Tool and Die Maker

It's the tool and die maker who has to do work that is exactly right. Being off by the width of an eyelash or a piece of thread is just not good enough.

This is the pressure that tool and die maker Joanne Short works under.

"It's hard to imagine just how precise you have to be to fit within that margin of error," says Short. "If your lathe is moving just a little too slow, then there goes your margin."

Short makes the tools and molds used to manufacture many of the products we buy. Her tooling is often used in combination with other complex manufacturing machinery, so it has to be formed to exactly the right dimensions.

She is the craftsperson who makes mass manufacturing possible. By making one object, she allows millions of others to be made.

"It's a bit ironic that the things made in seconds on the assembly line are the result of the labor-intensive crafting of tradespeople," says Short.

In fact, tool and die makers are responsible for creating most of the things you use. Wherever you go, chances are you'll see evidence of a tool and die maker's efforts.

The computer you're using right now is a good example. The keyboard, the casing for the monitor and hard drive, and even the hardware itself are the products of molding.

Some tool and die companies have employees who specialize in particular tasks on one particular machine, like the lathe or mill. More commonly, companies expect people in this field to be able to take each product from concept to completion.

For New York tool and die maker John Vetter, the difficult part of this process is visualizing what the completed product will look like.

"I usually start with an engineering blueprint of what the manufacturer needs. The plans are on paper, so they're two-dimensional. But I have to be able to picture in my head what it will look like in 3D," says Vetter.

To be good at this work, you need to be both creative and technically oriented. While the need for technical skills may be obvious, people often overlook the imagination involved in the work.

"It takes some creativity to take all those lines and numbers on the engineer's blueprint and put them together in your head to envision what the final product will look like," says Vetter.

Short has taken this creativity one step further. During her time off, Short uses both her knowledge of metals and her creativity to produce metalwork art. And she has met with quite a bit of success. Short's metal sculptures have been displayed in a gallery and she has sold a number of pieces.

"It's quite a surprise, really. I didn't expect my work to do so well; I just enjoy working with metal. It's a good medium for art or tooling."

Vetter also enjoys working with metals and says the most rewarding part of his work comes from transforming the raw material into a completed tool.

"The knowledge that you can take a piece of material that would otherwise have no function and with the help of some drawing and numbers, turn it into a tooling that can be used for years to come, is very satisfying."