How Machinery Changed Shopfitting

Anyone working in the industry today will have an intimate knowledge of the machinery, materials and methods in common use. However, the world of today is very different from the one our fathers and grandfathers grew up in.

From point-to-point routers, down to things like the humble battery drill, whilst ‘every day’ to us, would have been incomprehensible to shopfitters back in the day. Some of these items, like drills and other personal power tools, started to become available in the late 1920’s but they were very expensive and slow in uptake.

The nature of shopfitting practice had remained largely unchanged from the early 1900’s until the early 1960’s. This was the time when solid timber, plywood, masonite and coreboard were the basic materials used in the manufacture of shopfitting cabinetry, which was built to last indefinitely.

Most shopfitting companies would have had a comprehensive machine shop for preparing the material for fabrication. This would typically include a bench table rip saw, a thicknesser, a jointer (or a combination machine with both functions) a band saw, cross cut docking saw and spindle moulder. Other machines found in the larger factories would have included a mortiser, dovetailer and later on, an overhead router.

The job process would usually start with the machinist being given a sized cutting list of all the timber component parts of each item in the job. For example; counters, wall units and shopfronts. The machinist would then cut the required stock from the selected flitch of timber, always oversized to allow for additional machining to follow. The planks would then be put through the thicknesser to the required size and next to the jointer to straighten one long edge.
The next step was to cut the piece to width on a rip saw and then joint to the final size required. It was at this point that the material would go to the docking saw to be cut to an accurate length and to the spindle moulder, if further machining was required.

The spindle moulder (example pictured opposite top right), due to its design and function, was probably the most dangerous to use. The operator needed to be extremely proficient and aware, for their own safety. Unfortunately, many a machinist lost fingers using this machine, but in time the risk was reduced when the power feed became available. Safety has not always been a priority as the circa 1925 photo at the top of a combination jointer and spindle moulder illustrates.

A good example of the way a machine shop functioned would be to take the steps in producing a pair of timber shopfront doors. The machinist would first be given a full size set out rod showing all the details, and would then finish size all the timber components, constantly checking them against the rod. The next step was to rebate the stiles and rails for the glazing beads, an operation usually done on the jointer. The stiles would then go the mortice machine, whilst the rails would go to the spindle for the cutting of the tenons. All the components would then go the joinery shop for assembly and once that was done, the door was hand-planed smooth before being returned to the machine shop to have the pairing rebates run for each set of doors.
In later years, more and more timber that had previously been supplied rough sawn by timber merchants, started to become available already mill finished. This led to a lessoning of the need for many to have a composite machine shop.

This trend accelerated with the introduction of manufactured board products and suites of aluminium extrusions.
Today only a small number of specialised firms run a full machine shop. Coming in tandem with the introduction of new materials was a fundamental change in design. A shopfront which traditionally would have been glazed in drawn metal covered timber mouldings was now aluminium. The timber window floor was gone and the window back doors also.
By the late 1950’s aluminium extrusions, particle board and MDF were being introduced into the Australian market, dramatically changing the way cabinetry was made. The influence of the new products was expanded with the arrival of melamine faced board.

Another very significant contributor to the demise of the machine shop was the reversal of what had always been the case. Now, labour was getting more expensive and materials were getting cheaper.

The illustration (left) of the construction methodology for a popular panel style door is a very good example of not only the full range of the machinists skills, but it also explains why rising cost pressures and the increasing availability of ‘off the shelf’ alternatives led to the demise of the traditional machine shop.
Retail fitouts increasingly had a shorter and shorter required life span and this, combined with the flow of new materials, led to the end of an era.

A shopfitters life…
From time to time, we are going to print anecdotes that might make us laugh and that at least illustrate the uniqueness of the shopfitting industry.

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