MRO Magazine

The Green Smoke Caper

Editor's Note: Instead of our usual problem solving tip, this issue we're using Mr. O's space to bring you another delightful story from Frank Tabor. After working in industry at a variety of jobs for...

April 1, 2001 | By F.C. Tabor

Editor’s Note: Instead of our usual problem solving tip, this issue we’re using Mr. O’s space to bring you another delightful story from Frank Tabor. After working in industry at a variety of jobs for many years, Tabor took up cartooning upon retirement (several of his cartoons have been published in this magazine), and he has started writing down some humorous stories remembered from his days on the shop floor. Here’s one of his favourites.

Back in the late 1940s, I worked at a small machine shop. It was located in the heart of logging country, so the bulk of our repairs had to do with the lumber industry in one way or another.

We designed, built, manufactured and repaired sawmill equipment, all the way from trim saws to head rigs. The biggest products we manufactured were sprockets. I got a super education in acetylene burning by producing the circular plates for sprockets and gears.

I had an Ultra-Graph burning machine with which I could burn circular plates up to about 24-in. in diameter. I burned a lot of sprocket and gear hubs from thick plate. When I would cut one, I’d catch it with a pair of pliers and drop it on the floor to cool for the handling in the following welding process.


My burning and fabrication area was right next to a large radial drill. We would often get a circular saw from one of the local mills that required re-drilling of the arbor holes.

Now, there is something that you probably never have heard about, unless you’re a real old-timer, but one of the best lubricants for drilling high-carbon steel is canned evaporated milk.

Since the stuff spoils rather rapidly, we never could keep a can of it between jobs. When the need arose, we went to a small grocery store and picked up a can. Now, the plot thickens….

A floor well about 5 ft deep was located within swing reach of the radial drill to accommodate tall jobs. The top of the well was recessed and it was covered with wooden planks to keep some sleepy welder or machinist from tumbling in.

In the course of drilling circular saws, the milk lubricant would naturally run down the side of the drill table, and a stream of it would meander over and soak into the wooden planks on top of the drill well.

I did not suspect the dire consequences that would generate from this until one day when I was burning out a batch of gear hubs from inch-and-a-half plate.

I tossed a hot one in the general direction of the floor. It landed, started rolling, and travelled in a bee line over to the old, milk-soaked planks on the drill well.

I became alert when I noticed a dirty, dark green wisp of smoke curl up from the planks. The wisp soon developed into a good imitation of the best Indian signal fire that ever sent a message.

But this was only the mild part of the situation. Suddenly, the stench of ancient, smoldering canned milk reached my nose. To try to describe the odour would tax my vocabulary to the breaking point. I can only say that if one could liquefy a hobo’s toe-jam and pour it on a pancake griddle, you would probably create a reasonable facsimile of the paralyzing stink that rose in the air.

About 50 ft from my station, in the back corner of the shop, were two turret lathes. Both operators broke records getting out the back door. Naturally, upon being questioned later, I said I had no idea where the smell originated from, but in time, everybody caught on.

When things got a little dull in the shop, I could always liven up the situation by heading a few hot gear hubs in the right direction.

Mr. O would be happy to hear your stories from the shop floor, as well as your favourite maintenance tips and tricks. Write ’em down and send by fax, e-mail or mail to 416-442-2077 (fax),, or the address below.

Do you have a solution for a maintenance problem? Send it in and if it’s published, we’ll send you a free Mr. O Problem Solver T-shirt and $35.00. Include your address and telephone number, print complete details, and add a sketch to help explain your tip. Send your ideas to Mr. O, Machinery & Equipment MRO, 1450 Don Mills Rd., Don Mills, Ont. M3B 2X7.


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