While recalling my apprenticeship experience, this collection of wrenches came to mind. The photo below contains a number of wrenches modified with an acetylene torch over a forty-five year career.


In classroom time each week we covered the world class Caterpillar training materials. Afterwards it was then back out to the shop floor where we learned more about the vital, and undocumented “people” part of the trade. Not only did we see how to change wrenches as needed, but also how personalities and wills can bend-or refuse to bend.


Dray and Tom did not like working together, and yet the supervisor needed a job done right away. He put them both on a rush job, repairing a truck engine while the trucker waited in the customer lounge. They wouldn’t speak as they worked opposite each other on the Cat 1693 truck engine. It was Dray’s birthday and he was hustling to get off on time to take his girl friend out for supper.
On the rear of the engine was the camshaft drive cover which held the cam drive shaft in place. Neither noticed the cover was missing, and at 4:30 they started the engine. It ran great until the cam drive shaft fell out, bending several valves. I was single and available to work. Eight hours of overtime later, the job was done.


Another time Dray whispered to me, “Watch Roy in the locker room tonight.”
As Roy got to his locker it went like this: Taking the bill of his hard hat with the left hand, he reached in the locker and got his baseball cap with his right hand. Then, in one smooth fast movement he swept the hard hat off, replacing it with the baseball cap. Further investigation proved he did this morning and evening every day. I finally understood Roy’s embarrassment about balding.


Bob, the same Master welder who kindly taught me to weld, had another side. He did not respect anyone without technical prowess in welding or mechanics. If you were really diligent about learning the trades he would give you about a year grace period, but that was it.
The art of good management was something he did not consider to be an actual skill. Quite the contrary, he considered it to be a dishonest way to make a living. However, if someone worked their way into a management position after mastering the craft, he would work with them.
In the mid-seventies there was a serious heavy equipment skill shortage in Wyoming. The company heard of a mine closing in the East, so they hired several light vehicle  mechanics from the mine and moved them to Wyoming. They were good fellows and worked hard to learn heavy equipment.

Two of them were put to work helping the shop foreman. The younger of the two was in his late twenties and had a business degree.This young man didn’t like the way Bob’s time cards looked, so he went into Bob’s welding cubicle to ask him about it.

Well, my friend Bob, the real live actual welding genius, just went ballistic. His uncontrolled temper came to the fore as he began throwing tools and raging at the young man and all of the “rules”. He next got his pick-up, backed it in and loaded up his tools, and then drove away.

So it went, that time on the shop floor was where we unofficially learned the human side of the skilled trades.

Torch Skills

Modifying tools is an example of the mind set of the master mechanics and welders with whom the apprentices worked in our program. These old timers were from the “Oil Patch” as wyoming and Oklahoma’s oil fields are known.
The wrenches were first clamped in a vise. Then they were heated with the acetylene torch, in the area where the steel must bend. When the metal reached a dull red, a steady pull would easily shape the wrench in the contour to reach otherwise inaccessible fasteners. This is another technique that isn’t covered in training resources or manufacturer’s service manuals.
Among many other items, the unofficial part of the program, when we were out on the floor with the mechanics included word-of-mouth instruction on using an oxy/acetylene torch. It’s a good thing. We used it every day.
We also used the torch to shorten wrenches, and with the change of a tip we could easily weld ferrous metal to fabricate any special items needed.
Below are a few more of the off-the-radar torch items taught by the masters:

Tip orientation

  • Orienting the torch cutting tip: For best cutting results, line up the preheat holes so one is forward most in the direction of the cut. This is especially important on thick material.
  • Avoid over tightening the cutting tip. Once a wrench is used to tighten the tip, it will always require it. It is a great advantage to use only a glove hand to change cutting tips. It is much faster than breaking out a wrench every time.
  • Open the oxygen valve all the way to back seat the valve firmly and avoid dangerous gas leakage by the stem.
  • Stand to the side of the regulator gauge face when opening the oxygen valve, in case the gauge blows out, then slowly open the valve.
  • When cutting with a torch, press the oxygen valve all the way down (open.)
  • Never use oil based pipe dope on oxygen line fittings. Spontaneous combustion can result.
  • When cutting thin steel sheet metal, point the torch at an extreme angle in the direction of travel, for a much better cut.
  • The Master welders told us to make the outer surface of the tips smooth to reduce air flow turbulence. They claimed the flame benefits from the small extra amount of oxygen it gets from air pulled down the outside of the cutting tip by the flame. Again, this is most important on thick material.
  • When flame cutting steel cable, weld (fuse) the steel strands together, all the way around the cable, then hit the oxygen lever and part the cable. This stops the cable from fraying after it is cut and makes it much easier to install through the machine’s pulleys. This tip is also especially helpful in oil field repair work.
  • Scarfing tips are useful for cutting a deep groove and getting to the bottom of cracks that are to be welded.
  • The rosebud is a heating tip that will rapidly transfer millions of BTU into a work piece. This is useful for preheating,  bending or straightening heavy steel. Read the manual carefully, as these tips require higher gas pressures than a welding tip.

Course Summary

Please See our training page for more on this course….