C.H. Wendel's Reflections

| July/August 1996

Over the next few months we'll be compiling some articles on various subjects from within the library. For in stance, we're now working on an article pertaining to pouring and fitting babbitt bearings. Ye olde Reflector has never been intimidated with this job, but as a youngster, I watched my dad pour bearings, along with my uncles, and even a couple of old blacksmiths. None of them had a gasoline or propane furnace to heat the kettle; all I ever saw them use was the forge. They would have an easy fire so as to melt the babbitt down slowly, and when they weren't stirring or drossing the metal, they kept an old iron lid over the kettle. As a child, I couldn't quite understand that, but later on I figured out that they didn't want the smoke to contaminate the metal.

Unlike me, and some of you who are experienced at pouring bearings, the truth is that it is a dying art, partially because many folks are reluctant to get anywhere near that molten metal. We don't blame you, because it can get real nasty if there's even a tiny bit of moisture in the bearing housing. To prove the point we'll relate an experience to you:

Many of you know that ye olde Reflector has been a devotee of letterpress printing for a long time now. Among our acquisitions was a Linotype ma chine. The Linotype mechanized printing, just like the gas engine and tractor mechanized agriculture. Anyway, the type metal, somewhat similar to babbitt metal, is melted into cast iron molds leaving a long pig of about 20 pounds. We've got an electric furnace to melt it down, and when all is ready, there's nothing to do but open a spigot and run the metal into the molds.

One day we had several cardboard boxes full of scrap metal, and we melted this all down. Then there was a small plastic bucket containing some more scrap. Since the furnace has a big hop per, we proceeded to dump the scrap into the hopper. What we didn't know was that due to humidity, the metal had picked up some moisture, perhaps only a few drops. However, this was more than enough to create a most interesting scenario. Instantly, this hot metal started popping and blowing up out of the furnace, sending a pattern of spattered metal for about ten feet in all directions. We made haste in our re treat, but still bear a scar on one arm where some of this stuff landed and at tempted to make a bond with my epidermis.

After things settled down, we discovered that our little plastic bucket was completely dry inside, leaving us to believe that the moisture came from condensation on the metal itself. The kettle in the furnace was almost completely empty, it had relieved itself of about ten pounds of metal when it burped. This ten pounds was splattered on the ceiling, on the walls, and on anything in the vicinity. In the process, the kettle pretty much cleaned itself too; there wasn't anything left in there except for some bright and shiny metal.

Of course the point is that babbitt is entirely quiet when it is dry, but can get nasty when there's some moisture about. The moral of the story is that here's Wendel's First Rule when melting babbitt or any other metal.. . make sure that there's no moisture!


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