Tuesday 26 January 2010

Shop Class as Soulcraft

Although most of my professional career was spent being what is euphemistically referred to as a “knowledge worker”, I have long held a great admiration for top-notch trades people, and have always had hands-on hobbies such as vehicle mechanics and cabinet making. And when I say top-notch I’m not talking about the robotic mechanic who simply replaces parts in accordance with the shop manual based on a wild-assed guess of what the problem might be or the readout from a $50,000 diagnostic instrument, but rather the “professional” tradesman who still has the ability to get the feel of a machine, understand what’s happening, and be able to affect repairs in the most timely, effective, and inexpensive manner. In other words, a thinker and problem solver.
I can thank my father for that. As a heavy equipment mechanic in a backwoods lumber operation in the 50s and 60s, he was one of the most creative mechanical problem solvers I have ever known. There was always a way, and given the scarcity and expense of parts and the frequent remoteness of the broken machine, that way more often than not would have made MacGyver proud. His was a hard act to follow, and I consider myself lucky to have picked up maybe as much as 50% of his skill in that arena. So nothing gets me more riled than a so-called mechanic who clearly doesn’t know if he’s been bored, punched, or countersunk. Or makes me happier than dealing with one who clearly knows what he’s about, what I’m about, and most importantly, what my particular piece of machinery is about.
Sadly, the former seem to be quickly outnumbering the latter as any young person today with a good head on his or her shoulders is automatically pushed into the academic stream so they too can become just one more knowledge worker occupying a cubicle somewhere for the next 40 years, contributing lots to the corporation’s bottom line, but precious little to society at large (and I know whereof I speak). Truth is, some of those very sharp minds would be happiest with greasy hands and black fingernails if we only gave them the opportunity and encouragement early enough to foster the joy of working with their hands. To do otherwise is just a waste.
And while I used the example of a mechanic, the same applies to any of the trades. I have an acquaintance who is an extremely accomplished cabinet maker who has given up on trying to grow his business because he can’t find young people who share his passion for creativity and hands-on work. Similarly our house builder was always struggling to find trades people who wanted to build the “best” house as opposed to “a” house. And the list can go on and on.
Shop Class as SoulcraftSo all that was a very long, rambling preamble to this book I just picked up. What first caught my eye was the photo of a very cool vintage BMW on the front cover. Then the title, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An inquiry into the value of work, hooked me.
From the overleaf: “Based on his own experience as an electrician and mechanic, Crawford makes a case for the intrinsic satisfactions and cognitive challenges of manual work. The work of builders and mechanics is secure; it cannot be outsourced, and it cannot be made obsolete.”
The author is a motorcycle mechanic specialising in vintage bikes, but he didn’t start as that. He started with a PhD in political philosophy and a senior executive position with a Washington think tank. That lasted all of 5 months before he quit to open his bike shop.
It’s not an easy read (I blame his PhD for the fact the book has a fog index of approximately 14), but Crawford hits right at the core of something that is becoming a huge problem. I found myself repeatedly nodding in agreement or, to my wife’s chagrin, reading out chapter and verse accompanied by a “that’s what I’ve been saying all along” and getting the requisite “Yes dear” in response.
It’s not for everybody, but if you’ve ever considered the relative values of manual work versus brain work, Crawford very effectively challenges the conventional wisdom that working with one’s hands is somehow a lesser calling.

Sunday 17 January 2010

Welcome to the latest addition

I’d been keeping an eye out for a good used bike for the missus as she’d indicated a interest in getting back on two wheels after a rather long hiatus. I started looking for  an older Honda 400 Four, or even 350 Four002 for web as they are both great little motorcycles – with “little” referring to the fact that they were built to about 90% scale of a full sized motorcycle of the day, a CB550F for example. That made them the perfect bikes for a smaller sized rider, and with lots of power and zip they were fully capable of any legal road speeds and then some. Since she’d owned and ridden a 400 Four back in the day, there was the nostalgia factor as well.
Little did I know that in the intervening years they had become collector’s items, commanding a ridiculous price if in any kind of decent running condition. So the search continued until this past week when I came across this ad.
The bike was a 3-hour drive from home which normally would have stricken it from the list immediately, but I’d always had a soft spot for the Ascot, and this one was all original except for the exhaust and the mini-fairing. When the seller turned out to be a motorcycle mechanic who was also (and perhaps more importantly) flexible on price I became very interested indeed.
And so it was that after a few days of information sharing and negotiations, the deal was struck, and I am now the proud owner of a classic. Or perhaps I should say Miz Liz is now the proud owner of a classic so she can no longer accuse me of taking up the entire garage with “my” stuff.

Pretty, eh?

Sunday 10 January 2010

A great way to spend a winter Sunday

After a hiatus of several years the Ottawa International Motorcycle Show was back this weekend. Previous attempts to resuscitate what was once a very good show had had limited success, so it was very encouraging to now see it in a larger venue and seemingly well attended.  Friends in the dealer community who I met there were pretty upbeat about the show and the level of interest, so perhaps we’ve turned a corner of sorts and the show will again become a January highlight.
That’s not to say it couldn’t use improving. I was disappointed in the lack of riding gear as most dealers had only bikes on display and very few, if any, jackets or other clothing items. Show “specials” were few and far between, with show prices being, at best, a couple hundred dollars off list – sadly, not a single $10,000 Road King in sight. And aside from  one very good painter, there were no vintage bike displays or custom builders present. So from a glass-half-full perspective, next year’s show has the potential to be even better.
But all the 2010’s were there from the Yamaha V-Max (awesome) to the Honda Ruckus (cute), from the BMW S1000RR (stunning) to the 2010 Road King (drool), from the Triumph 900CC Scrambler (flashback) to a whole bunch of plasticized crotch rockets that all look, sound and feel the same (boring).  

There were a few accessories on display, things like tires and helmets, but the best (in my opinion) were these awesome sports cameras from goprocamera.com. Capable of filming video in full 1080p mode for up to 9 hours, 5MP stills, water resistant to 100’, and with a variety of helmet/handlebar/chassis/wrist mounting options, one of these quickly found its way onto my wish list for when I have a few $$ burning a hole in my jeans.GoPro Hero Camera
And although the missus kept a hawkish eye on my wallet I even managed to spend  some money. First I got a ticket on a special edition “Harley for Heroes”. A custom Road King with special paint and loaded with accessories. The proceeds of the lottery are going to the Military Families Fund Programs, so even if I don’t win, the $25 is going to a worthy cause. And if I do win, all I can say is it’s about time!

I also picked up a pair of fingerless riding gloves – the first ones I’ve found that actually feel right. The daughter raised an eyebrow at those and I patiently explained the reason they were so cheap was they had run out of cows’ teats and therefore couldn’t put the fingers in them. Until then, I didn’t know one could roll ones eyes that far back into their sockets.
Finally I got a new insurance quote that should save me about $300 next year. Just about enough to pay for a GoPro Hero camera!
So what with checking out all  the new models, meeting up with friends old and new, and getting to spend a few pleasant hours with the family surrounded by all things biker, it was a great day. Now I just have another 3 months to wait…….

Tuesday 5 January 2010

Been down this road before

I have always been one to take things apart to see what “makes then tick”, and then, once I figure it out, putting it all back together seems somewhat less important.
I have a particularly bad history in that regard when it comes to motorcycle “projects”, having turned at least 2 running motorcycles into basket cases in years gone by.
The first time it was a Norton  of indeterminate vintage. Well not so much indeterminate as varied. The 500cc Atlas engine and Roadholder frame were from two different bikes, possibly of two different years, both of which were previously imported (apparently without any ownership papers) from the UK. The headlight was off an early 005 Honda or Kawasaki, and the rest of the bike was a dog’s breakfast of bits and pieces cobbled together in a loose approximation of what a real motorcycle should look like. But it ran – sort of. The problem was getting it started. The kick start didn’t function at all so the starting routine consisted of a running push with a side-saddle leap just as you popped the clutch in second gear. If you didn’t overdo the leap and high-side (very embarrassing), and you timed the clutch release perfectly, banging noises would begin to emanate from the general vicinity of the engine. And if you then were able to gently feather the choke just right, it would start to produce serious amounts of smoke, and possibly even carry you a mile or two down the road before something important fell off resulting in a side-of-the-road repair and another chance to practice the running start.
I loved it!
So with visions of an immaculate restoration a deal was struck and I dragged it home. I rode it for a brief while and then stripped it down to the frame – which for that vintage of motorcycle involved little more than removing the tank and fenders, and taking the engine out. And that’s how it sat for the better part of a riding season until a friend with more stick-to-itiveness when it comes to these projects made me an offer to remove it from my basement, along with all the sundry parts I’d been accumulating. I have long suspected that Miz Liz may actually have provided him with the money just to get it out of the house, but whatever, it was gone, she had her laundry room back, and I had some cash in my jeans.
There have been other examples since, but you get my drift.
When I picked up the ‘81 XL500S I knew it needed a lot of work, but this time was going to be different. I was only going to do what needed to be done to, first of all, get it running. Then and only then would I start making any kind of changes or doing any cosmetic work. I figured that by DSCN0358keeping the bike no more than 1/2 day away from rideable condition, I could keep the project moving forward and not get in so deep that I lost interest because there was just too much to be done. Great idea, eh? I thought so too.
But then the first problem I encountered was that it needed an exhaust system which, as it turns out, is nearly impossible to find for that vintage. And while I was unsuccessfully (so far) scouring the internet for exhaust parts I decided that I didn’t like the look of the front end with the headlight and all the stuff hanging off the triple trees like steering locks and horns and reflectors and brackets for this and that. So I pulled the entire front end apart, cut and ground off the brackets I didn’t want there any more, and repainted the scars.
While I had the front end all apart I figured I might as well look at the steering head bearings. (Do you see where this is going?) They felt okay, but on removal and closer examination the races were slightly pitted. They would probably have been okay for a while, but in the process I dropped a few of the steel balls, of which two promptly rolled into another dimension. So now I have to replace the bearings – special order - $46.00 – be in in a week.
But that’s it! I’m not going to take anything more off the bike until I get the front end back together. That will take some time as I have to manufacture a new bracket for the speedo, acquire a set of headlight arms, paint a few small parts, and get the new steering head bearings installed. But that’s okay as I’m still working on the exhaust. The current plan is to modify a tractor exhaust to fit. It’s the right general size, and with a bit of tube bending and welding it should work just fine even if it does say John Deere on the side.  But I expect that will be a whole other story.

Sunday 3 January 2010

Lanark snow removal

In these tough economic times everyone is looking to reduce expenses as we try to weather the storm, so to speak. Up here in the frozen north, one of the major winter expenses is snow removal, so our community has cut back to just one plow,
snow removal
and has also gone to a more economical salt spreader.