As I always understood it, there are two things common to the world of metal shaping: it's a black art and a dying one at that. In most peoples' heads the trade is a precious one where the master craftsman indoctrinates an apprentice under the soft glow of a lonely Edison bulb.
It's a romantic notion but thankfully it's wrong. I know this because I, one of the most ordinary people you could ever meet, have learned to shape metal—sort of. I'm not saying I'm any good at it but I can do it.
And I'm not the only one, either. In fact I'd say I'm but one among thousands of common people learning to shape metal. I know this because I've visited the place where people congregate to drink from the fountain of knowledge. In other words, I've taken the class. Actually, I've taken the classes, the latest of which Ron Covell's beginning seminars.
If you've read this magazine for any length of time you've run across Covell's name. His "Professor Hammer" column has been a mainstay here since the mid '90s. He's published a number of books, including a seven-volume reprint of his column entries. The videos he produces reveal numerous metalworking procedures and showcase other top-shelf metalworkers and their projects.
He didn't invent the gypsy hammer idea but Covell has certainly mastered the format. In a nutshell he contacts people on his mailing list who live in a particular area to determine if sufficient demand exists for seminars. He then brokers a deal with a sufficiently equipped independent shop to host. Maxwell's Metal Works in Marysville, Washington, hosted the classes I attended. Covell taught two: steel on Saturday; Sunday, aluminum.
That the classes sold out months in advance indicates he and Joe Maxwell didn't have much trouble finding students. In fact, so high is the demand for classes that two entrants from practically Covell's backyard flew up specifically for the occasion. According to them they were the nearest beginner classes to them that still had open seats (Dallas being the next).
Covell tends to cap class sizes at roughly 25 students. The classes are strictly tutorial but that's not to say the experience lacks in any way; far from it. In fact, it would be impossible in a lab setting to impart the kind of information Covell covers.
The beginner courses assume that the students know pretty much nothing about metal. Covell establishes a baseline and builds upon it in incremental steps. In both the steel and aluminum classes, for example, he began with material sciences: the common metal designations, how metals' alloying agents give them their unique properties, and the gauges common to the industry. Naturally, a prepared cheat sheet accompanies this delivery.
Covell works his way though applied rudiments. Again, assuming the students know nothing, he explains the rather complicated physics behind seemingly simple tasks. By explaining the stretching and shrinking dynamics that occur when metal bends, for example, he reveals why materials distort or pucker in undesirable ways. But in explaining what happens he plants the seeds that explain how to resolve these issues. And he explains dozens of these processes, like templating and trimming techniques, work hardening, annealing, riveting, and welding, just to name a few.
This 101-level discourse may sound tedious but assure yourself it's not. It sheds a great deal of light on numerous tasks we take for granted. And in doing so, Covell reveals the many subtle pitfalls that inevitably trip up novices and seasoned experts alike. I promise you one thing: even highly accomplished metal shapers in the class will at one point verbally marvel why it didn't occur to them to do a particular task by a way Covell reveals.