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.
Which brings up a good point. Though Covell builds upon a really basic foundation that even a beginner can understand, his courses find followers among jaded professionals just the same. When asked why he enrolled in Sunday's beginning aluminum class, Marshall Woolery, an accomplished shaper in his own right, responded, "Because I haven't learned it all yet." Woolery, owner of Thun Field Rod & Custom in nearby Tacoma, continued, "I took one of Ron's classes years ago and learned a lot then. I figure if I learn two things this time it'll be worth it." That he did was no surprise, only he didn't expect it by the first break. Covell offers a series of advanced courses for those looking to build upon the basics.
Why novices and experts alike benefit from the classes is a result of Covell's career in the metal shaping world; one doesn't work among some of the most talented craftsmen in this industry and not fill up a bag of tricks. And these are the heavy hitters, too: Kent White, Ron Fournier, Cass Nawrocki, and Scott Knight, just to name a few. Consider Covell's courses his way to broadcast the information he's learned.
The varying methods Covell presents are significant, if only because they underscore the intense latitude metal shaping offers, there really are few rules as these methods prove. One worker, as Covell noted, hammers metal exclusively on a small, thick, flat steel plate to replicate intensely curvy shapes like Ferrari race car bodies. He uses that example to emphasize just how simple metal shaping tools can be. "All it really takes is a mallet, bag, a hammer, and a dolly," he observes. And though he admits an affinity for more sophisticated tools like the English wheel ("...because they're so quiet," he says), he holds the basics—the hollowed-out oak stumps and hammers shaped from scrap materials that built those early Ferrari bodies—in equally high esteem. "You can work with the simplest tools," he often proclaims.
Each class begins at 9:30 a.m. each morning and ends theoretically at 5 p.m. But as we learned on the first day Covell uses the curriculum, not the clock, as his gauge (he went 'til quarter to 6 and—get this—apologized for it). Numerous breaks, including an hour-long lunch supplied by the class host, divide the span into manageable bits.
As noted earlier, Covell allocates each day to a specific material. If we have one recommendation beyond taking a class, it's this: take both, even if you have no intent to work in the alternate material. Despite their differences, Covell explained, steel and aluminum respond similarly to basic methods (in fact, aluminum is far more forgiving, a confidence builder to paraphrase Covell). And while at first glance splitting the information over two classes seems a ploy to extract twice the money, it's an honest and inevitable consequence. It would be simply impossible to impart the breadth and depth of what he offers twice in a weekend—hell, it's too much to do the subject justice in just a weekend. So if you do one, do both. You won't regret it.
And while the course is tutorial only, Covell's accommodating nature makes it quite interactive. Among other things he invites questions and students' personal experiences and tricks they've acquired over the years. It's for those reasons that no two Covell classes are exactly alike.
As Ron Covell repeatedly emphasizes, there really isn't anything magical about shaping metal: it's simply bending, shrinking, and stretching with simple tools, many of which predate written history. It's not to say that mastery is easy; even he admits that nearly half a century after he started he faces challenges. But as he emphasizes, metal shaping is definitely within the grasp of anyone willing to invest themselves in the processes. It's how people like you and I can learn these age-old crafts, no Edison bulbs required.