Welcome to a new series called ‘Shop Talk’, where Dan Slaski interviews people in the thick of product development business, who make the magic happen and turn their ideas into reality. Have an interview suggestion? Send it in.
Cory Sokolowski is the owner and operator of Crossline Creations, a 7,000 square foot northern Virginia based wood and metal shop specializing in fine woodworking, electro-mechanical interactive fabrication, laminated furniture, and quality carpentry. Cory is a master craftsman, workhorse, and general badass. Cory doesn’t sleep, he waits. Crossline epitomizes the ideal vendor. The kind that makes your life easier. The kind of vendor you trust because they consistently deliver and take quality to the next level. Cory is the kind of person you want to have a burger with and just listen to because he is such a wealth of knowledge and stories. The only problem is that when you hear him talk about his work ethic you will feel like a total slacker. I sat down and picked his brain for you. You’re welcome.
Shop Talk: Crossline Creations
An interview with Cory Sokolowski
Read Part 2 here.
Dan Slaski: If your shop was burning down and you had temporary, hulk-like strength which one tool would you save?
Cory Sokolowski: Wow, that is tough. My blue toolbox.
Dan: That’s surprising. Why that one?
Cory: Because it’s got a lot of interesting things that I’ve collected along the way, and it’s packed full of every pencil, drill bit, and everything else I would ever need to rebuild.
Dan: Okay. I thought you would say that you would save one of your irreplaceable machines.
Cory: Yeah, well if I had superhuman strength I would go back in and get one of them. The equipment is very sentimental. There is a lot of labor of love in them. So, yeah, losing any of it would be heartbreaking. But I’d definitely save my main toolbox, and possibly a second one.
Dan: So, you would start over instead of using the opportunity to change paths?
Cory: Yeah, start over. Salvage what I can and move on. I’ve got the experience now and know how to do things faster and better so that would help in round two.
Dan: Which piece of equipment in your shop gets used the most?
Cory: That’s between the table saw and the milling machine. The table saw is the heartbeat of the wood side. The mill is half the heartbeat of the metal side and the metal lathe is the other half. The other tools assist but the metal lathe and the table saw can pretty much do anything.
Dan: Which machine is the biggest time saver?
Cory: The panel saw. It’s great for cutting parts and making everything square and ready to go. You don’t have to fuss and jigsaw and then sand and try to make it fit. It takes all the frustration out of the process because the machine cuts it right the first time and gets rid of the other prep work.
Dan: You have refurbished or restored most of your large machines in some way. Which machine has the most interesting story behind it?
Cory: The metal lathe. We had (the same one?) one where I worked before. I trained on it, and I loved it. I ended up finding one on ebay, called the seller and won the auction. We worked together on the arrangements to get it shipped down to me. We used a company called uShip, and the way it works is companies bid on the shipping to try to give you the lowest rate. The seller packed it all up and took it from his house to another shop with the equipment to get it on a truck. The truck driver drove around for a few days before he got it to me. It took some extra trips, but I didn’t want him to take it off the truck because I didn’t want him to break it up. It finally made it to me, and it was massive. It literally bent the forklift we used; we barely got it off the truck. I mean, when first saw it, it was just a train wreck. It just looked like a bunch of scrap metal. But it was a diamond in the rough. We spent countless hours, maybe 300 hours, restoring it back to life. It’s not perfect, but it definitely makes accurate parts, and we use it almost daily, or for sure every other day. The gentleman I got it from and I actually became really good friends. There is a big age difference between us, but he opened up to me when he saw how interested I was in this field and we just became good friends. I’ve been up to visit him a few times and ended up getting more machines from him. It was cool to meet someone along the way that was willing to participate in the process more than just selling the machine and watching it disappear.
Dan: That’s really cool. Is there a culture among people that are doing this? Refurbishing?
Cory: Yeah, they’re saving “Old American Iron” is the terminology for it. Good old cast-iron vintage machinery. There’s a website that has vintage machinery that allows people to search and do research. People can post information and share; it’s a community.
Dan: Is it a supportive community?
Cory: It is open arms. Everybody tries to help everybody. To get equipment or tools or parts around the country cheaply, they’ll do what’s called ”Rucker”. For example, if my buddy has an item going to Maine in June, maybe I can pick it up and get it as far as Tennessee and then so and so will be there in August. They’ll pick it up from Tennessee and drag it to Colorado, and that person will take it from there and take it the next leg of the journey. Yes, it is a very friendly community, and everybody wants to help each other to bring the equipment back up to life and speed.
Dan: That’s great, but there must be some competition.
Cory: Right. You can get a situation where multiple people want the same machine. There are all sorts of situations, and a lot of it is budget. You do need a certain amount of money to participate at all. I’m getting equipment at scrap value. I’m starting at the bottom and putting time and labor and back in. The value goes up, but it’s more a labor of love. They are for our use in the shop. Some machines are sold already restored and can be very expensive. Typically, big factories would purchase already restored machines and not the little guy working in his home garage. Some are being salvaged out of fields and are really rusty, but people are still bringing them back to life. Those kinds of people want a challenge; they want a project. They want to tinker with it. Some of the stuff might be early 1900s all the way through 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. We respect the talent and the effort that went into producing those machines originally. We feel the need to bring the machines home to save them instead of letting them go to the scrap yard or be sent overseas and made into a car bumper or something.
Dan: Is it mostly machinists and fabricators or collectors? I could even see high-end decorators wanting them.
Cory: Yes, pieces of the equipment, like ornate legs, are being salvaged and repurposed for coffee tables and bar tops, bar legs, and all that kind of stuff. Others are enthusiasts. You’ll get people that want a really nice machine and would rather spend the time to bring one back to life than to buy something offshore and have it probably not be as accurate and not have the backstory. When something is a hundred years old, it’s got a backstory. Some people are restoring them and putting them in museums. The museums want specific machines for their display and they’ll scour the earth to find one in good shape or buy one that needs restoration and send it out to have it restored in a way that’s accurate for the time period.
Dan: You prefer manual machines over CNC machines. Can you tell me your philosophy on that?
Cory: Manual machines challenge and improve a person. The challenge is to use our experience and intelligence to compensate, one way or another, for anything that the machine is doing. CNC is programming and having the machine do the work for you. So, on the CNC stuff, programs are written now where speeds and feeds are the only variables, and that tells the machine how fast it travels and how fast the spindle is turning for cutting. And even that is mostly prefigured in, so all a machine operator needs to do is punch buttons and send the material through. When we cut something, we have to measure it and really think about it, sometimes try to compensate and then cut again, so we are just as accurate as a CNC. On a one-off part we can probably beat a CNC but in multiples, the CNC wins. They’re made for production runs of hundreds and thousands of the same part. We do mainly one-off custom pieces, and it requires talent to produce custom projects that are one-off, never been built before. We draw on our combined knowledge to come up with a solution that’s going to work with our equipment. We have to think of similar things that have been made on the equipment in the past and work off of that. The machines are capable of doing it all, it just requires somebody who’s talented on the front end to plan and execute. It all makes us sharper and keeps us on our toes.
Dan: How do you define mastery?
Cory: That is another tough question. My apprenticeship took four years, that’s typical, then you are what’s called a journeyman. Then I believe there is some other unspecified length of time before a person can consider themselves for the title of master at something. Overall mastery happens at different levels by mastering specific things. If you’re a machinist and you work on the lathe all day for twenty years you’ve probably mastered that machine. If you work in a shop for ten years around the board you probably have not mastered the system yet. It takes many years and many hours to hone skills in order to have the level of mastery to be able to grab any project, or any set of drawings and sit down and dissect it and produce each part and have it go together and work perfectly. I really don’t know if there is a set time for having a mastered status or title. Most of the best people that I’ve known, and I would consider masters, were very humble about it because deep inside they just knew it. Everybody respected them for their level of competency and what they could produce.
Dan: Let’s take the lathe example. Is 100 percent mastery ever even achievable because there’s always new things, like new materials that require new learning. It’s a moving target in my opinion.
Cory: Correct. I think you hit a master plateau, if you want to call it that. It happens as you climb your stair steps through your years of work and you hone your skills. Starting with your apprenticeship, where the first year or six months you might be mostly sweeping the floor and taking out the trash and trying to get a basic familiarity with the equipment in the shop. The first year you might get occasional pieces to work on. Very simple pieces where you might just drill a couple holes and then time goes on, and people feel that you are ready to take on the next task. Just like cooking where you have to sit there and learn to prep the vegetables and use the pots and everything else to be able to produce a meal from scratch. Just because you can cook pasta doesn’t mean that you’re ready to cook a steak. So, as someone climbs the ladder they’re learning all these different skills and honing them which is allowing them to produce more and more and more and makes them more valuable. Then when they hit a level where they can read drawings and don’t make a lot of mistakes, that is when they have passed journeyman, and now they’re hitting that master status. Then after that, they climb gradually through the master status as they gain years of experience. You develop a reputation based on how complicated the projects get and how well you can produce them and how accurate they are. One’s reputation is where master status would come into play. After many years of being a go-to person, over time it kind of fits itself to you. Some people want you to believe they’re an expert by telling you that they have been doing something for 20 years. The joke is they might have been doing it wrong for 20 years. They may not have been operating at a professional level. They may have been getting by just winging it. Like a shady mechanic. Not a true full-blown Ferrari mechanic.
Dan: The golf analogy would be if you have a bad swing and don’t work on it you’re just reinforcing a bad habit over and over.
Cory: Exactly. If you’re cutting and pulling dimensions and are accurate to a sixteenth of an inch and that’s the best you want to do then that’s as far as you’ll get. There may be certain occupations where that’s accurate enough. If you are a wagon wheel builder your tolerances don’t have to be as accurate as someone working on the space shuttle. It’s a combination of the talent, knowledge, and the techniques they can perform better that are accurate to the process.
Dan: What do you think is more important, talent or work ethic?
Cory: A good work ethic can generate talent in somebody. In my experience, a talented person without a work ethic doesn’t often work well with others. In my experience, they don’t do well as a team player, and don’t clean up after themselves. Somebody that’s willing to show up every day and learn and listen can probably become a talented person that’s also a real team player, best of both worlds. If you’re making guitars, you don’t need two people, but if you’re building bigger structures you need two people. That means you need a co-worker to help you. You need that personality and everything together as a team player; that way no one feels like “hey I’m carrying all the weight”. So, there are people who think that they’re too good to sand. They have the attitude like “I built it, you sand it, that’s below me”. Well, let’s sand together. Let’s make this happen. Let’s get it done and move on to the next thing. That’s work ethic.
Read Part 2 here.