Wednesday, June 29, 2011
I was once led to visit an artist on Broadway, only a few blocks from my office. Not knowing whether my destination would be of interest, I paid no mind to exactly where I was going or who I was visiting. I have no idea what her name was to this day, but we had a conversation that left an indelible imprint in my mind.
Her work was quite unique - furniture as art. What particularly struck me was her use of machinist's tools and equipment. Her work was impeccable - I had never seen anything crafted so perfectly and I told her so. She did not take the complement but instead corrected my choice of words. Precision she said, not Perfection.
Touché. A distinction very well made. We had a conversation about it, but she was preaching to the choir. I have reflected on her comment a myriad of times - often when I work or whenever the word "perfect" is used emphatically in praise of a product well made.
When it comes to man made articles, it is quite true. Perfection does not exist, only tolerances and precision. Given measuring devices accurate enough, anything manufactured will vary from its specifications. Certainly the eye or hand will be unable to perceive variations within tolerances in a finely crafted article, but the lack of perfection is there nonetheless.
I'm not sure what surprises people most - what I do for a living or that I do it in Manhattan in a prime SoHo location. I do maintain a machine shop on Broadway. In the photo, I am machining a part on a 1951 LeBlond lathe.The machine is a real workhorse, made at a time when American machinery was built to last. This machine will likely outlive me.
I often wonder how many lathes are left in New York City, particularly Manhattan. I only know of a couple of machine shops. In the 1990s, there was a small machinist who occupied an entire one story building on Crosby Street around the corner from me. At one time, numerous other small manufacturers dotted the area, even entire buildings were occupied. I never appreciated the luxury of strolling to a machine shop and in minutes discussing a project, leaving drawings and picking up parts in hours or a day. The place is now a carpet shop.
My lathe was purchased at Grand Machinery Exchange on Lafayette Street in a area once known as machine shop row. There were 40 machinery dealers in the area north of Canal Street. Grand Machinery was the last of these dealers and relocated to Long Island in 2006. I very much would have loved to do a story on them, however, I only learned of their closing a few days after their move. My visit there was only to press my face against dirty windows and peer into an empty industrial ground floor space.
I do love machining a metal part. It is so satisfying to produce something with a high level of precision in a world of the unpredictable, uncertain or mutable and riddled with poorly made articles. When I take a beautiful gleaming metal part off that lathe, check it with my Mitutoyo digital caliper and find that the diameter is exactly what I wanted, there are no thoughts about that artist on Broadway and the nuances of perfection versus precision. It's perfect.
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