WAUKESHA, Wis. - For Bud Goodman, sheet-metal work is more than just a job, a career or even a hobby. It's art - a lost art.

A century ago, he points out, sheet metal workers made everything by hand, including many items used in the home, such as washtubs and spittoons, that are now sold in antique shops, heralded for their beauty and craftsmanship.

But in an age where many workers spent their time just banging out ductwork, and plasma cutters and computer-aided fabrication equipment make creating complex designs almost as simple as pushing a button, the owner of Bud's Furnace Sales says many sheet metal workers don't know how to follow a pattern or make even a simple fitting by hand.

"Over the years, I realized there was a lot of guys who didn't know sheet-metal layout," he says. "Too many people don't pay attention to it."

Hoping to keep such skills and information from disappearing due to disuse, Goodman has written The Forgotten Art of Sheet Metal Layout, a compilation of material from 80- to 100-year-old sheet-metal manuals. The 170-page book, with its simple three-ring binder design and 100-year-old illustrations, is short on presentation, but long on information. It explains the basics of mechanical drawing, pattern layout and 3-D visualization, with hands-on lessons that show readers, step by step, how to create items ranging from a simple duct T-section to a register box and even a bathtub.

Book author Bud Goodman.

A job and a hobby

The book is a result of Goodman's longtime love for sheet-metal design and an outgrowth of his hobby-oriented Web site, www.thesheetmetalshop.com. Goodman gets up at 4 a.m. every day to put old design patterns online and discuss the trade with Web site visitors.

It's certainly not a for-profit venture. "There's no money in it," he says. "The site right now is costing a big chunk of change."

However, the site's come a long way from the days when no one would visit, he adds. Now, he gets up to 450,000 visitors a month, including some from overseas. Goodman says he believes the site provides a valuable resource, because even if visitors never make a washtub, the skills they learn in drawing or following a pattern can stay with them for life, if they practice them.

"Once you learn how to lay out a pattern, it doesn't matter if it's for an elbow or a bathtub," he says, adding that at many shops, employees still work without automated equipment.

"There's a lot of shops that can barely afford the computer, let alone the equipment. These one- and two-guy shops don't have the money for a plasma cutter."

Goodman started out in one such shop in 1980 as a 19-year-old assistant. He worked for a Milwaukee-area contractor with three others, and had never been in a trade school or union apprentice program.

"They said, 'Can you do sheet-metal layout?' And I said, 'Absolutely.' And I had never done it," he recalls.

On-the-job training was lacking

Goodman soon realized that he wasn't going to receive a formal education in layout from his employer: He was not allowed anywhere near the design bench.

"There's a lot of guys who like to keep the shop guys green," he says. "If they learn too much, they have to pay them more money."

Goodman was forced to glean what he could by observing the more experienced employees. At night, he practiced making elbows and other fittings with cardboard and construction paper.

"I had them (the drawings) all over the house," he says. "I didn't even have a design book at that time."

In the introduction to his book, Goodman notes that most things he made "would end up looking like an approximate development at most. The levels of frustration were extremely high." But Goodman stuck with it, repeating each item until it was right.

As his skills improved, Goodman started to become interested in sheet-metal design guides. On vacation with his wife and four children, Goodman would scour used-book stores, looking for anything on the trade. "I would sit in there for hours," he recalls.

The Forgotten Art of Sheet Metal Layout includes excerpts from many of the long out-of-print, public-domain books he found. The book is designed to be a work in progress, Goodman adds. He plans to put new chapters on the members-only section of his Web site.

Goodman is planning on talking to high schools and trade schools in the Milwaukee area about incorporating the book into their lessons. "If we could get them young and get them interested," he says.

For now, Goodman is mildly optimistic about his book's chances for success.

"I don't expect these things to fly off the shelves, but who knows what they're going to do?"

(To order The Forgotten Art of Sheet Metal Layout, write to The Sheet Metal Shop Resource Center, 516 Chicago Ave., Waukesha, WI 53188. Also visit www.thesheetmetalshop.com for more information.)

Links