Letter Re: Machining–Making the Gears that Drive Industry, Agriculture, and Transport

Greetings Jim and the SurvivalBlog Family,
First of all, prayers sent for Memsahib’s recovery and your family’s well being.

At one point in my rather varied list of jobs to fill in while unemployed I found myself employed in a family owned machine shop. I reproduced drafted copies of gear drawings and specifications from previously made orders for the guys in the shop to manufacture the gear orders. I got a real education on just how gears and similar ‘small’ parts are made and I picked up a few skills that have helped me over the years in maintaining my own firearms and tools. This shop did not have any CNC machines but could make any, and I mean any, size gear from less than an inch in diameter to twelve to twenty foot diameter gears. In fact the larger gears, such as gears for elevators of all types, was what they built their reputation on. Can anyone think of any machine that does not have gears? They are like ball bearings and things don’t run unless the gears and ball bearings are present. Without those two elements a society will find itself in a pre-Industrial Revolution setting very quickly. Naturally the ‘stock up on ball bearings’ thought comes to mind. But the material heart of their shop was the type of machinery they used to manufacture the gears and the materials for their manufacture. I found out that material for gears are as varied as you could get and some material is down right surprising. Gears are made from steel, which comes to mind at once, but other materials have properties that will extend the life of the gear or of the equipment that it is used in. Gear materials range from the obligatory stainless steel to cast iron, bronze, brass, nylon (even large nylon gears), and some high tech polymers along with high tech alloys, aircraft grade aluminum, Bakelite (you’d be amazed just how hard and durable this ‘primitive’ plastic is and Masonite and compressed textile material. Each material type has it’s place as does the type of gear and usually if a Bakelite gear is replaced with nylon or soft steel that machine that uses the gear will have it’s life span greatly diminished. The exact gear type and the material it’s made from are critical. Depending on the application of the gear there may be some ‘wiggle room’ in material selection but that is the not the usual rule.

Now to the machinery used. Their shop was founded in the 1920s or so; I just don’t remember the exact year. But what I do remember is that the gear cutting machines were brought over from the USSR not long after the revolution! This equipment was being sold as surplus out of the USSR. The engineers were brought along as part of the contract and there was an interpreter to work with the owner and his shop crew to help set up and learn how to properly operate this specialized equipment. The interpreter was also the ‘political officer’ who was there to make sure that no one decided to defect. That produced a surreal atmosphere. A lot of the cast labels, etc. on the machines were in Russian and later plates with the English translation were installed after the machinery was installed and tested. The critical gauges were in numerals, which math is an international language. The process took a month or so to bring the shop online. Most of the machines had been belt driven, not electric motor driven and the pulleys, etc. had been removed and the electric motor attached when the equipment was setup. The shop retained the pulley systems in a warehouse. The dates of the machine’s manufacture in the USSR ranged from the middle to late 1800s, and had been refitted to original specs before being sold. The gear cutting equipment had been in shop maintained since being manufactured and never, ever, stopped. Some gears had to take a couple weeks to manufacture on these machines because of the size of the gear and or the hardness of the steel the gears had to be made from.

To illustrate the durability of this 19th Century equipment, the gear machines were often set up to run 24/7 to cut the large-sized gears, which are slowly cut and often would be left cutting over weekends. The operator only had to come in to clear away the cuttings and fill the cutting fluid tanks to safe levels and make sure the cast metal didn’t have any voids in it which would compromise the integrity of the gear. Of course if a void showed, which from time to time happens, the process was stopped and a new gear blank replaced and cutting began anew. The initial construction of these gear cutters was the most amazing quality and durability I have ever seen. All the chassis, if that is the proper term, were huge castings, and then the rest was machined by even larger machinery. The cutting accuracy of the USSR-made industrial machines was only surpassed when computerized machinery became the standard. The designers and builders had a quality control that could rival any other country for the same type of equipment. To give a size comparison to the scope of the gear size this equipment could cut; the company was approached by the Department of Defense in the 1980s to manufacture the drive sprockets for the then-new M1 Abrams tank. There were only a handful of companies in the U.S. that had the capacity to be a subcontractor for the making of the drive sprockets and maintain a high level of quality control. And even though the company stood to make a lot of money, the owner declined the offer because he did not want the government to come in and tell him how things were to be done. Apparently their would have been a government bureaucrat hovering about and sticking his nose into every aspect of the operation of the company, even into areas not directly related to the drive sprocket manufacture. And since the contract would have been on a defense project the security would have been very restrictive on the movements of the employees. I thought it would have been a real irony to have the US main battle tank components manufactured not only on machinery from the late 19th Century but also from the Soviet Union!

Briefly about the talent that was in the shop, which is a critical component to the small machine shop. The owner and his sons were second and third generation owner/operators of the shop. The owner’s father built it up from nothing, and hand selected all the equipment. He had selected the Russian equipment because he had seen it in operation and knew the quality. I saw the owner and his sons take and look at the gear to be made and immediately know not only the type but also the thread pitch, among all the other particulars to what to make it from and how long it would take to make it. This skill can not be learned in a book or in a classroom. It takes years to master this type of trade. Some of the guys in the shop were nothing less and geniuses when it came to turning a gear blank into a perfect gear. Even the owner would double-check the specifications of the gear sample he examined, as well as the shop foreman and the craftsman who would run the particular machine that made the gear. On more than one occasion they would spot flaws in a gear from the customer whereby the customer thought they were correct on the specifications but in fact they were in error. They had purchased a gear from another company who said they made it according to the given specifications. But in fact it had been poorly manufactured and was out of specification and as a result the equipment it was installed on wore it out or broke the gear (along with others that meshed with it). The gears they got from the shop I worked at were flawless and the client got properly drafted drawings and specifications from our shop for their future reference. We got a lot of repeat orders. Computers can do some outstanding things, but in the situation that this blog addresses that kind of equipment may not be the better choice in the long run. The ‘old’ manual machinery can in the life span of a company or even a nation can have the greater value over ‘new’ computerized equipment in adverse circumstances.

I asked the owner why he and the company’s founder kept the belt drive systems of the equipment they got from the USSR. He said that his Dad fully expected that at some point after WWII we could face an armed conflict with Russia during the days of the Cold War and he kept it so that the equipment could be retrofitted and alternate power could keep most of the shop running. The generations that grew up during the Great Depression and the rationing of WWII had a totally different mindset than today’s generation. The Russians have traditionally followed a use and reuse policy. They mothballed earlier versions of equipment as new equipment replaced the old. Firearms collectors know of the thousands of capture German weapons were sent to arsenals for rework and along with Russia’s own weapons were stored for future use in case of armed conflict with NATO forces. And when that armed conflict did not happen, yet anyway, they took their ‘obsolete’ stockpile of small arms and sold it to generate funds when the USSR ‘collapsed’. It would serve us well to examine our current philosophy on use and ‘making do’ and modify it accordingly before we are slapped by forces beyond our control. The U.S. has lost so much of our heavy industry through waste and political correctness and political stupidity we can no longer cast the hulls of the Abrams tank. When the last one rolled off the assembly line the molds and other specialized equipment was scrapped. At the Patton Museum there is a tank the U.S. manufactured in the late 1940s that incorporates a solid cast turret and the tank was designed to go head to head against Russia’s heaviest main battle tank should a conflict with them break out in Europe. Today we can’t even manufacture that cast turret from a late 1940s tank.

Even though I have digital calipers, I have never discarded my manual dial calipers; and never will. Old does not necessarily mean obsolete. – The Rabid One