Monday, August 27, 2012

Sometimes you just have to beat on the vise.

One day in 1986 while wandering through the Santa Cruz flea market I found a big old Wilton vise. This one was just like the one I used to use at a very good bike shop-I lusted after that vise but was told that the cost was about $ 300 , too much for a $ 2.65 per hour bike mechanic. This did not deter me, it gave me a quest : To find a big-ass Wilton vise at a yard sale or at the flea market. The search probably took five years but there it was, the exact vise I wanted. I asked the seller the price. He answered: " That one's a nice one.How about $ 35 ?" I said I could come up with that.
           Paying for the vise was the easy part. Carrying it out of the flea market to my car was not so easy. I'm not sure what the vise weighed but it was so heavy I probably had to stop about six times before making it to the parking lot. I was lucky that someone was there to help me with the hulking Wilton and within an hour I had it back home. When I bolted onto my workbench I soon found out that my flimsy bench needed to be anchored to the wall of the garage. Then I found out that the garage was not all that solid as well. All of this didn't matter as I wasn't going to be removing stuck freewheels or bending rebar.....I was going to be building frames. I felt like I had been given a really great gift.....the vise of my dreams.
            This old vise as done much duty in the twenty-six years since I parted with that $ 35 at the flea market. The vise has followed me through several moves and has held about 2,000 frame in its tired old jaws. People who come to my shop always notice the vise and are subjected to my story of how I got it and how little I paid for it. I wouldn't say that it is the centerpiece of the shop but I think I would have a really difficult time without it.
             In spite of  the importance of this vise and how much I depend on it daily, it does get the occasional beating. Beating, you say ? But why ? what did that poor vise do to deserve a beating ? This brings me to the most recent and savage vise-beating episode. I was in the process of building a run of nine frames immediately after returning from two idyllic weeks in Ashland , Oregon teaching at U.B.I. I had been really stressed before leaving for Ashland and was very ready to leave my shop. Upon returning I found that everything I had been stressed about was still there-now two weeks further behind schedule.
             Picture me at the vise, struggling with bending a bridge tube, attempting to get a nice radius purely for aesthetics. In walks a perfectly nice person with two rather ugly small repairs for me to look at. This person has no idea of the nearly thirty frames on order and how hopelessly behind schedule I am getting.We start the conversation about the repairs-I'm telling the customer that I can't work on the frames for about a month. He's fine with that and we continue talking, all the while I'm wresling with this bending form that won't stay in my Wilton vise. I'm trying to bend this cro-moly tube while attempting to be polite to this customer and the vise isn't holding the bending form and it keeps slipping. I tighten the vise with my whole 156 lbs. The form still slips. I re-tighten the vise, this time beating on the handle with a huge rubber mallet-all the while politely talking with the customer. The bending form slips for about the fifth time and I take the piece of tubing and beat the living shit out of the vise for about thirty seconds. I look at the customer-he looks back at me, blankly. I just start laughing and the customer starts laughing as well.
              After I say goodbye to the customer and apologize for the outburst ( Which he said was not surprising as he had worked in bicycle shops as well and had encountered similar frustrations ) I began to think about the vise. This was a really tough and mighty vise, yet it was not holding onto the work . I opened up the jaws and looked. The jaws were worn smooth.....over the years I had used the vise so much I had worn out the jaws and didn't notice-I didn't notice because I was too busy being stressed about getting the work done on time. Someone might say: " How could you be stressed ? You do what you want all day long! " That is mostly true but there is also the reality that the stuff I do all day long does exactly what it wants do as me !  If it wants to inspire me, it does. If it wants to humiliate me, it does. If it wants to drive me to beating a vise in front of a customer, why not ? It might be entertaining. If it wants to show me that I am really in need of a schooling , it will provide that for me at any time with little or no notice.
               Once I realized that the jaws were worn smooth I figured out that I would have to position the work differently so that I could use my leverage in such a way that would not catapult the whole mess onto the shop floor. Within a few minutes I had a beautifully radius'd bridge which I mitered and welded onto what is perhaps the most cleanly welded frame of my career. Maybe beating on the vise is a useless and possibly damaging waste of time.......or perhaps it is the merely storm before the calm.