by experience. There is practically no formal instruction in it. Men who begin as laborers or helpers can rise to higher positions through the experience they gain in their work. Steel mill and blast furnace workers earn, on an average, between $30 and $40 a week.
The foundry is a place in which metal is cast into various shapes. This is done by pouring molten metal into a mold, usually made of sand. To make a mold, it is necessary to have a pattern, which is, ordinarily, a full sized model or counter-part of the object to be cast. Making the pattern is the work of the pattern maker, often referred to as the aristocrat of the foundry. Pattern-making is really a woodworking trade, as most patterns are made of wood, metal being used only when a large number of castings are required from a single pattern. Pattern-making is being treated here instead of under "Wood-working" because it is an adjunct of a metal working trade foundry work. It is a highly skilled occupation, requiring technical knowledge as well as mechanical skill. Besides being able to perform the most complicated woodworking operations, the pattern maker must have a knowledge of foundry work, drafting, shop mathematics and machine-shop practice.
The greater degree of technical knowledge required by the pattern maker makes some training in a technical or trade school desirable. The young man who has had some such instruction may begin work as an apprentice or helper, and after three or four years' experience will earn from about $4 to $7 a day. As good pattern makers are scarce, the young man choosing this occupation will probable not lack employment. The work of the pattern maker is not as laborious as that of other foundry workers, but the pattern maker should, nevertheless, be strong and healthy.
The finished pattern is turned over to the molder. "Molding" is the work of packing damp or specially prepared sand about a pattern in such a way that, when the pattern is removed, a cavity will be left. This cavity, which is the "mold," is then filled with molten metal, which takes the required shape. The molder must see that the sand is of the proper firmness, that the impression left by the pattern is clear cut and that the metal is properly poured and removed. He must know the various molding sands, be familiar with the action of metals and be physically strong enough to carry out his work, which is often decidedly unpleasant. The molder is obliged to stand in the damp sand all day long, to lift heavy weights and to carry on most of his work without any help from mechanical devices.
The work of the core maker is somewhat similar to that of the molder. The core maker prepares, out of special sand, and with the help of "core boxes," cores which are placed in the molds, and which make cavities extending through the castings. The core maker, like the molder, usually enters upon his work through apprenticeship. His work does not require as much physical strength nor as much skill, as that of the molder. Molders and core makers earn from about $4 to $6.50 a day.
The operations which have been mentioned have all been connected with the production of metal. Now we come to its utilization. Many men are engaged in sheetmetal work. Sheetmetal workers are employed in the building trades, in the ship, automobile and aeroplane construction industries and in the establishments which manufacture metal household utensils and furniture and ventilating and heating systems.
The main duty of the sheet-metal worker is that of cutting shapes out of sheets of metal, such as iron, copper and zinc, bending and forming them, largely by machinery, and of riveting or soldering them together. He also attends to the erecting of the sections he has formed. The sheetmetal worker should know how to work from blue prints, should understand how to draft patterns and should know how to place all required portions on buildings. His work is not very difficult, and is quite well paid, since the average wage is between 45 and 85 cents an hour. His employment may at times be uncertain, since it depends to a great extent upon the general state of the building trades. In a large shop or factory, the danger of encountering long periods of unemployment is, however, usually absent.
The structural iron worker is perhaps the most spectacular of all the men engaged in the metal working trades. He is the man whose task it is to put together the great steel beams and girders which form the skeletons of high buildings. He raises these huge iron parts into place and rivets them fast together. His work requires a combination of daring and caution, a cool head, steady nerves, and a capacity for quick and sure action. The structural iron worker should be able to read blue prints, and should have some knowledge of the mechanics of building. His work is dangerous, and involves much nervous strain and also physical hardship. Like the sheet-metal worker, his employment is dependent upon the general state of building conditions. As ground continues to rise in value, it is inevitable that the structural iron worker will continue to be in demand, since the high price of real estate means taller buildings. The pay for this type of work is quite satisfactory, being usually about $7 or more, per day.
The work of the machinist is probably the most technical of that of all metal workers. Nowadays, when increased production is so often the goal of manufacturers, the machinist usually carries on one specialized operation. In repair shops and tool rooms, one is more likely to find the all-round mechanic, but the more common type of machinist is expert in one sort of work, chiefly.
The machinist who does "machine work" works on a lathe, planer or other mechanical device, and usually turns out one certain product. The "bench hand" does hand work, such as filing, scraping and chipping, and needs a large amount of skill. The assembler or erector gathers the various parts of the machine which is being constructed, and puts them together properly. He completes the machine and sets it up for actual operation. His work is very responsible and requires great skill and a thorough knowledge of his trade.
The machinist's work is very attractive for the mechanically inclined man, who likes to work with machines and metals, and to feel that, through his work, important aids to progress are produced. In addition to mechanical skill, the machinist must have a knowledge of shop mathematics, and know how to read blue prints. There is at present practically no danger in the machinist's work, since machines are practically always provided with safety devices; but, of course, care must be exercised in handling them. The machinist has a particularly good chance for advancement, since he is a skilled worker, and since the field for his work is a very extensive one, which promises to continue growing. The capable machinist with some business ability frequently goes into business for himself. Work in one's own shop is usually more varied than that assigned to one in a large shop or factory. Besides this, it is, for the man of business sense, more profitable. The usual wages of a machinist employed in a shop are from about $4 to $7 a day, with possibly more, if he is paid on a piecework basis.
The machinist, more probably than any other metal worker, has need of some preparatory training. Not many schools give instruction in the other metal trades, but practically every trade and technical school offers some courses in preparation for the work which the machinist will be called upon to do. Many of these schools offer both day and evening courses, and in most cases no tuition fee is charged. It would be impossible to give here a list of schools at which one might be trained for the metal-working trades, but application to the local Board of Education will bring the desired information.
The work of the metal trades is difficult and arduous, but it is work of essential importance. The country's great dependence upon the products which the metal workers turn out, and upon their other accomplishments is very evident. Upon them is founded much of our prosperity; and their toil makes possible many of the wonders for which the present age is praised.
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