Friday, January 08, 2021
So we’ve covered garage type skills and home ec. skills. What else can a person learn?
Machine shop skills
This is a set of skills that is near and dear to my heart because I see it dwindling in our workforce as more and more machinists are relegated to monitoring CNC systems. I don’t know how much it’s actually impacting productivity in industry, but I know that we’re currently experiencing a vicious cycle in which more automation is introduced to compensate for a lack of skill in the workplace while skills in the workplace atrophy because of automation. That worries me.
Why? Because the ability to consistently make well machined objects is what lifted much of the world out of poverty. The lathe is actually ancient technology, but it was the first generation of all metal lathes that enabled us to bore steam engine cylinders, turn driveshafts, and mass manufacture the bearings and pulleys that powered the industrial revolution. The very robots that build our high precision electronics would not exist were it not for the ability to bore precise holes and turn shafts.
Several years ago I started teaching myself basic machine shop skills so that I could improve the way I designed parts. I won’t claim to be very good, but there are lots of things I can do that would be out of reach otherwise. Need a hole in something flat? Use a drill press. Multiple holes that match another part? Get out the transfer punches. Need something cut square or slotted? Use the milling machine. Is something round too big? Is a bore too small? Fire up the lathe.
I’ve used my shop to work on model trains, custom computer equipment, plumbing fittings, light fixture parts, broken power tools, custom fasteners for home repairs, adapters and fittings for small engines and car repair, and even a few fixtures and jigs for work. And the amazing thing is that I didn’t walk into a showroom and take out a second mortgage on all of this stuff. I used Craigslist, classifieds, ebay, estate sales, and my own social circle to find second (or third, or fourth) hand machine shop equipment for a fraction of what new equipment would cost. Most of my equipment is ‘vintage’ which is to say that if you’re older than any of this equipment, you’ve probably been drawing social security for a more than a few years. It is well maintained though, and with a little bit of (very simple) care and maintenance, most of it will be perfectly functional when I’m not able to turn the knobs anymore.
The bad news is there are no digital readouts our CNC controls to make it easy on you. You have to turn the knobs yourself and you have to do the math and geometry to figure out how much to turn the knobs, how fast, and for how long. In other words, you have to know how the machine operates and not depend on some program you downloaded from the internet. The upside is that you don’t need complicated systems to power old machines. Most run on belts and pulleys that can be powered by small motors. So a generator or (used sparingly) a solar powered battery bank can let you make chips even if your power gets knocked out. In a real pinch, an old belt powered lathe can even do light work by having an ‘assistant’ power your lathe. (Hey, maybe this is good prepping for TEOTWAWKI!)
There are lots of good videos out there to show both basic and advanced machining operations. Once you’re done watching those, go dig through some of the older editions of Popular Mechanics where they describe both how to use machine tools and what projects you can complete with them. And then, because, the internet might not always be as free as it is now, go print out copies of old lathe and mill manuals as well as any designs that you find useful. Start your own reference library with free info from the net and any second hand books and manuals you can find. You may not need it right away, but if you read through it well enough to know what you have in your library, you’ll be able to look it up later when you really need it.
So what do you need? I say start with a lathe. I’m partial to old cone-head South Bends but anything heavy and rigid is good. Bigger is usually better because not being able to hold something in your chuck is a real hole in the head. A 3 jaw and 4 jaw chuck are usually necessary as well as a dial indicator, calipers, tool holders and inserts, boring bars, and a couple of live or and dead centers and center drills. It sounds like a lot, but when shopping for used equipment you would be surprised how easily you can find it.
If you don’t already have a bench grinder and drill press, get those. Then if you really want to you can get a milling machine. A bandsaw or some such means to cut raw stock is handy too. Files, transfer punches, center punches, radius and angle gauges, depth micrometers, squares, parallels, clamps, and drill bits/end mills should all be things you collect over time for your shop. Watch estate sales and garage sales for old machinist toolboxes, they frequently have good finds in them.
Practice. File something until its flat. File something flat so its round. Learn to make accurate cuts with a hand-saw and ‘true up’ your work with a lathe and mill. Learn to ‘lay out’ your workpiece and accurately locate holes. Transfer hole centers from one piece to another. Drill and tap holes without burning up/wearing out tools. Pick up some random part and figure out how to copy it.
With a basic shop there are lots of things you can learn to make or fix. You can even learn to make and fix your own guns. (yes, we’re talking about prepping, so you knew it would come up.) I don’t mean just punching holes in 80% receivers either, if you learn about heat treating and metal properties you can make nearly anything you like. I personally like to tinker with old guns and frequently that means there simply are no replacement parts. That doesn’t matter when you can make your own. Have something in an obscure cartridge? You can even make your own reloading dies or bullet molds with enough effort and research.
And of course, talk to your friends and family. Show your buddy your shop and I bet he’ll ask you to make/modify/fix something for you sooner or later. You can bankroll the favor or bargain for something in return. Everyone needs something fixed at some point. If people know you can fix/repair/replace parts you might find you make a lot of friends and some extra cash.
These are just my views; make of them what you will. The big picture though is that while it feels reassuring to prep for some big specific event, there’s an equal or even greater possibility that something less than cataclysmic but still bad will happen and it may last a lot longer than any stockpile you can easily afford. If you have the knowledge and skills to do things that make your life and others’ lives better, YOU become valuable rather than just being someone who has valuable supplies.
Naturally this all comes at a cost. If you have a demanding job and a family to take care of, the time you have available is probably minimal. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I like reading about hobbyist machine shop projects and watching various machining and gunsmithing videos on my lunchbreak. It’s a break from work and yet I’m actually getting a benefit out of it by learning.
If you have kids, you can involve them in your projects. If they’re old enough to be helpful that’s actually a twofer because you not only learn to do something, but your kid does too so they’re more likely to know how to do useful things in the future. As far as I’m concerned you’ll do all of us a favor if you skip the little league/soccer/basketball/swimming, etc and go build a garden shed with your kid. The chances of your kid getting s sportsball scholarship and pro career aren’t nearly as good as the chances they’ll be able to use skills like finding plumb and level, toenailing a board, or wiring a light switch and fixture.
I suppose the irony in of this is that if more people actually spent time developing the skills I’ve outlined here, the chances of major long term economic decline would drop dramatically because more people would have more skill sets, making them more employable regardless of what turns the economy/government takes. So get off this blog and go learn something useful. You may need to know it sooner than you think.
Thursday, January 07, 2021
What kind of things can I learn if I’m not a hammer swinging or wrench turning type of person?
Home Ec. Skills
“EJ, that doesn’t sound very prepperish. Are we going to fight off the golden hordes with a sewing machine and a cook book?!” Nope! But I’m dead serious when I say that your life will be better, good times or bad, if you have these skills.
Cooking from scratch (or close to it)
If you want an education go to a grocery store and look at peoples carts. Look at a cart full of convenience foods and see how much it totals at the cash register. Now go look at what it costs to get the basic ingredients for all of those things. Dollars to doughnuts says it costs a lot less to buy the ingredients than it does the frozen dinners!
I’m not saying there aren’t valid reasons to buy convenience foods, but they are just that: a convenience! If you’re struggling to pay the water bill and put gas in your tank then every extra dollar you spend is an INconvenience. Don’t make your situation worse by paying a factory somewhere to do your cooking for you (and don’t expect those factories to keep producing in the event of some serious economic downturns.)
My point is, you can eat for better and for less if you know how to prepare your own food from scratch. It’s not that much more difficult than using prepackaged food either. I bet if you do a little looking through cookbooks (those paper things people used to find recipes before the internet) you can easily find a dozen recipes that take no more than 30 minutes to prepare. Look a little closer and you’ll find that many recipes that take longer don’t require you to actively do anything during most of the cook time, so you can effectively do two things at once.
So how is this about prepping again? Well for one, you’ll be able to better able to feed yourself if the grocery store starts looking like Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard or if you’re growing your own food. Two, even in bad times there’s usually a job available in a kitchen somewhere, maybe not a great job, but a job that likely comes with some free food for the cook. Three, food has value to almost everyone. Maybe it’s not enough for a full fledged business, but you might make a few dollars and a few friends at the local farmers market.
Do your neighbors a favor by taking them food once in a while, it will help build a sense of community. Have you ever asked your friends to help you move? You fed them right? Same thing with your neighbors. Offer food in exchange for help, or supplies, or whatever else you need. No money has to change hands.
It works for more than just your neighbors too. I know a builder/handyman who has more work than he can keep up with. Guess which jobs he’s more likely to take: the ones where he gets fed well! Now try to tell me that a repairman who’s struggling to make ends meet isn’t going to factor in a hot meal when he quotes you a price. Does he have kids at home? Tell him you’ll wrap up food to take home. He gets something he wants, you get a better price.
I would of course be remiss if I didn’t mention skills like beer and wine making. Now you can’t go around selling your homebrew because…well…government. Similarly you’re probably not allowed to distill any fermented products into hard alcohol either. That’s a shame because it would be really handy for making products like hand sanitizer. Or gut sanitizer; I won’t judge. That said, beer and wine can make a lot of friends in hard times, and remember what I said earlier about getting something welded up in exchange for a 6-pack?
Mind you, if you’re having to go buy barley and hops chances are making beer will end up actually cost you more than just buying it. However, if you have access to inexpensive grape juice or honey, you could become very popular for very little money.
I mentioned before that a major economic crisis could seriously disrupt the flow of cheap imported goods and I think it’s safe to say that clothing would be hit pretty hard by such a situation. Like so many other things, the clothes we wear have become disposable because, for the most part, they are cheap. Suppose those supply streams dwindle down to a small portion of their current level. Prices are going to go up and people will want to keep what they have as long as they can.
Being able to patch up shirts and jeans will not only keep you and yours in serviceable clothing, but chances are you’ll be able to trade repair work for food, supplies, or cash. Of course under normal conditions (whatever those are) there’s no money to be made in ‘patching up’ of clothing, but there’s a possibility of doing specialty work and alterations for money. Whats more, if you’re a bit creative, online outlets like etsy make it fairly easy to sell specialty items, most of which could be made with an old sewing machine that you pick up at a thrift shop. I have to wonder how many homemade masks were sold at the beginning of the pandemic at highly inflated prices. Judging by the scarcity of elastic in the stores I would say quite a few.
That reminds me, take a moment to look up and print out instructions for making t-shirt yarn and stop throwing away old t-shirts unless they’re ripped to shreds. If anyone asks why you’re looking up sewing articles you can tell them it’s for field craft expedient cordage.
If you really want to get into heavy duty stuff, don’t forget that shoes wear out too. It’s not quite the same skill set as darning socks, but being able to glue souls on shoes and stitch patches onto work boots is not a bad skill to have in your back pocket. There are even some inexpensive, hand powered cobbler’s stitching machines available from China. They need a little tweaking to work smoothly, but they can work on moderate thicknesses of leather and denim quite well. Plus they’re hand powered you can brag to your prepper friends about how you’ll be stylin’ even when the lights go out.
Last but not least…
How to cut hair
I have to admit I hadn’t really considered this before the pandemic but almost everyone needs a trim once in a while. If you know how to do some basic hairstyles that don’t involve a salad bowl, at the very least it save a few dollars by giving family members a trim from time to time instead of going to salon (assuming the salons are even open!)
If you actually put some time and effort into getting some training you could potentially pick up a few hours at your local barber shop, or if you prefer just work out a deal to cut the neighbor’s kids hair in exchange for meal or a ride to town. There are lots of possibilities. Don’t forget, people typically talk while they’re in the chair. You might just find yourself in a good position to gather up all the dirt…er…intelligence on your neighborhood.
In the last part of this series we’ll look at some of my favorite skills, because they are largely responsible for building civilization as we know it today.
Wednesday, January 06, 2021
Maybe you could make it a side business, maybe you could make a few bucks. Or maybe not, but if you know how to repair mowers, snowblowers, generators, and chainsaws you have a very useful skill. In fact I should note that repairing chainsaws, sharpening chains, and knowing how to properly use a saw is a particularly useful skillset any place that has trees. A chainsaw can clear debris after a storm, remove potential hazards around your home, do (very) rough carpentry when you’re in a pinch, and multiply the BTUs from a gallon of gas several times over by helping you stock up on firewood. And that’s true right here and now; it will be doubly important if and when times get lean!
Tuesday, January 05, 2021
Chances are slim that your power will be knocked out for 2 years by a North Korean EMP, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prep for a natural disaster, or riots, or a hazmat spill, or even just plain old unemployment. I think there’s a bit of a siren song to prepping for big disasters because it’s easy to assume that once you’ve prepped for big emergencies, small ones will be easy. So we look at worst case scenarios prep for those, knowing that we’ll likely be ahead of the curve for other, smaller events that are more likely.
It’s quite satisfying. You can think of a bad scenario and imagine the gear you need to survive it. You make a list, you buy the stuff, you pack it away, post on a prepper forum about it, then move on to the next, even worse scenario and repeat.
You see, it isn’t the notion of a civil war, secession, coup, balkanization, great reset, or the big igloo that was really gnawing on me. It’s what happens if there isn’t a big shooting match? What if it’s a slow gradual decline from first world living down to third world standards?
When do you bug out? If you do go into hiding, do you stay there until capitalism breaks out again? The Romans didn’t turn the page on a calendar one day and discover that it was the beginning of the Middle Ages; they saw a gradual decline over several generations. Even if we accelerate that timeline to match today’s faster pace of communication and travel, the collapse of a modern day empire could easily be a matter of a few decades of decline rather than a single event.
This possibility really crystalized in my mind when I read this post from Surviving in Argentina. It’s not long, so you ought to read it, but the thing I took away from it is that in spite of how bad things are in Venezuela (or were when this was written), people still talk about what they will do when it gets REALLY bad. In other words, the proverbial frog is in the pot and doesn’t realize it’s being boiled.
Now as I’m writing this there’s no way for me to know for sure that there won’t be a big fight. It’s always possible. But if things do suddenly get hot, regardless of who wins or loses, there’s a good chance your retirement is screwed up because your job/401k/social security/corner bank are all mixed in with the rest of the detritus from the conflict. The politics between right and left, red and blue, capitalist vs socialist, whatever vs whatever may be largely divided into rural and urban, but our economy is dependent upon both, and screwing up either one has some pretty nasty consequences. Some parts of the country have the necessary resources to survive without the rest, but that doesn’t mean they would have the resources for a high standard of living!
So what can we do to prepare for something that drags out decades into the future? Stocking up on hard currencies is a nice idea, and not one I would dismiss lightly. Let’s face it though, most of us don’t have the ability to buy enough silver or gold to carry us over a decades long decline. Even if you do have that kind of money right now, what will you buy with it after a financial disaster? Look into the living conditions in most socialist/communist countries for the past century. The problem isn’t that there’s no money to buy things (governments are good at printing money) it’s that there’s so little available to buy.
The assumption I’m making here is that even if the world does take a turn towards the realm of dystopian fiction, it’s really not likely that all of our ‘stuff’ just disappears and it's not likely that everything fails all at once. Could the power go out? Could the refineries shut down? Could there be widespread food shortages? Yes to all of the above, but the chances everything bad happening to everybody all at once are slim. A more realistic picture is that we could face a future with:
In the next three posts, I’ll be discussing the various skills I would consider valuable for preppers who want to prep for long term economic depressions, the degeneration of a free market economy into a socialist one, or the disruption of the economy because of a sizable military conflict.