Give Me a Brake

It had to stop.

Mary and Shop Boy were having a little misunderstanding — not really a fight as much as a failure to realize that she was right. In plain English, Mary was spelling out the need for an emergency brake on the ancient 12×18 C&P letterpress we were very close to bringing online. Shop Boy? Speaking French again.

You know: The French believe plumbers plumb, painters paint, machinists machine. It’s Shop Boy’s operating system, translated further into: Don’t know it? Fear it. Mock it. Get away from it: “Why do we need an emergency brake? I can stop the wheel very easily by hand. It’s one more thing that can go wrong.”

Well, let’s just say Mary’s operating system is a little more powerful: “What if your hand is stuck in it? How will you stop the wheel from crushing it to a pulp?”

OK, we could have the brake. But there were issues. For instance, the floor of the studio is concrete covered with tile, so the brake would need to be mounted on plywood that was then glued rather than screwed into place. Fine. The spring mechanism that once kept the brake pad an inch or so from the wheel had long ago failed, meaning the brake had become a permanent drag on the wheel. The part of the brake that actually touched the drive wheel featured a dirty old asbestos pad. It got gunk all over the wheel — meaning hand-washing every five seconds — and put carcinogens into the atmosphere. To fix that, Mary presented Shop Boy with a square of material that was rubber on one side and cloth on the other. This would at least keep the constant rubbing from releasing toxins. Great. She ran an errand and Shop Boy went to work, cutting the square to the proper size and gluing the cloth side to the asbestos brake shoe. A little elbow grease cleaned the years of gunk off the wheel and I was set to try it out.

The motor had been placed by the flywheel to power a friction drive roller — a yellow rubber/plastic composite thingy that in turn spins the wheel. You don’t need a belt mechanism. It’s very cool.

Unless your new rubber brake pad, rather than gently rub the wheel, stops it dead and the drive roller, still spinning like mad, starts throwing chunks of itself across the floor.

By the time Shop Boy could react, the roller had lost enough flesh — like bits of pencil eraser — that it no longer made contact with the wheel. No contact, no motion. F-F-F-F-F-F-F-F-F-F-, um, Phooey! Now I’d have to re-mount the motor, which I never would have had to do if there was no brake, which we didn’t even need, and how am I supposed to know how to mount a motor? And Mary’ll be back soon and I’ve just ruined the press and we’ve got a job we need to run tonight and I hate letterpress anyway and I’m stupid and ugly and fat and should never have been allowed to grow up and …

You get the picture. Chunks of the drive roller and Shop Boy’s psyche commingled in grease and oil beneath the C&P.

Mary called to ask how it was going.

“You don’t want to know.”

But by then I’d somehow — Shop Boy now officially believes in miracles — tended to the motor and got the slimmed-down drive roller to spin the big wheel again. My psyche wasn’t as easy to put back together.

“Why didn’t you just ask me?” Mary said. “Of course the rubber stopped the wheel too fast. I would have told you to put the cloth side up on the brake pad.”

Of course, this made me feel waaaay better.

We decided it might be best to rig up a temporary system that prevented the brake pad from touching the wheel, but could be used in an emergency. We wedged a collapsible cardboard box beneath the brake lever. Simply stepping on the lever would crush the box and brake the wheel (and damage the roller, but an emergency’s an emergency). And we cut and attached a new brake pad, cloth side up.

OK, so I went to wash my hands. Two minutes later, I returned to find a concerned Mary turning the machine on and off. The wheel wouldn’t turn. She’d accidentally kicked the box out from under the brake lever, the cloth had stopped the wheel as efficiently as the rubber and … well, you know.


Mary: “Maybe we should just get rid of the stupid brake.”

Of course, she was right.

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