Monday 4 November 2019

More of John Day's Memories of a ROF apprentice


................... .........................OF A ROF APPRENTICE

One morning when I came in, there was a terrific row going on in the foreman’s office. The barrel of a 3.7 inch gun is about 14 feet long and during production has about an extra foot each end to enable it to be held, this couple of feet is sawn off near the end of manufacture. It was done on night -shift  and on this occasion the two feet had been sawn off the same end. The foreman had said, amongst other things,” What are we going to do with that gun now ?” to which the reply was “You can always put it a foot nearer the enemy”.

Another month or two, between term times, was spent in the Shell Toolroom doing odd  jobs that included the design and manufacture of a lathe sliderest. All the toolrooms had a blacksmith for odd bits of forging and lathe tool making. The one in this shop had been apprenticed to an ornamental smith and one day he showed me a rose that he forged as his test-piece.  It was beautiful, even down to the veining in the petals and leaves.

The months over one Christmas were spent in the Forges with another apprentice, who’s name I forget. We had a hearth next to the south wall and near the door. The first thing each morning was to light the fire with paper and wood and put some coal on top to roast into coke which produced the clean fire. Then, being winter, the tools were warmed since a sudden blow on cold thin steel would find it shattering. There is something fascinating about forming red hot steel which has about the consistency of cold lead. The two main occupations were forging pairs of tongs and making templates. When there was a complicated forging to be done, it needed a template of thin plate to check the shape against and an apprentice was the stooge to make it. If one was clever, one did one's best to avoid this. We made ourselves a toaster comprising a 4” square slab of steel about ½ “ thick with a long handle. This, heated to red heat in the forge, was the best and most even toaster I have come across for cooking toasted cheese. At Christmas we decorated the forge and extended our menu to include kippers cooked the same way. 

In-front of our forge was a small steam hammer worked by a rather dour individual. Working under this we soon discovered that it was not as easy as it looked to take down a square section, keeping it square. With the slightest provocation, it would go into a diamond shape and it needed strong wrists to hold the diamond edge on to get the metal back to square. High speed steel, worked at less than near white heat would split like bamboo.

Being Christmas and, as usual short of cash, we collected a number of old files and forged them into scrapers and screwdrivers for some of the awkward jobs we knew existed in the fitting and assembly shops. We went round these shops selling them and taking orders for other special tools. 

One day I went to the heavy forge and sat up on the crane gantry watching the forging of a part of a big gun barrel. To see  a lump of red hot steel, some four feet square and ten feet long, being squeezed to shape under a huge hydraulic press is something never to forget. Just behind our forge was a 1000 ton hammer made by James Nasmyth; it was dusty  and neglected even then - what a lot of our treasures have been lost.

This article was in the May 2000 Newsletter

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