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Machinists talk shop about their craft

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Frankie Henderson trims armature that will be used in an electric submarine motor.

Machinists talk shop about their craft

By Rebecca Arrington

Imagine it and they can build it -- a solar race car, armature for submarine motors, components for a tumor-disintegrating device.

These versatile craftsmen are the four employees who make up the staff of the physics department machine shop.

Some of their work orders include detailed blueprints, while other jobs start with handwritten notes or verbal descriptions. It's at these latter times that foreman Rodger Ashley and machinists Frankie Henderson, Roger Morris and B.H. Kent pull up a chair in the shop's office and discuss how best to build what's needed.

Mostly they use stainless steel and aluminum to forge their work, said Ashley, who's been in the department since he started at U.Va. 30 years ago. The tool makers also collaborate with other shops on Grounds, such as the chemistry department's glass shop, to custom-build an apparatus.

"This is a really neat job," said Kent, the junior member of the team, who came on board three years ago after the factory where he'd worked for 19 years closed. Devastated at the time, he now says it's the best thing that ever happened to him. "I went from designing circuit breakers at my old job" to crafting tools used in medical and cancer research today. A recent project, he recalled, involved making a wristband that monitors blood pressure, heart rate and other vital statistics. They are now being tested on the U.S. military, he said.

Clara Wright
Rodger Ashley tests the solar race car that he and the other machinist "pit crew" built last summer per U.Va. engineering students' plans.

A project that gets Ashley revved up is the solar race car. He and his staff worked with engineering students, who designed the car from the ground up. "I welded and constructed the frame based on their specifications," Ashley said. Last summer, U.Va.'s car was one of 29 that qualified to race from Washington, D.C., to Orlando, Fla. It was a big feat, as it was the first time U.Va. had entered the national competition, said Ashley, who's looking forward to being part of the race car team again this year.

The biggest change all the machinists have faced during their tenure at U.Va., which totals 73 years, involves using technology. For example, the lathes they use to build tools and components are now computerized. Ashley said he misses the old equipment, similar to what he was trained on as an apprentice years ago, but concedes that the level of precision the new machines can achieve is far superior. His colleague Roger Morris, who's been at U.Va. 20 years, compared the old and new equipment to the difference between mowing hay with a horse versus a tractor.

B.H. Kent
Machinist B.H. Kent calculates the materials he'll need for a job.

While trimming armature to be used in electric submarine motors -- a job he's doing for the materials science department -- Frankie Henderson said he liked working with his hands and building things because he could see immediate results. Trained as a machinist in the army, Henderson said he finds the cancer and medical research projects most interesting. Both he and Kent regard their work on the video tumor-fighter, a device that disintegrates brain tumors in humans, especially intriguing and gratifying. They made a component for the device, invented by a U.Va. physicist, that connects the laser unit to the skull.

Henderson has been at the machine shop for 15 of his 20 years at U.Va. "It's a good department," he said. "The professors here who utilize our services respect our work and let us know it." Morris agreed, adding, "I don't think there's a better-equipped facility on Grounds."

In addition to providing tangible services to their customers, Morris, Henderson and Kent also teach graduate and exceptional undergraduate physics students a course that introduces students to a machine shop environment and emphasizes safety, Morris said.

Anyone wishing to place an order with the machine shop should contact Rodger Ashley at rea2a@virginia.edu or call 924-6567. The shop's hourly rate is $18.50.

Rick Marshall, who administers the machine shop, along with the physics department's electronic and computer services, sings his staff's praises. Himself an alumnus of the department's post-doctoral program, Marshall explained that there are three levels of machinists. In ascending order they are: machinists, tool-and-dye makers, and model-makers. Ashley, Henderson, Morris and Kent -- all model-makers -- provide the highest level of precision craftsmanship, Marshall said. They're especially good at welding and fabricating high-vacuum systems, which is important for physics research, he said. "Systems are clean and welds are sound, something that's hard to accomplish."

Though the shop's primary focus is equipping labs in the physics and chemistry departments, it provides service to departments throughout the Grounds and to companies and organizations affiliated with U.Va. research. The shop's work can be found as far away as Switzerland and at nuclear and particle physics labs worldwide.


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