Wonders of the machine shop

I’ve previously posted on the importance of accomplishing science with MacGyveresque inventiveness, but even McGyver needed the right tools to get the job done. My own experiments would never be possible without the UC Berkeley College of Chemistry’s student machine shop. Phil Simon, head of the college’s Liquid Air Plant, is kind enough to train graduate students and postdocs in the skills necessary to form metals and plastics with sets of different tools into whatever an apparatus demands. After passing the machine shop class, I had full access to the incredible array of tools within. Though the student shop once took up an entire floor of Gilman Hall (what is now the Pitzer Center), it is now squeezed into an annex to the main machine shop in the basement of Tan Hall. Still, new tools are still being added (all thanks to the attention of Phil Simon and some support from Toolerant) and the shop gets significant use from the school’s physical chemists.

I want this post to serve as a tour of some of the amazing machines in the shop and the ways that I use them; to facilitate that, I’ll use some of my own photographs.

Work Bench
Most of my work in the shop begins and ends at the work bench. I’ll start by laying out a design on metal, and finish by filing off the burrs after machining.

Drill Presses
When learning to use the tools in the shop, the drill press was one of the first to which I was exposed. It might not be as exciting and complicated as a lathe or milling machine, but if I want to put a hole in something, nine times out of ten I’ll start at a drill press.

Wall of Steel
The drill press wouldn’t be much good without bits, and the shop has a plethora. Below the standard (if enormous) drill bits in this picture are an array of hole saws for cutting larger-diameter holes in thin material.

Bit Travel
My favorite tool in the shop is the lathe. By spinning a piece quickly relative to a fixed cutting tool, the lathe creates objects with radial symmetry very precisely. I’ve personally used it to create a variety of small sample holders and pistons.

At the Controls
Though the lathe’s controls look overwhelming, most of the cranks and knobs involve moving the tool bit or engaging an autofeeder to make smooth, consistent cuts.

Though all of the lathes are similar, there are enough subtle differences between them that I’m happy when I get to use “mine.”

Tool Tray
This tray holds the parts necessary to use the lathe. On the right are mounts that hold the cutting tool in place; on the left is the key to a good piece: lubricating oil. The friction of cutting metal generates an enormous amount of heat. Reduce the friction, reduce the heat.

The Milling Machine's Altar
The milling machine is likely the most potent tool in the whole shop. Like a kind of combination between a drill press and a lathe, it cuts planes and grooves at carefully-controlled orientations. It’s particularly helpful for constructing custom mounting brackets. (In spectroscopy, many companies sell the appropriate mirrors or crystals, but I find myself improvising in order to mount them in the correct configuration in my lab.)

The milling machine also has an autofeeder. In much the same way as the lathe’s autofeeder, it allows for putting a gorgeous finish on a piece by moving the cutting tool at a very steady rate over the metal.

The College of Chemistry’s student machine shop offers me an array of possible approaches to produce whatever part my experiment requires. That kind of flexibility dramatically speeds up any experiment. More than that, though, the flexibility means that I can let my imagination go a bit even when I’m just conceiving experiments; I know that I’ll be able to make them work with the help of the machine shop.

The images in this post were taken by the author using a technique called High Dynamic Range imaging, or HDR. Please follow the link if you’d like to learn more about the technique. To see more of the authors photography, please visit decaseconds.com.

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  1. Pingback: Wall of Steel « Decaseconds

  2. Anonymous

    I am inquiring about my great-grandfather, George F. Nelson, who worked as chief machinist at UC Berkeley College of Chemistry from 1914-1946. I have viewed the interesting photos of the machine shop at Gilman Hall where my great grandfather’s shop was located.

    I am writing a biography about him and am searching for information. He was well known for his contributions to nuclear research during this time period, which included his involvement at the Manhattan Project. He was recruited through the Rockefeller Foundation from the Washington Naval Shipyard, where he worked as a machinist manufacturing 16″ guns. He also was issued a number of patents which included low-carbon steel and high-vacuum pumps. The vacuum pumps were his specialty known to be the best of its time. He founded the Nelson Vacuum Pump Company which was located in Berkeley. His nest friend and college at The College Of Chemistry was Wendell Latimer. My mother told me that Wendell and his wife visited the Nelson’s home every Friday night to play bridge with George and his wife.

    I have been having difficulties in searching outside resources, and decided to contact your department directly. If there is anything you can do it would be greatly appreciated.

    Sincerely yours,

    John Nelson Barnes