View Full Version : A barn story - a look back, thinking ahead

10-20-2006, 12:43 PM
About 30 years ago my dad welded up a reciprocating hacksaw from bits of bicycle parts, angle iron, and washing machines. Last week I found it in a barn under a bunch of other junk. I dug it out and brought it home to play with, and to admire his cleverness.

Dad was a tinkerer in a very old school way. He built my first bicycle from iron pipe and cart wheels, and it had a v-pulley drive. I loved it even though it weighed more than I did at the time.

Over the years he created a lot of useful tools from scrap parts - in that same barn sits an air compressor he cobbed together from the parts of a 1959 Olds 'air ride' suspension system. Oldsmobile coupled a two-cylinder compressor to the power steering pump and placed air cylinders in the chassis. These were a disaster and Dad converted many of them to conventional suspension (and kept the old parts :) ). More about that barn later...

So back to the hacksaw - I scraped 30 year old crud from it, plugged it in, and it lit right off. I have a 1 1/2" x 2" piece of CRS I cut a piece from manually a few weeks ago and know it takes well over an hour, three blades, and lots of sweat. I clamped this to the table and without even looking at the blade, hit the power switch. Half an hour later I had a nice 1/4" piece of CRS in my hand.

In looking back, I too have made some lasting things from bits and pieces but I can see that life for me was always very different for the old coal miner turned auto mechanic and tinkerer. When possible I bought what I needed where he built it from scratch. My stuff has clean lines and nice paint and Chinese lettering all over it while his stuff has a patina of rust and years of wear marks. Any lettering would be what ever was on the piece before it became a hacksaw or shop fan or compressor. The operating manuals he took to his grave.

There are many more things in that barn in various stages of repair, and they include commercial equipment such as a 7' tall band saw, welders, gas and electric, drill presses, rare hardwoods for pistol grips, a 4-spindle tracer, and more. It was far too dark and wet to take pictures, but this spring we're going to clean out that barn and a couple sheds and see what has salvage value and what is rusted to junk.

Also in the barn is a lot of the scraps Dad had collected for projects he never got around to - I think I'll hang on to that stuff and see if I can keep the family tinkerer's shop alive. It's something to look forward to.

10-20-2006, 08:47 PM
One bit of advise .Dont throw to much away like I did. afew years later I wished I had kept more. After cleaning my Dads and Father in law stuff out.

charlie coghill
10-20-2006, 08:47 PM
DP I would have liked to have met your father. Sounds like my kind of friend.

john hobdeclipe
10-20-2006, 09:03 PM
I'll venture a guess that your Dad's formative years coincided with the Great Depression and/or WW2. Right?

10-20-2006, 09:33 PM
I go to a lot of auctions and sales that are in shops and barns like that. It always seems a shame to me that there is no one left in the family who values those things for the thought and effort that went into making them.

More power to you and others that preserve these items and the sense of the people that made them.

10-21-2006, 09:22 AM
JCHannum has got it.

I bought my shaper and little horizontal mill at a sale. The fellow that had them before me had died and his son had put it all up for auction.

As I looked about and saw all the little projects that this fellow had going on I realized that he probably didnt have many friends in the neighborhood. There were steam engine kits and model aircraft. Most of the houses in the area were filled with younger yuppie couples and small kids. You know, the "I need to buy a new SUV this year honey. Shal we get the Edie Bower edition or the 24K gold trimmed model? Oh the decisions."

I asked one of the neighbors about the fellow. The neighbor didnt know much. He said that the "old man" seemed nice, mowed his lawn weekly (as if this was very important) and was in and out during the week. But, he noted that the old man did alot of goofy metal work and no one could decide why he didnt buy a new mower instead of fixing the old one. I later saw this guy walk away from the yard before the auction started. Must not have seen anything of interest.

Well, after the auction, I was loading up my winnings and heard the auctioneer talking to a fellow about business. The conversation lended itself to imply that the gent listening was the son. A few more sentences were spoke and it was definite that this fellow was the son.

I walked over and introduced myself. I was assuming that this guy would at least know his fathers passions for metal work and machines. I told him that I was going to put the items to use in my basement and enjoy them as much as his father. The son smiled and told me that he didnt know why his dad kept this stiff lying around. Some crazy hobby or something was the final reply.

What a bummer. Sounded like the son was a junior CEO or something. I left a bit sad. I wonder if anyone knew this fellow well. Did he have machining buddies? Were the guys that stood around buying stuff just there for the tools or did they once know the old man.

So, DP, enjoy the fact that you all shared time together and had a common interest. Enjoy the projects that have gone unfinished. And thanks for sharing the story. It reminds me that I need to give dad a call and see how that next muzzleloading part he is working on is turning out.


Tin Falcon
10-21-2006, 10:52 AM
Thanks for wtitting a wonderfull essay. My dad has been gone for over five years now. Thankfully my parrents belonings have for the most part stayed in the family. My dad did not do any metal working but was verry old shool and a hard worker when he finaly retired from work in his late 70s the factory where he was the janitor had to hire two young guys to do the work. He was verry good with his hands though.He built a three car garage/barn single handedly with no blueprints. We had several acres of woods he was always clearing brush or cutting fire wood almost always by hand. If an axe handle would break he would pull out the draw knife and spoke shave and have a new one made in the time most folks would take to drive to home depot and buy a new axe. Well in reality I should say chain saw.
My son is 16 I have been teaching him to run the lathe and mill I have been building model steam engines since 2001 and exhibiting them since 2003 it has turned into a family hobby. Although the wife and son are not as passionate about the old iron as i am.

10-21-2006, 12:09 PM
I have just found one of those funny old guys that tinker in his back yard shop probably in his 70's claims one of his best friends was some guy named Dave who wrote a lot of books, I think he wrote several himself on atkins engines. Guys like this are a national treasure. If you find one in your area spend some time with them it's amazing what you can learn.

10-22-2006, 12:00 AM
Here's a short vid of Dad's old hacksaw in action after so many years. It's about 5 meg or so in size, mpeg format:


It's not a beautiful thing at all but it's typically functional as only Dad could do it. The things he saw lurking in old bicycle parts and scrap iron still amaze me. And your eyes aren't failing you - my camera autofocus was tracking the moving parts. Gotta learn how to turn that off.

I have it sitting on the floor of my garage while I try to find a home for it. I sliced off a piece of 3/4" hex stock to make a centering tool today and it took about 10 minutes using the old original blade. It's a hoot to watch it run. It's a bigger hoot to see it run at all after so many winters in a cold Oregon barn. Here's the cut off piece chucked in the lathe. Very clean cut:


Interesting color effect from my screw-in florescent lamp - the hex rod is actually black and the sawed face is the normal color of bare steel.

And thanks to all for the kind thoughts and shared remembrances. Old Dad would be tickled to know his stuff was being presented here. He would have been right at home in this group.

10-22-2006, 12:13 AM
I'll venture a guess that your Dad's formative years coincided with the Great Depression and/or WW2. Right?

Yessir - he was born in 1911 and passed in 1996. Like many great depression era family men he never lost his sense of frugality and knew the worth of being handy.

10-22-2006, 02:59 AM
[[ his sense of frugality and knew the worth of being handy]] Very true. My Dad could create most things using a saw, file, and a hammer.

cam m
10-23-2006, 07:40 PM

I just watched the hacksaw movie. Your father was a talented man. For your info, that looks very much like the saw I built from a Popular Mechanics or Mechanix Illustrated reprint... As I recall, the oscillating vertical links from the original plans were connecting rods... I built mine and retired it because it took too much room in the basement shop. I forgot about it until this post... I've since obtained a abrasive chop saw and a inherited a 4 x 6 bandsaw so there is little attraction to rebuilding the old homemade saw. I guess my son or daughter will find it in my old barn someday........


Editted P.S. here is the reprint... http://www.vintageprojects.com/machine-shop/power-hackSaw.pdf

A.K. Boomer
10-23-2006, 08:16 PM
DP that was good stuff, my Dad made it till 97, he too went through the depression and many of the lessons from him still remain a big part of my life...

10-23-2006, 08:25 PM
Milt used to come into my store and talk about his projects. He was about 40 years older than me but we both enjoyed metal working and mechanical stuff. Looking around, I see dozens of things that he made or helped me make. He died about 4 years ago and his son is still my friend but he didn't inherit his dad's ability or interest in metal. Milt gave or sold me some of his stuff because he knew that I would enjoy it. Was just reading his Audel manuals the other night. Thank God for guys like Milt.

10-23-2006, 08:48 PM

I just watched the hacksaw movie. Your father was a talented man. For your info, that looks very much like the saw I built from a Popular Mechanics or Mechanix Illustrated reprint... As I recall, the oscillating vertical links from the original plans were connecting rods...

Well that is certainly a dead ringer for the one my dad built. He used bicycle axles instead of the connecting rods, but the rest of it is by the book. He did one other thing I don't see in the image, and that was to put a wheel on the bottom of the blade carrier so that it would roll at the end of the cut when the blade fell through. Thanks for the link - one more part of the history of the thing falls into place.

10-23-2006, 11:07 PM
You know, it's quite a shock when you come across anyone that has any interest in metalworking -- or any non electronic technology for that matter. Last fall when we were looking for a house, we walked into the detached garage of a likely candidate and I almost had a heart attack. A big Bridgeport in one corner, a small tabletop mill next to it, two hor/vert bandsaws, shop press, a fairly large lathe, drill presses, grinders and few 100 hand tools and an old pickup truck that was apparently being restored. That workshop was way too well equipped to be just a hobby unless the owner was Bill Gates or something :-)
We never met the homeowner, and we passed on that house (fantastic view, but poor internal layout), but for those few minutes in the garage/workshop gave me something to talk about for days.
It wasn't until weeks later after we couldn't even remember which house out of the dozens it was that I realized that the owner would probably have been happy to meet someone who shared his interests.

10-24-2006, 12:00 AM
I hope as a Newbie that I'm forgiven if this post is potentially a thread highjacking. That is not my intent by any stretch of the imagination. I read this thread through and found that it struck a resonant chord which matched my own fascination with the old school world of hard knock genius.

Some of you may be familiar with a small company located just outside of Pittsburgh PA, by the name of Jensen Steam Engines. It's been around since 1932, making small toy and educational live steam engines. Entering this tiny factory is a complete step back into time.

Mr Jensen Sr. came to the U.S. from Denmark at the height of the Depression only to learn the company that had promised him employment no longer existed. He moved into a basement tenament with his cousin's family, who just happened to have let someone store an ancient lathe and mill to avoid their repossession. Mr. Jensen was a mechanical engineer by training and young fellow with a new bride to feed, so he began to look for ways to survive.

He managed to acquire enough metal to build 10 small toy steam engines in hopes of selling them to Kaufman Brothers department stores. Chance took over and a buyer from F.A.O. Schwarz toy store happened in and bought these 10 engines on the spot. The 10 little steam engines sold out in a matter of days, even at the height of the worst economic times the US has ever seen. An order for 50 more came quickly and Mr Jensen never looked back.

Tom Jensen Sr. built steam engines until he passed away at the ripe age of 92. Over the course of his 60 some years in his little shop, he built literally hundreds of custom press dies, hand presses, and uncounted one of a kind tools to do any number of specialized functions.

Jensen still uses these very same tools today. Walking onto the shop floor is to step back into the days of 1920's technology. The Jensen web site (http://jensensteamengines.com) offers anyone the opportunity to do just that by visiting their online shop tour (http://jensensteamengines.com/tour-intro.htm).

Today Tom Jensen Jr. is filling the rather large shoes left by his father's passing. Me?... I was somehow lucky enough to come on board as sales manager about 3 years ago. Even though I'm once retired, I'm enjoying a truly unique and entertaining job that just never seems to get old.

I hope the board will forgive me if I've transgressed on local etiquette, but I thought some might enjoy knowing that not every "barn" has been sold off to strangers. We still keep em oiled up and adjusted tight, with their tools sharpened for each new day's production schedule.....


10-24-2006, 12:32 AM
Great story and fun links, Steve. I remember as a kid looking at those little engines in the glass case and thinking how cool it would be to have one. It was always just out of reach, budget wise. The local hobbyshop set one up on a railroad diorama and it turned a saw in a little sawmill. He claimed it burned the wood chips from the saw but I think he was funn'in us :)

Tin Falcon
10-25-2006, 04:15 PM
Welcome aboard. Thanks for the post. I have been to Jensen's Web site before and am familiar with the story. One of the few or maybe only "Toy" comanies that did not have to retool during WW II. I am so glad to see companies like yours carry on the traditions. Has Jenson ever considered displaying or vending at Cabin Fever? It is in York PA in january.
You have what most of us here would consider a dream job!
Tin Falcon

Lance Knives
10-25-2006, 06:37 PM
I have lurked for months, but this thread has inspired me to join. I am 2nd Gen knife maker and tinkerer, and I do not find a whole lot of people my age that are interested in metalworking, but they are out there, just like me and are very grateful that all of you are here sharing your knowledge and inspiration!!

charlie coghill
10-25-2006, 09:08 PM
Lance if you have been lurking you know what is here, so I will just say welcome and glad you came out of the closet.

10-25-2006, 09:56 PM
Tin Falcon
Jensen is quite a unique little company and still very much "old world" in its ways of doing business. The most enjoyable part of the experience has been working with a company that actually still believes in craftsmanship and stands behind their products, past and present, with pride. I work from home, but I guess it is a little bit like working in the pie factory ...LOL.

I had the rare pleasure of doing the product development and testing for the new Turbine Power Station which went into production last fall. It was the first totally new product w'ed put out since the 1960's and one that had been discussed since the 1930's. I brought the prototype Turbine to Cabin Fever last year and displayed it along side the one that an avid Jensen fan had bought along. We powered his up the second day and the crowd was 5 and 6 deep for much of sunday. I wound up answering questions all day and never got to wander over the the Gas engine side of the building.

We've had a couple of dealers display our wares there, but it's a bit like "bringing coals to Newcastle". Few were sold simply because most of the crowd makes their own engines already. I've tried to get Tom Jr. to attend, but he is a very solitary man who dislikes large crowds and is rather uncomfortable "meeting and greeting".

I've been making plans to attend again this year, assuming nothing pops up to prevent it.


10-25-2006, 11:56 PM
what a fantastic thread, i have just spent the best part of an hour or so reading all of it upto now, i love all the stories and that old bandsaw video, thank you for sharing all this with us.


10-26-2006, 12:19 AM
I also enjoy this thread. I used to work for West Mountain radio, and although we made Ham radio products there, mostly electronic assemblies, I find the Jensen work environment to be very close to what I worked in. Truly was my most favorite job I ever had.

Tin Falcon
10-26-2006, 05:00 PM
Sorry I was Unaware of you attending CF and representing Jensen. I will make it a point of looking for you this year. I know Saterday last year was exremely crowded. Many did not leave there displays on saterday. I forgot to go to the HSM BBS meeting.