The Making of Some Things: The What, How, and Why by John R. Canter


How things could be …

* * *

Chip walked through the door beneath the sign that read “Hull’s Shop”. It was a normal rectangular door, and looked mismatched against the architecture of the building: Some newfangled biomimicry nonsense you see more nowadays, Chip had thought when he first saw them being built, nearly overnight by the giant assembly machine. Built was the wrong word, he considered, more like extruded into place, not a proper brick anywhere in sight. Its beehive shape was all hexagons and triangles, covered outside with patches of photovoltaics and hydroponic window-boxes. When Chip went inside, walking on his cane in his left hand, he passed rows of cubic boxes stacked on shelves, 3D printers whirring away at their layers. He spied the young lady at a desk across the room, and smiled. It was near closing time, and it was really just the two of them. She had not seen him yet, AR spectacles over her eyes, and she turned from her computer screen and keyboard to paw at the air, as though shaping some unseen thing, changing the form of the object on the display.

Chip tapped his cane on the ground to Shave and a Haircut, and the young lady turned her head. She squealed in delight and jumped up from the chair. Chip’s arms were open, and the hug was long. “Don’t break me!” he said, under her strength, “I’m just an old man!”

Oh, but it’s been so long since I’ve seen you. How have you been holding up?”

With a cane,” Chip consoled with a smirk.

Oh stop it, you look…” she began, and taking a glace at his wrinkled face, much aged since last time, she lied, “fine!”

He waved her off. “You don’t need to say it, Jessie. I know I look like Death,” he said, and began to cough as if to punctuate his condition. “What have you been up to?” he asked when the hacking stopped.

She motioned over to the monitor with the hand that had two prosthetic fingers on it, saying, “I’m touching up a model sent by a client. It’s a waveform of a song: when it’s done, the 4D sculpture’s joints will flex when exposed to its own music, and when repeatedly scanned, in loops, the sound changes,” and then she stopped, as an alarm beeped impatiently.

Oh, damn it!” she said, and went over to one of the machines, a cube of plastic labeled Crystal Box on the front. It had stopped printing midway through the build, resulting in some complex thing with moving parts that looked like someone had cut it clean in half with a chainsaw. He looked over her shoulder as she worked.

Either the motor’s ground away the filament, or the extruder is clogged – again,” Jessie remarked, trying to adjust the machine. “I’ve been trying to uptick the speed on my printers – my fused filament fabricators, not the CLIPpers – but every time I do, either they stop building half-way through or the thing comes out misaligned with shifted layers.”

While she tinkered, Chip looked at the finished products on her shelf wall. There were custom statuettes and a collection of table-top miniatures, a troll snarling at some robot monster opposite: simple enough. There was jewelry of shiny woven sintered metals, elaborate silk hats, and other apparel items. Someone had commissioned an exact replica of the bust of Nefertiti, but in skirting the issue of reproducing irreplaceable archaeological artifacts for resale, it was reproduced in garish bright colors of green, orange and violet, proving that some people have no taste. Even the shelving was an intricate printed thing, with rounded corners and a smooth up-curled lip so things did not roll off to the floor.

Anyway,” Jessie said to him, after catching up with him since fixing the now humming box, “you didn’t come by to visit just so you could watch me fix FFF machines. What’s on your mind?”

His face had been smiling before, and now he reached into his pocket and then extended his scarred hand out to her. She took what he offered her and saw it was a gouge, with a strait shaft and a simple wooden handle worn very smooth from years of use. Its moderately curved edge was very sharp, and plainly sheathed in a re-purposed cut length of clear plastic tubing; not at all fashionable, but utilitarian.

She held it in her hand reading the name Chip cut away delicately in the handle’s wood. Even without that she recognized it immediately.

What’s this about?” she asked with a stifled laugh. Sometimes people laugh when they’re nervous, when they don’t understand; or when they do but don’t like what they know.

It will be the first,” Chip declared solemnly, as though resigned to it.

The first of what?”

I’ll be leaving my tools to you. You’ll appreciate them, I think, having learned both methods.”

Won’t you be using them?”

Chip shook his head. “There’s no place for it anymore.”

Of course there is! You’re one of the greatest craftsmen I know, and through the net I see artists of all kinds of talent. I mean, no one else could produce something like that,” she said, pointing to a hand-carved bust on her desk. It was of a young mother holding an infant, made of pure marble, about six inches high. The swaddling looked like real fabric, and the mother’s hair as though it might flow if combed. Conscientiously, Jessie brushed some dust from the piece.

And any kid with a scanner could have one printed inside ten minutes, out of textured plastic, from one of your CLIPpers, or ‘sintered’ out of copper if they wished,” he retorted, the vocabulary sounding borrowed and not at home in his speech. “In short, my craft, is dead.”

It’s not dead, it’s an amazing skill!”

Chip crossed his arms. “Tell me this, young one: Is there anything left in the world this 3D printing, this additive manufacturing thing, cannot be used to make, that my traditional ways, the ‘subtractive manufacturing method,’ can?”

Put to the debate pointedly, Jessie had no answer. Filling the stammering uncertainty, Chip continued, “Not only that, but faster, with less training time, and with comparatively no waste of materials. Your replacement fingers were made this way, after you lost them learning to use my jigsaw. My daughter-in-law’s liver was 3D printed; my pills too, from MediPrint or their competitors. Everything’s made this way now. My skill set is … obsolete.” With this exhausting declaration, he sat on a cushioned stool, used for customers, opposite his friend, the young maker, who was silent.

“… and so am I,” he concluded.

Now that’s non-sense!” Jessie exclaimed. “Your creativity is unmatched. If you learned the technology, you could continue your career …”

I might turn seventy-three this year,” he said after a coughing fit. “Learning your trade has already been done by all the serious workers. I’m an old dog, and could have, should have retired years ago. I haven’t machined any parts in years, metal or otherwise. The only clients I had left were old folks (and some youngsters) who valued the craftsmanship of my art, but like I said, any kid can produce the product just as well and easier; I have fewer patrons every year. My hands shake now too, so my works are too raw, with too few details.”

Jessie began uncertainly, “Those are just excuses…”

It’s not: name one other person, from your net or from memory, who does what I did,” he asked.

Drawing a blank, she indulged in a cursory search online, finding no one else in the Carolinas. The next closest option was a conservative Amish company, some eccentric in California, and one or two lingering craftsmen in China and Indonesia; no one under the age of forty. The internet searches yielded barely ten results in total.

Jessie didn’t know what to say. Chip had sparked her curiosity for making things when she was just a tyke. She still remembered, through foggy memories of youth, sitting on a stool as the old man showed her the use of each tool in wood carving, metal shaping, and stonework. She loved visiting her favorite local master craftsman, running over after coming home from school each day. One of the first things she sintered was her own set of nuts, bolts, hammers – and chisels and gouges just like Chip’s.

And now, she was going to inherit the real things, but for the wrong reasons.

Do you want to come over and pick them up?” Chip asked.

Jessie remained silent, sullen.

Well, give it some thought, I’m not dying tonight,” Chip said in a rasp, suppressing another cough.

No,” she replied, “Maybe this weekend, though.”

Chip smiled and nodded. “I’d like that.”

Jessie felt the gouge sitting in her pocket.

* * *

I should have rented a bigger pickup truck. Or a moving van!” Jessie remarked, looking at all the wood boxes of tools and things. A life-time’s accumulation of stuff was only partially packed away, filling the workshop. Jessie frowned at the sight of the peg-boards, walls normally completely covered with hammers, files, clamps, and odds and ends, completely bare. She remembered in her youth opening drawers and being amazed by the new shapes of highly specialized tools that seemed different in every section of every cabinet; now, instead, they were emptied, lightened for easier transport out. She felt like she was looking inside a person’s chest cavity to find all the vital organs scooped out. The ancient Egyptians prepared their dead, she recalled hearing, by removing the organs and carefully preserving them in elaborate ceremonies to be kept for all of time. She opened one of the reused cardboard boxes and found a pile of wrenches had been thrown into a disorganized heap of untidy metal.

Chip sat off to the side on a stool, cane in his hand, saying nothing.

I can’t take all of this stuff,” Jessie began, knowing the alternative: the scrap heap. Either she took them or they would be melted down and recycled, all their former utility and history lost forever. “… I don’t have enough space in my apartment…”

Then take only what you want,” Chip said. “You have first pick for anything you’d like. Tools, material, the table saw, even the lathe…”

Oh God, you can’t get rid of the wood lathe! You spent a whole summer scraping the paint off by hand, and then repainting it fire-engine red. You made a whole set of dinning room chair legs with that thing; I still remember helping you make all forty of them.”

Chip laughed, rising. “Yep, still have the templates and jigs for that somewhere in here. Now you can make your own set.” The two walked over towards it.

Jessie walked past the jigsaw; she saw it out of her peripheral vision, and reflexively curled her prosthetic fingers inward, protectively. It wasn’t that she didn’t like the jigsaw: she knew it was only machinery and couldn’t hold a grudge against it, but it was a hard lesson loosing her fingers, and she had learned, from then on, a respect for the power of tools. She relaxed again as Chip pulled off the dust cloth, revealing the bright red lathe underneath.

She shook her head. “Well, I certainly don’t have shop space for a wood lathe that size.”

Well, maybe someone else will take an interest in it, but I’ve got my doubts,” Chip said.

Jessie looked down uselessly, seeing her hands folded in front of her, and her prosthetic fingers; she had slotted out the premade, elaborately decorated nails from them, which all her lady-friends admired, being a style all her own. Instead they were just standard nails, good for working and not for show, knowing she would have to do heavy lifting today. At the moment, she hung her head, feeling wretched.

I haven’t done anything ‘the Chip way’ in a while,” she remarked, not looking at the lathe. It felt like a confession. She was sorry.

Chip sighed. “Not even as a hobby?”

I’ve been busy with work,” she lied, rubbing her fingers. Chip didn’t pry.

Well, like I said, I haven’t done anything ‘the Chip way’ myself in a while either,” he admitted, replacing the dust cloth.

Have you thought about donating some stuff to the museum?” Jessie asked as they continued packing things away.

Like your apartment, display space is at a premium. The art museum already turned me down when I called them, eventually; they would rather show off some of the new 3D creations you kids dream up now, in that Augmented Reality hall of theirs.”

Jessie paused for a moment. “I was thinking more … the history museum?”

History!” Chip snorted. Jessie was sorry she had asked. “But I suppose there’s some sense in that,” he conceded.

Yeah, I mean, you are a local artist. I bet some people would be really interested to see your collection of tools and techniques. Maybe an exhibit, like ‘Classical Crafts: Masterpieces in Wood, Stone and Metal’,” she said with youthful exuberance.

Chip smiled and laughed. “You flatter me. Masterpieces!” he said chuckling, which then descended into a hacking cough. It was more than a minute, an uncomfortable minute, until it stopped. He drank deep from the water Jessie gave him.

Well, it was just a thought,” Jessie suggested meekly.

And a damn good one, if they like it,” Chip agreed. “Because if I’m to be honest, if you or they don’t take my stuff, I feel most of this will eventually wind up in recycling.”

* * *

Chip’s tombstone had been printed out of concrete into the shape of his most famous sculpture: a relief figure of John Henry, hammer over his head, with a background that looked like some mountain scenery. Jessie stood in front of it, remembering when he first showed her the original work. It and several of his tools did actually wind up in the history museum. They went together to see the exhibition, which drew modest crowds from around town. Both of them cried though, a little, for all the wonderful tools and parts, and their history that they both knew and shared, that they could not save from being thrown out as scrap and junk.

Jessie kept a box of his things in the corner of one room in her apartment. It was the only place that had space she could choose to set aside for it. She glanced over at it when she left to visit his grave: arranged on top was a whittling knife, a chisel, a pocket knife, a wood-carving plane, and the gouge Chip gave her with his name on it. Every so often, she would brush the dust off from the pieces, open the box, and cycle out a new set of five objects that she had of his, to keep the display fresh. She hadn’t done so in a couple months, but she did so then before leaving to pay him a visit.

She was standing now under the trees in front of that artistic tombstone. It read, “Chip Freedman. Sometimes you have to cut away through rock to find the beauty within.” The branches above her rattled in the wind, which was not as cold as it had been; already new buds suggested the coming spring.

Jessie knelt down to look into the face of the sculpture. She saw that the visage of John Henry had been made to look just like Chip’s, a part of the custom memorial stone-craft. She reached into her pocket and then extended her hand with the prosthetic fingers out to the stone. She laid down in offering a sintered gouge. It had a strait shaft and a round handle with a worn, smooth surface. Its moderately curved edge was dull like an ornamental sword, and the whole shaft was inlaid with delicate details of flowing rivers, towering pines, and great mountains. On its handle read the names Chip and Jessie as delicate embossing.

She didn’t say anything as she stayed there, knelt down to the stone. Her eyes became red as she fought back tears, swallowing them in silence.

“… Thank you,” she decided upon saying. Several more minutes passed, looking at his tombstone, then at the ground, and at the sky, rotating to each in turn. She looked down at the gouge. It was inspired by him, a foundation she was thankful for, made in the skills she had acquired since that start, which combined the two worlds.

Then, and now.

Leaving the memento behind, she returned home. In the quiet hours of the evenings after being occupied building things up from plastic for clients, she would carve away at a block of soft wood, trying to shape it into a round ball inside of a cage. She stuck her finger several times on the sharp carving edge, and quit in frustration, temporarily. But she kept it next to Chip’s things, getting a little farther each month.

I would like to hear from you! Do you like short story posts? Do you have critiques or suggestions for future stories? I would love to read your feedback and criticisms – just enter your comment in the Leave a Reply section, and I’ll gladly consider them for future posts.

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