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Hacksaw on drawing board

The Art of Teaching Metalwork

My first metalwork lesson at high school was an experience I have never forgotten. It was one of the scariest moments of my childhood.

You know those archetypal pictures of the Devil? The ones where his black hair is brushed back from his widow’s peak, his beard is shaped to a point?

That’s what one of my teachers looked like when I was thirteen, fresh from primary school and thrust unprepared into the big world of high school. He took us for a subject called Industrial Arts. Nowadays I think it’s been rebranded as Design and Technology or something similar, but in 1973 it still bore the nineteenth century moniker of “Industrial Arts”.

Although I attended a coeducational school, we were split from the girls for this subject. They did Home Economics; we did Industrial Arts. Neither gender was offered a choice in the matter.

Our first lesson with the Industrial Arts teacher was unlike any I’d ever experienced. We filed into a classroom filled not with desks but drawing boards and stools, strange contraptions that we hadn’t encountered before. These were not modern drawing boards by any means: the equipment was worn and out of date, but scrupulously clean.

The first thing the teacher taught us was how to use our left hand to hold the short arm of our T-Square against the left-hand side of the board, so that the long arm was perfectly horizontal.

Next he showed us how to mount a sheet of A3 paper on our drawing board, using masking tape to hold it in place. This involved placing the paper on the board with the long sides at the top and bottom. It was held steady with the right hand while placing the T-Square along the lower edge of the paper. Then came a fiddly process of keeping the T-Square absolutely still with one hand while using the other hand to position the paper until the lower edge was parallel with the T-Square. The really tricky bit was letting go of the T-Square (but not allowing it fall to the floor), all the while keeping your right hand on the paper to stop it moving, then grabbing a piece of masking tape with your left hand (you remembered to tear two short pieces off the roll first, right?) then gently taping the top-left corner of the paper to the board, then reaching over your right arm with your left and taping the other corner.

There was no option for left-handed kids to have a T-Square that could be used on the right-hand side of their drawing boards. They couldn’t even turn their T-Square upside-down, seeing as the upper and lower sides of the long arm weren’t parallel.

Being right-handed, that wasn’t a worry for me. What caused the blood to drain from my face was when the teacher went around the classroom inspecting each boy’s paper. If your sheet wasn’t perfectly horizontal, or was slightly crumpled, or its pristine whiteness was marred by finger smudges, or the tape wasn’t placed correctly, you were sent to the front of the class.

That initial lesson about half the boys ended up at the front, shuffling their feet and wondering what was going to happen next.

They were caned. One after the other they were made to bend over and receive a vicious stroke from the teacher’s cane, a finger-thick bamboo rod as long as an arm. Once punished they were told to return to their seats, which they did, sitting gingerly on their stools at their drawing boards.

Next we had to make a light pencil mark ten millimetres from the top of the paper, then place the T-Square on the mark and draw a horizontal line from one edge of the paper to the other. This, we were told, was to be our drawing’s top border. Every technical drawing we were to do in that class would start with drawing border lines ten millimetres from each edge of the paper.

Again the teacher moved around the class, this time checking the pencil line. If the line was nine millimetres from the paper’s top edge, or eleven millimetres, you were sent to the front of the class. The same if the line wasn’t horizontal.

If the pencil line was not the same consistency along its entire length, off you went to the front. This was particularly difficult because we used ordinary wooden pencils that had to be sharpened to a point. Even at that time, 1973, you could buy self-propelling pencils with leads that were designed to draw lines that didn’t vary in thickness. If a self-propelling pencil’s lead was 0.5 mm thick, then it drew a line 0.5 mm wide from beginning to end. Not so for us with our wooden pencils. As our pencil leads wore, the lines would become progressively thicker. We had to learn a technique where the pencil is leaned in the direction of travel and twirled between the forefinger and thumb as it is drawn along the top edge of the T-Square. This stops the point flattening into a chisel shape, and sort of helps the lines remain reasonably even. It’s a tricky technique to teach to thirteen-year-olds and even seasoned hands struggle to use it.

To help keep our pencils sharp we were issued with a small piece of sandpaper which we were expected to use to sand our pencils to a fine point – but not too fine otherwise the point would crumble at the slightest pressure and make an unsightly mess on the paper.
It didn’t help that the teacher terrified us. He would punish us for the most trivial things. Besides the infractions I’ve already mentioned, if you drew construction lines that he could see, he caned you (construction lines are the preparatory faint pencil lines drawn before committing to the final lines). If the hand-drawn lettering in your labels and dimensions wasn’t perfect, he caned you, if the arrowheads on your dimensions weren’t three millimetres long, it was the cane again.

You can imagine how few of us mastered technical drawing.

That first lesson ended with only two boys out of sixteen not being caned. All we had achieved was taping our paper to the boards and drawing a single horizontal line.

Subsequent lessons were just as fraught. As I remember, we only produced two or three simple technical drawings the entire term. We all hated the lessons, and I was the only boy in that term who wasn’t caned by the Industrial Arts teacher. Drawing came easily to me. I’d been sketching with pencils since I first picked one up as a toddler. I filled my spare time with making things out of paper, wood, cardboard – whatever I could find – and had learned how to use rulers, knives, scissors and other hand tools at home.

The funny thing was, technical drawing wasn’t the worst lesson.
That came when the teacher took us for metal-work the first time.

We assembled in our hated technical drawing classroom as usual, then he led us in a silent line from there to the metal-workshop.

He made us stand in a group near the door while he pointed to things in the workshop and told us what they were.

There were three rows of workbenches, each with a vice on the front and a line of tools laid neatly in a rack at the rear.

He told us the jaws of the vices were to be closed at the end of each lesson and the handles were to be placed in a vertical position. Each boy would clean his workbench when the bell went for the end of the period and sweep the floor around him. All tools were to be replaced in their correct storage place, either in the rack on the workbench or – he indicated a rack on the wall – the storage rack for larger tools.

Everything had to be clean and neat. The tools had to be treated with respect.

“Respect!” he repeated.

At this point, his breathing quickened, and his eyes gleamed.

“But I know what you’re like. I know what you’re like! You don’t respect my tools!” His tone was unusually rough.

Despite what he said, none of us had been into his workshop before. We huddled near the door, our guts curdled in terror.

He stalked over to a bin and took out a piece of three millimetre thick flat steel bar as long as his hand and about fifteen millimetres wide.

His eyes grew large, the point of his beard quivered and a flush spread up his neck.

“I know you! I’ve seen what you do!” he said.

He opened the nearest vice and gripped the bar in it, not lined up straight as one would normally do, but poking out the side at a jaunty angle. He closed the vice, pushed the handle down hard, leaning on it with all his weight.

“You don’t need to over tighten a vice, but I know what you’re like!” he said, his voice rising. “This is what you do!”

He grabbed a hammer from the rear of the bench and laid into the vice’s handle, each crash of the hammer forcing the vice to clamp the bar tighter.

“I told you not to do this!” he shrieked, ignoring the fact that he had done no such thing.

Sweat beaded his forehead. With a final blow, he tossed the hammer onto the bench.

He was panting and his tie was skew, his jacket rumpled.

We stepped back as he launched himself towards us. But it wasn’t us he was aiming for. He seized a hacksaw from the rack on the wall near where we stood.

For a second he paused in disbelief, then he whirled to face us and pointed to the hacksaw.

Close to the handle there was fingertip-sized chunk missing from the blade.

“Look! Look! One of you did this!” Spittle flew from his lips.

We shrank back in horror.

Eyes wild, he turned away, raised the hacksaw above his head like an axe, and ran at the metal bar clamped in the vice, screaming a gurgling wail.

He smashed the hacksaw blade on to the bar and wrenched the tool backwards and forwards, yelling incoherently.

The blade bent alarmingly as it cut into the steel. He pressed on with his frenzied attack, twisting the saw from side to side as he pushed the blade back and forth against the metal.

Like an overloaded spring, the blade snapped where the piece was missing. A shard of blade shot into his right hand and pierced the flesh at the base of his thumb. He screamed again, louder.

The broken saw clattered to the floor.

He whipped around and faced us, his hand raised. Blood welled from the wound and dripped down his wrist. He glared at us, his mouth rimmed with froth.

“If any of you bastards bleed on my floor, I’ll kill you!” he shrieked.

The only things we learned in metalwork was how to keep the place clean and to never tighten a vice with blows from a hammer.

Oh, and how not to use a hacksaw.

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