Younger generation searching for the arsenal's "lost art"

By John B. Snyder, Watervliet ArsenalJuly 13, 2017

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WATERVLIET ARSENAL, N.Y. (July 2017) -- The last major investment in the Arsenal's manufacturing center occurred in the 1980s and involved more than $300 million in new machinery and upgrades. The challenge, however, is how to keep those machines running when vendors have gone out of business or those who would maintain them have since retired.

These machines have now outlasted the machinists, as well as the maintenance specialists who once worked on them for decades. Additionally, operator or maintenance manuals for many of these machines no longer exist. And, with each retirement goes just a little more expertise in what many here call the "lost art."

Nevertheless, in a production building that was built here during the height of World War II was a wonderful recent transfer of knowledge from a true artisan to a younger generation of Arsenal maintenance workers who hunger to learn the lost art of heavy manufacturing machine maintenance.

Recently, a grandfatherly-looking gentleman, by the name of Rafael Velez, was found working alongside three Arsenal maintenance workers in 90-degree heat trying to repair a 30-year-old rotary-surface grinder that is used on tank and howitzer breech blocks.

This grinder is so unique that it works in tolerances of less than one-thousandth of an inch. And, because it rarely requires a major overhaul, those who had such experience here with disassembly and replacement of parts have long since departed.

And so, Velez, who has more than 30 years of experience repairing this machine, as well as hundreds of other types of heavy manufacturing machines, was brought here to not only repair the grinder, but to also train a new generation of Arsenal maintenance workers.

"I'm at the stage of my life that I love sharing my knowledge with those who will replace me someday," Velez said. "But having said that, I have always enjoyed sharing my knowledge with others who also share my sense of excitement when I can get a machine running again."

Velez said it took him many, many years to learn how to repair heavy manufacturing machines because he taught himself how to be a master mechanic through observing others. He does not want others to struggle as hard as he had to in order to learn his craft.

And so, with a warm smile and soft voice, Velez worked side-by-side guiding Machine Inspectors Shane Forkel and Joe Santoro, and Production Machine Mechanic Bill Root, through a week-long process of repairing the grinder.

There truly is an art and science required to maintain legacy-type machines. On this grinder, Velez led the Arsenal team through the long-lost art of "hand scraping."

When manufacturing machines arrive, they are thoroughly tested to ensure that surfaces are true without distortion. But nothing is absolute and over time, machine surfaces can lose their reliability.

Such was the case with the grinder. Velez showed Forkel, Santoro, and Root how to use hand-scraping tools to level the surfaces, allowing for better contact between machine parts and improved accuracy for grinding. In essence, the science to scraping. This was the first time that this Arsenal maintenance team had witnessed this lost art. And given that all three maintenance workers have fewer than 10 years at the Arsenal, this skill will be retained for decades.

Forkel, Santoro, and Root all said that they enjoy working on the older machines best, versus, the newer computer-numerically controlled machines.

"There is something special about working on an 'old school' machine," Forkel said. "By working on the older machines we are able to get a better sense of the mechanics of machinery."

Root agreed and added, "If you can disassemble one of these older machines without a maintenance manual and then put it back in operation, you can repair any machine."

Santoro said that he has learned a lot about "patience" working on the grinder.

"I love these older machines," Santoro said. "The tolerances are so tight that you truly have to be an artisan to work on them. It takes a long time and a lot of effort to get these machines meeting tough technical standards that are required for weapons manufacturing."

On the fourth day of the repair and after many hours of work trying to level the machine's table that breech blocks will sit on, Velez and his students had finally achieved success. And when they did, a huge smile came onto Velez' face as he personally congratulated each maintenance student.

Velez had done his job well. The machine was placed back into service and the Arsenal now has three who are experienced in the "old school" way of maintaining Arsenal machinery. Just maybe, the lost art has been rediscovered.


The Watervliet Arsenal is an Army-owned-and-operated manufacturing facility and is the oldest, continuously active arsenal in the United States having begun operations during the War of 1812. It celebrated its 200th anniversary on July 14, 2013. It is a subordinate command to TACOM LCMC and the Army Materiel Command.

Today's Arsenal is relied upon by U.S. and allied armies to produce the most advanced, high-tech, high-powered weaponry for cannon, howitzer, and mortar systems. This National Historic Registered Landmark had revenue in fiscal year 2016 that exceeded $126 million and provides an annual economic benefit to the local community in excess of $90 million.

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