Early March, 1998

Every craft has its masters, and today it is difficult to imagine such a craft as springmaker, a specialty within blacksmithing. Nowadays if a spring breaks on your car or truck, you have a new one installed. In the not too distant past, the broken section of a leaf spring would be replaced with a used, new or custom made leaf.. The "eyes" at each end could be reworked or custom- made bushings could be fitted to the old eyes. I remember the lament of the master in a conversation we had twenty years ago. He pointed to a pile of springs beside his shop. "See all these springs? I can buy new springs for less than it costs me to fix these old ones".

I was almost happy when I discovered that the tailwheel spring on my plane needed to be reshaped. In the fifty years since it had been made, it had taken a sort of adverse bend at the end. I anticipated that the two main leaves would have to be annealed, reshaped, and then retempered. I removed the spring and took it to the master.

The master, I learned, was semi- retired and had gone south for the winter. His successor wasn't in. I was greeted by a big fellow who, if nothing else, is heir to a blacksmith's physique. I told him my problem, and he said it was no problem at all, a spring this size could be "cold worked" back to shape. I questioned him closely, because I know that springs do not like it when their shape is changed abruptly and permanently. I worried that such a sudden change would set the stage for the spring to crack apart. "Not a problem" he reassured. (As an aside, I have since verified that he is correct.)

We went to the back of the shop and disassembled the four leaves from each other. He laid the first of the two deformed spring leaves on a huge block of iron and hit it with a sledge hammer right where the bad bend was. With one great ka-wham, the spring leaf was made into its original shape. The other leaf got the same treatment, and then he decided that it needed a bit more bend where it was supposed to bend. He laid it across two sections of railroad rail that were anchored to a great chunk of maple and gave it a couple of lesser whacks in the middle.

As he was beating my spring into submission, I was thinking of what would happen if it broke abruptly some day in the future. Likely nothing but inconvenience, or perhaps a traffic jam if it happened at a big airport on a busy day. I quizzed him though on where I could go to have a new leaf made should it ever be necessary. "Out in Ohio", he said "There are a couple of places that do custom work like that. Maybe a shop in Rochester or Binghamton can still do it".

I left, pleased that my spring was repaired, but I felt cheated somehow. I had hoped for a glimpse into the mystical world of metallurgy, where carbon steel is made hard, soft, brittle, or pliable by heating and cooling it to different levels at different rates. I still have no first- hand experience with it.

I had anticipated that the spring leaves would be heated to a dull red and allowed to cool slowly in air. This would anneal, or soften the steel, so that it would bend and hold any desired shape. The newly reshaped leaves would then be heated to a dull red again and chilled abruptly by immersing in water. The leaves would be springy again but would also be brittle. A level of ductility would be reintroduced by reheating the leaves to about 600 degrees and allowing them to cool in air. As the leaves go through all these molecular changes, they look the same on the outside, the master knows what is going on inside.

I wonder still about the master's lament that there is so little use for old skills. It is good that new springs can be obtained cheaply, but the hidden curse is that the low replacement price cheapens the labor of the repairman. If repairing a $100 item requires two hours of shop time, it is smarter to replace it than fix it.

Either the repairman works for less, or he doesn't work at all. The old skills wither. It doesn't matter whether this is good or bad, that's just the way it is.

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