A Bolt Out of the Blue

Turning tricks to keep the operation going…

This is not what Shop Boy had imagined when he got himself drafted into this letterpress mess.

Yet there he was, bent over the machine, grunting, sweating, using dirty words and … man.

That’s the last time I’ll do this kind of favor for anyone.

See, Shop Boy was alone in the studio, trying to meet the demands of feeding menus to a restaurant whose chef is so darned creative that he keeps changing things. Mary was pretty beat from meeting a bunch of her own consecutive deadlines, so Shop Boy had left her at home on the couch with her computer to catch up on some design work. We’d already decided we would switch out the blade on the big paper cutter later in the day, but the one in there was still sharp enough to chop menu paper, not especially fine work.

I’d gotten a pretty big head start the day before, so there wasn’t much paper left to cut and there were only a few hundred menus to print on the big C&P, so Shop Boy was done in no time.

Unfortunately, this left some spare time to think.

Shop Boy (on the phone): “I did something really bad, Mary …

Mary: “Oh, my god, are you OK? What happened?”

Shop Boy: “Well, I think my heart has stopped. But mostly I broke the paper cutter.”

Mary: “What were you doing?”

Shop Boy: “Putting in the new blade. I wanted to surprise you. Oh, I feel really awful. The machine is …”

Mary: “I don’t care about the cutter. You could have been hurt. Are you crazy? You’re there, alone, on a Sunday in an empty building. What part of this makes sense?”

Shop Boy hadn’t had time to think that deeply. I was just going to give Mary a break, and leave a fresh blade waiting for her on Monday morning. Now, she was mad.

And just that quickly, I shrank into a little boy … one who now had to go and get the belt from the closet so that Mom could use it on his rear end, except in this case I had to drive home to pick up the angry parent who was going to scold me some more for sure. Mary didn’t disappoint on that end. It’s nice to know she’s looking out for me, just like Mom was, but geez.

Here’s what Mary saw when she arrived: The bolt that adjusts the right side of the blade had snapped off, flush with steel cutter arm. Shop Boy wasn’t being macho or anything, despite all evidence to the contrary. I had merely been tightening the bolt to force the blade down a hair. But without witnesses, I might as well have been guilty of using a hammer to whack the end of the wrench that broke the bolt.

So now what?

The new blade is a bit shorter bite end to butt end than the one it replaced, so it slipped a bit each time I lowered it. Rather than shear through the paper, it receded just enough to leave a dent where a clean edge should be. To make it hold its line, we needed that broken bolt out of the stinking hole and a replacement bolt screwed — ahem, very gently — into its spot.

The replacement is the easy part. Clearing the bolt? Not such a snap.

We did what we usually do in these situations, calling Mary’s brother-in-law, Tom Beal. He thought about it, and offered a couple of alternatives: Hire a machinist to come drill out the bolt, and make another hole in our wallets, or somehow get it out ourselves. That much we’d sort of figured out. Of course, Tom, having snapped a few bolts in his career as an engineer, machinist and just very bright and handy guy, surely had a clever suggestion to offer.

So Shop Boy smartly shut up and listened.

Sure enough, it turned out there was this trick where, if I took a metal punch — anything sturdy and pointed, really — and created a depression between the center of the bolt and the threaded outer ring, I could maybe stick a screwdriver in there, tap it with a hammer and, ever so slowly, coax the bolt counterclockwise until enough of it was exposed that I could grab it with pliers and turn it the rest of the way out.

Sounded easy enough.

Of course, it always does.

True story: Shop Boy’s dad was forever searching for his tools. One of his seven kids, very often me, would borrow a tool from his shed, play with it a bit — you know, killing ants with a hammer, throwing screwdrivers at a target (“Duck, GI Joe!”) to see if we could make it stab the thing like in war movies, or whatever — then simply walk away from it when one of the neighborhood kids yelled for us from down the block. Dad would find it later … often when the lawn mower hit it.

Brats! You can never keep anything nice around here,” he’d hiss.

Shop Boy can still hear that grumbling in his head every time a tool goes AWOL in the letterpress shop. Meaning that I think of my dad quite often.

Like, where is the stinking nail punch? I just used the stupid thing to tap in some finishing nails on the new workbench. Or, because the angle at which the bolt was set required a longer screwdriver with a smaller head, where the heck is the stinking long screwdriver with the smaller head? You get the picture.

So now Mary was frustrated with me for taking so long finding tools, and I was angry and blaming my brothers and sisters for somehow raiding my toolbox from hundreds of miles away (Brats!), and the long night I had hoped to prevent with my good intentions was turning into a long night because of my good intentions.

Let’s just say I wasn’t very confident as I finally approached the bolt with my makeshift arsenal of almost-the-right-tools. To make the depression that would become the foothold for a screwdriver I had selected a small, thin whatchamacallit with a pointed end … that snapped in two on the second tap. Shop Boy’s next two weapons were more sturdy, but chiseled rather than poked, shearing away a little more of the bolt. Heck, I even tried tapping a screw into the surface. The screw slipped, naturally, slicing the equivalent of a triple paper cut into my finger.

But finally, using the longer screwdriver and a tap-tap-tap, tap-tap-tap, tap-tap-tap, tap-tap-tap, tap-tap-tap, tap-tap-tap with the hammer, Shop Boy raised a tiny ridge atop the bolt’s stump. And for the next hour, I switched out tool after tool, seeking one that could move the ridge rather than shear it off.

It was maddening, to say the least. Nothing seemed to work.

Shop Boy stomped out of the room. I needed a sip of beer from the fridge in the main studio space, figuring that might work a whole lot better than any tool so far. Well, I stood there for a few minutes with the bottle cap in my hand, holding it between my index and middle fingers and my thumb and then crushing it between them until it bent in half with a point at both ends.

Hey, maybe …

Yeah, Shop Boy was a bit punchy. But who’s to say it wasn’t genius? The world will never know. For as Shop Boy, with the bottle cap in my pocket just in case, approached the bolt one final time with the screwdriver … it moved. On its own. (And yes, I’d had only one swig of beer.)

With the tip of the screwdriver now magnetic, Shop Boy was able to hold the tool over the bolt and move it counterclockwise. Not far. Just enough for me to get my fingertips on a ridge of one of the bolt’s damaged grooves. I coaxed it a little further, my hands slippery with sweat. “Please, please,” I whispered. “Just a little more.”

And up it came, spinning freely out of what was to be its tomb.

“Boy, that’s a bit of an anti-climax,” Mary chortled.

Unbelievable. Apparently several thousand taps were enough to sort of shake loose the old dirt and debris that held the bolt firm.

Shop Boy held it aloft like Excalibur and mimicked the angel voices through the clouds with a falsetto La-laaaahhhhhhhhhhh!

Now, who knows what other parts of the machine Shop Boy shook loose with all that banging? We’ll learn in time. But for now, I was redeemed.

In no time flat we’d very … carefully removed the bolt on the other side of the cutter arm and used it to balance the blade. We tightened all the bolts, set down some paper, threw the safety, dropped the blade and bingo.

Shop Boy was back in Mary’s good graces.

Quite a nice trick, if I do say so myself.

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