Slim Maker’s Pickings

Finished ooohing and aaahing at finds from the day’s walk, to wind down with a somber thought: This “comparative advantage” thing, that crowds out tiny entrepreneurial shops’ product in favor of imports, has a teeny unintended side effect – the bottom falls out of the demand for basic components.Want to build a computer-controlled lathe? Good luck. At best – at best! – you get to start your construction practically ex nihilo – well, not really out of nothing, as it turns out little boutique junk shops sell leftover cuttings from steel plate slabs, for example. And the ideas you need are out on the Web to seek out, arrange and pick from. But the raw material you need will be difficult to come by.


Take this afternoon’s quick three kilometer walk down to Kalentong Street. Down that three kilometer stretch of commercial store fronts, there were exactly four shops that made aluminum and glass frames, five Internet shops, two hairdressers, three grocery stores, three (four?) automobile parts stores, six hardware and construction supply shops, three banks, a couple of junk shops, five fast food outlets, three carinderias, a city college, and one machine shop. Of those six hardware shops, exactly one sold power tool cutting bits – the business end of drill presses and milling routers. The machine shop I’d asked apparently didn’t know someone just 200 meters away sold tool parts, and appeared to reuse and resharpen their own high speed steel bits on a cutter straight out of a 1960s small machine shop floor.


What got me thinking was that chat I’d got into with the fellow who sold me the countersink bit for my router. I’d noticed that his shop, all perhaps 40 square meters with wooden shelves crammed floor to ceiling with carpentry and plumbing and machinist’s odds and ends, all hung about with the lngering smell of light machine oil, stocked some pretty scarce bits. NSK bearings. Hand taps. Wire filters. All manner of brass fittings sitting in worn cardboard boxes like jewelry for Edward Scissorhands. I’d wondered, did they stock these odd looking aluminum extrusions, that I could maybe use for a machine bed frame?


Ah, it’s not the kind of thing we’d stock, and he’d warned I have a hard time coming by these particular bits I was looking for. It turned out that this hardware store was also something that let him scratch a hobby itch of his – he assembles solar panels, and apparently this shop let him access to parts and fittings for that kind of DIY job. Uy, that’s cool!  He’d warned me that I’d find that importing components would wind up being more expensive than buying completed assemblies. The taxes (by which I think he meant tariffs) that would have to be paid for import duties typically kill off small enterprises trying that sort of thing.


I agreed, recalling finding Radio Shack listings for exactly the parts I was looking for. Absolutely ridiculous prices. Something like 8,000 pesos for a 50 centimeter ball threaded screw; and a ludicrous 37,000 for this end thrust bearing, and 16,000 for a pillow block to support the screw midway. All told, sixty-one thousand pesos for three pieces of metal to slide a small tool plate back and forth 50 centimeters. That’s more than my net monthly income, dammit.


There used to be a time that there were small machine shops that made those small bits of metal, he recalls. I’d forgot to mention the small machine shop I’d passed, which owner had given me directions to Yale Hardware, a full hour’s walk further away. That’d be another place to try on the first coming weekday, he’d agreed. But there’s no demand from others for what you’re looking for. Except perhaps for those carbide milling bits.


I’d had an uneasy chuckle, saying that perhaps I ought to rethink this project of mine. Oh no, he’d said, you should go ahead and try build it, but it won’t be easy to put together, much less find the stuff you need locally. Gagawa ka.


Ahh. It won’t be easy.  I fancy thinking someone will find it entertaining that I’ll finally make a milling tool frame out of high density hardwood, or medium fiberboard. There’s problems that can be engineered around, certainly, but it doesn’t seem particularly appealing to make a 100 kilogram wood frame when what the job calls for is metal.


My problem is that we don’t make that metal, and that really, really pisses me off.


Gagawa ka, Toff.

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