Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry

Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry
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Friday, September 30, 2011

Lathe



PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Lathes and drill presses, like potters wheels and compasses and gyroscopes and the music that used to gyrate from phonographs and that game at carnivals where kids paint on whirling plates, all partake in the magic of spin. Spin has the feel of life. The wheel is only a circle until you feel the forces spiraling out, rotating, translating, revolving into corkscrew sprays of centripetal blossoms. They tell us DNA is the way spin gets into our marrow.

When I was a kid, of all the tools in our high school shop, it was the lathes that received the most respect, and each of us looked forward to our turn at making something on them. Until we got to the lathes, shop was about making boxes. I can still feel the jolt of that spinning and the current of vibration, while steadying my chisel on the fixed ledge of the lathe and my eye on the spinning block and then drawing a smooth curve that instantly sprung into three dimensional space. It was the exquisite physics of circular motion that turned boxy wood into fluid shapes, sent pedestal trays and bowls home to mom and dad and occasionally sent shards of bowl and classmates flying across the shop. There's alchemy in spin.

The lathe brings final precision to the block. Dennis centers the 300 pound block around the hole and positions the cutting blade. When he starts the block spinning the blade will move steadily, evenly, automatically along the block's surface, peeling away excess copper and leaving a perfect cylinder, shiny and smooth. The diameter will be precise to within hundredths of an inch.

When the block is removed it is finished, ready for transformation.