Episode 6: Getting To Know One Of The Death Machines

Sleeping Colchester lathe at the makerspace

The preamble

I’m lucky—people who live in London are generally lucky. There are often opportunities in The Big Smoke that are not available to others in the rest of the country. On the other hand, Londoners tend to pay for that luck in the form of higher rents and expenses, extra congestion, and having to accommodate large numbers of people in a limited space. The list of unique challenges Londoners face is long.

The Makerspace

One of the resources us lucky Londoners have access to are ‘makerspaces’. These are places you can go to make or fix stuff. A ‘makerspace’, sometimes called a ‘hackspace’, is a volunteer-run, non-profit workshop usually set up by enthusiasts, graduating students, or professionals. These people need somewhere to continue to hone their specialisms, be it; machining, electrical engineering, computing, programming, carpentry, tailoring, photography, inventing, illustrating, fashion designing, etc. Here, makers can exchange ideas, access communal tools and facilities, collaborate, and learn from each other.

…you have computers, 3d printers, laser cutters, hand tools, welding rigs, machine tools, kilns, cnc stuff, smelting equipment and sewing machines.

I’m currently a member of one makerspace located in North London. The thing is, it’s in the process of moving, as the lease on the property came to an end last year. There’s plenty of will within the cooperative to find an industrial unit that can accommodate the facility. So, I’m fairly certain that the move will happen without a hitch. However, in these uncertain times, there is a small risk that the space may cease to exist, which is a gutting thought.

We all know we send too much stuff to landfill.

What’s great about these places is that you’re able to access so much stuff that would normally be out of budget or would require more space than almost any Londoner can afford. For example, you have computers, 3D printers, laser cutters, hand tools, welding rigs, machine tools, kilns, CNC stuff, smelting equipment, and sewing machines. There’s a proper smorgasbord of wonderful tools sitting there, just waiting for you to make something.

Bike parts and landfill

I do a lot of bike maintenance, and it always annoys me to see bike parts thrown out. Particularly when, with the right knowledge, tools, and skill, they can be given a new breath of life. They can be brought back into a perfectly serviceable condition and kept out of landfill… We all know we send too much stuff to landfill.

They are this way because they know that post murder, they’ll not need to face the courts or the judicial system.

An example of this would be when I resuscitated a mashed-up old Kickr that the brilliant people in my cycling club donated to me. I think it was more of a dare than a donation :}. It was kind of… if you can make this work, it’s yours! I’ll put together a post about how I managed to saved it from being a heavy pile of scrap metal and rubber and turned it back into a mean, keen, racing machine… Well, Zwifting Machine… Maybe ‘pain machine’ would be a better desc….. I digress. The point is, with the help of the makerspace machine shop, which has a precision metal lathe, a vertical mill, a fly press, welders and all, I was able to recondition the beaten-up old girl and make her good.

The above is me blowing off and passing time before getting to the point of this post. If you’ve made it this far… I love y…

The villains in the makerspace machine shop

Big industrial machines like lathes and mills are considered ‘murder machines’ by those in the know. You must approach these machines with caution and reverence. Think broaching an awkward financial issue with your life partner. They’re always out to kill or seriously maim you. They are this way because they know that post murder, they’ll not need to face the courts or the judicial system. They’re laughing to themselves because they’re not going to do the time for the crime. In fact, from their own experience, they know someone is simply gonna clean up the body parts leaving them free to carry on like nothing happened.

Then it was how to turn it on and off, how to escape disaster should things go south.

One of the makerspace 'death machines'. A Colchester Master lathe.
One of the makerspace ‘death machines’. A Colchester Master lathe.

To safely use the machines and bits of equipment in the makerspace, most of which have their own particular quirks, you need to be shown how to operate them. This also helps preserve the equipment from people damaging stuff by not knowing how it’s supposed to be used. It’s surprisingly easy to f**** up expensive shit and yourself in the process.

Arranging a formal introduction to the mill at the makerspace

Before the space was mothballed, I got a chance—these chances don’t come around that often—to get to know the murder machine known as the vertical mill. My trainer, Toby, was the same lovely, very knowledgeable person who granted me my licence to access the lathe a few weeks before. We scheduled a meeting at the space around 6 p.m., and after a little small talk, got down to business.

Safety first

The safety introduction was first on the agenda. No long sleeves, decent shoes, appropriate eye protection, no jewellery and no long hair. In fact, nothing that might give that mill an opportunity to grab onto you and pull you into its loving death roll. The usual stuff.

I’m now officially allowed to kill myself with a milling machine.

We then ran through all the technicalities, interesting only to those curious about that kind of thing. Then it was how to turn it on and off, how to escape disaster should things go south. So, finally on to…. drilling a hole?*^$??

The most perfect hole

Vertical mills, like the Bridgeport I was being inducted on, are complex and sophisticated pieces of monstrously heavy, incredibly expensive, and insanely precise bits of kit. And here I am using it to do something most people can do at home with a cheap electric drill. But this hole is a hole like no other. This hole was so accurate you could, you know… well, a hole that… well, it was one hell of a hole!

After this, we ran through how to produce a precision flat surface on a slug of scrap metal. To give you an idea, it’s similar to the process used to face the gas tight surface of an engine block. Of course my part was a lot smaller and lighter. After plenty more chitter-chatter and doing, it was all over. I had my licence. I’m now officially allowed to kill myself with a milling machine. I’m also free to try to recondition bike parts and do other random milling operations to my heart’s content.

Remember to clear up after yourself

Toby asked if I’d like to make some tools for the makerspace in my own time, just to help me get to know my new evil best friend a little more intimately. I gladly accepted. He then handed me some freshly cut chunks of steel to machine the aforementioned tools from.

I tidied up the mess I’d made, collected my things, said goodbye, and cycled off into the North London streets, happy to have survived unscathed, aside from a few microscopic nicks and metal splinters.

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