Useful Talents

Levern Jewell at tiny lathe

Levern Jewell at tiny lathe on which he cuts precision parts.

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Westmoreland News, P.O. Box 699, Montrose, Virginia 22520

This article originally appeared in the Westmoreland (Virginia) News, and is reprinted here with permission. It was sent to us by Robbins Douglas, Rt. 1 Box 476, Kinsale, Virginia 22488

A pine-green 1920 Fairbanks-Morse chuffs to life under the hands of Levern Jewell. The handle that starts her isn't the beautiful piece of brass Jewell cut for her, but that one was so heavy it flung itself around and nearly smashed his knee.

'I thought my knee was broken. It hurt so much. I thought, 'Man, if that ain't awful in this world!' So I hobbled over to the hacksaw and cut the pin off so I'd not use it again.'

We're back to the old aluminum crank, but even without the fancy handle, you can tell the engine is enjoying it selfglad to be running again under any circumstances.

'The rod was rusted right off when we looked at it. Lucky the right man got a-hold of her,' admonishes Jewell's friend Robbins Douglas, who's been agitating for awhile to get us down to Jewell's shop at Harry Hogan.

The Fairbanks-Morse is one of those workhorse engines willing to do any kind of work necessary: saw wood, grind grist, power the wringer washer 'Yep, the women would come get it on Monday to wash with,' Jewell notes. 'It beat the devil out of breaking their knuckles on the washboard. It was such a labor-saving device.'

A tiny engine a little bigger than Jewell's two powerful cupped hands rests on a display table nearby. He made every part of her from a block of cast-iron whose picture he flourishes proudly. Everything except the timing gears that is. He'd have had to buy a gear cutter the right size to cut them, and it was more cost-efficient to buy them. The tiny engine putts along, perfectly tuned to save fuel by operating hit and miss; her water-cooled engine ignited by a spark plug attached to a coil.

Bright shavings of bronze look like Rapunzel's gold, filling two big tubs. One heap came from the lathe, another off the milling machine Jewell used to cut a bushing that would accommodate a six-inch-bored wheel to a five-inch shaft.

Born in 1920, he was trained at the Navy Yard as a machinist starting in 1941, then served in the Navy from 1945 to 1946. Because he didn't like the city, Jewell bought several precision lathes from the Navy, including one small sewing-machine-sized one and another so big it can accommodate a 42-inch prop, but so finely tuned it was used to refine gunsights which raised and lowered the 16-inch guns, and thus had to be honed to within a thousandth of an inch.

With the lathes, he returned to his native rivers, where he opened a machine shop with his brother, Alton. 'When he went fishing, I bought him out.'

For more than four decades, he proceeded to solve every problem the watermen and sawmill operators could cook up for him. He holds onto everything, including a tiny steam engine he built back in 1943, its base made of melted fishing sinkers. He powers it now with air so it won't rust up.

During the past two years, he and a group of local engine specialists have been working together on the engines they take to shows.

'Well, Donald O'Bier, Frederick Downing, Hilton Hamblin and I are always down here getting him to solve our problems,' Robbins Douglas notes.

Jewell is a private man, who doesn't often work on anything while visitors are in his shop because safety and a precisionist nature demands unadulterated concentration around his machines. During our visit, he creates a beautiful brass paperweight to show off his tiniest lathe's smooth operation, having first promised we'd never hear a noise.

The mesmerizing hum and purr of the engine and the bright bronze-gold spirals which peeled away to allow the finial to emerge are downright hypnotic, as Jewell's painstaking guidance choreographs the action of the bit.

Every so often a throat-clearing noise emerges as the bit gently gnaws away at the chunk of metal.

Jewell moves slowly, but with vigor, his efficiency a matter of doing things right the first time as frequently as possible. 'You don't get paid for working fast,' he admonishes. 'You get paid for doing right.'

'There's not much Levern can't do, given time, if you don't bother him,' Douglas sums up. 'There's also not much stuff he'll work on while you're here if it's yours.'

A machinist often starts with much more than he'll end up with, taking down a piece of metal from 225 pounds to a piece that may weigh less than a fifth of that.

In the process, he'll have utilized many different tools, hence the vast array of thingamigs, whadyamacallits, and other tools on which Jewell can immediately put his hand when the call arises.

He admits to always having been mechanically inclined, perhaps even to heh, heh, rearranging his mama's innards while she was carrying him.

Airplanes and dirigibles flying overhead sparked his youthful imagination, though he says he doesn't claim to have invented anything.

Maybe not, but when those Smith Island dredge boats came over here for Krentz Marina's men to haul, they always stopped off at Jewell's shop too.

How come? The dredges were hauled by Plymouth motors with direct drive, which had a universal joint like that of a car. The slight bit of flexibility offered by the universal meant they didn't have to be perfectly true, and they didn't work anywhere near perfectly, either.

Which is where Levern came in. He'd put on a straight coupling with a thrust bearing, which made all the difference and left everyone 'about tickled to death, because the one I made wouldn't wear out.'

He also put Chrysler marine clutches on automobile motors obtained from junkyards, lengthening the useful life spans of both.

Then there were the winder rigs he made for dredging oysters and fishing nets, the pile driver cable uptake mechanisms, the many propeller wheels he bored.

'But it's all played out now on the water,' Levern says sadly. What's in now? Nothing. Oysters are gone. Fish are gone. You used to be able to walk round the shore anywhere and dig you a mess of mannoes (tasty bivalves) for your supper. They're gone now too.'

A potato vine winds its way around a pair of patent tongs outside, and the dock beside three family boats is dotted with crab pots and other waterman's tools. His son Bobby still crabs, and Alton's son Brian fishes, but they're certainly among a soon-to-be extinct breed, Jewell fears. And when the work-boats go, machinists as a breed may well soon be doomed to follow, he says, for pleasure boaters don't require the same sort of intensive maintenance.

Which is not to say he's full of gloom. The shop bears witness that there's always something to do.

As he strides up and down on the 12-inch-thick concrete floor he mixed and poured himself, among the maze of lathes and saws, grinders and drills, Jewell makes a note of some of the things he does to balance his life.

Every day from noon to one, for example, he works in his garden, where that day he'd picked black eyed peas and turnip greens. 'A cement floor tears your legs up,' the jaunty 73-year-old explains. 'If you work in the garden, your legs don't hurt as bad.'

Then there are plenty of new gadgets to fool with. He holds out a two-inch-long dial indicator which registers variations as fine as one-thousands of an inch.

Talk about grinding true, that's true for you. A watchmaker he's not, emphasizes Jewell, but he did go into his wife's watch once and cut of piece of mainspring off when a hook broke. He bent a new hook on the end of the spring, put her back in, and 'she worked for years.'

A man able to deal with that sort of detail might drive himself crazy if he couldn't focus. Jewell has the ability to narrow his vision, however, 'I don't see too much,' he quips. 'Anything I don't want to see, I just ignore.'

What he does want to see, he tends to measure and quantify, with such implements as a gear gauge that tells him the diametrical pitch of the teeth of a gear by measuring from the center of one tooth to another. Knowing that, he can reproduce it.

His ear is keenly attuned to the sound of the tools, so that if, for example, an impure streak exists in a bar of metal, he'll hear it on the lathe, like a musician who quickly detects a false note in his symphony, or a sculptor whose stone chisel strikes an air bubble.

Much of his work involves keeping a weather ear out for problems during such tasks as boring a propeller wheel on the giant 15-ton lathe. In the meantime, he can labor on a tiny engine or another job.

'Since I've retired, I can work on what I want,' Jewell gloats a bit. 'I'm not under pressure. I can pick my jobs and won't take work I don't want. But then, I never did!' he admits.

Thrifty with materials, he used the fir skid that originally rested beneath the giant lathe for the sills in his house after he'd gotten that lathe where he wanted it with the help of his sons. He still has the monekywrench the Navy issued him when he went to work in the gun factory, although he never used it as a wrench, 'only for a hammer.'

If there's one thing he wanted to do and never did, it's to figure out how to take electricity from the air and use it to operate motors. 'They're taking solar energy with solar plates. There should be a way to transform it so it would operate your car,' he muses.

Well, there is one more thing he'd like to have done. But it's not something for which there's a crying need anymore.

'I've always had an idea to fix a fish cutter to cut herring. It would also have separated bunker [menhaden] from herring. Bunker have a spot on one side or the other, and there could have been an electric eye.'

Unlike most folks who worked in the fish factories, and many of his fellow machinists, Jewell still has all his fingers.

He doesn't claim to be accident free, however. Witness the time he caught his left hand in the big lathe.

'It happened late in the evening on my 60th birthday. I was working on a winder and I wanted to finish drilling it. I caught my hand between the chuck and a can of compound, which struck the lathe and broke the drill in three pieces.

'One struck Bobby in the chest, another broke a bone in my left hand. It wasn't bleeding much; they just pulled the skin back over it, but it didn't set right. They had to rebreak it later and put a pin in.' He pauses for the punch line. 'Never have figured out why I have arthritis in my right hand and none in my left!'

A milling machine will greedily suck in a brush that's being used to oil metal in the process of being cut. 'You've got to cultivate a loose grip to keep your hand from going with it,' he jokes.

Warming up to describe the hazards of his trade Jewell points out that no matter where he puts a freshly created piece of metal heated red hot from one of his tools, 'even if it's on a shelf clean out of the way, somebody will come in and pick it up unless you say, 'Don't go over to that vise!'

'Uncle James was famous for that. He'd go right to it, pick it up, and say, 'Oh, this is pretty!' He'd burn himself every time!

'Stuff like this will draw you,' Jewell says, flourishing the bright newly-made paperweight he's sending home with us as a souvenir. He's already made sure it's cool enough to touch.

'Or you lay your torch down she'll flip over and burn you. When I used to smoke a pipe, the matches in my shirt pocket would all suddenly explode and burn my shirt while I was welding.

'When you're cutting on the lathe, the brass comes off small and can really hurt you if it comes down your shirt. It'll make you dance and think!'

Robbins Douglas mentions vanilla as an anti-blistering remedy for burns, then the two delve into Jewell's family heritage as a waterman.

His fisherman father Daniel's boat was the Ruth V. Carter. Daniel's twin John was also a waterman, as were his brothers James and Clarence.

'Now Alton's boy Brian is the only one left who fishes out of here,' Jewell says sadly.