by Rob Edwards

Part 1 of a two-part interview

Published in the November 2000 Issue of Anvil Magazine

Publisher's Note: In March of this year, I attended one of Sid Suedmeier's annual Little Giant Power Hammer Rebuilding Seminars in Nebraska City, Nebraska. Sid is the owner of Little Giant, and he, along with his colleague, Fred Caylor, are in the business of rebuilding the Little Giant power hammers, which are no longer manufactured. During the weekend class I had the opportunity to spend some time with Fred Caylor, one of the class instructors.

ANVIL: Fred, you're from Zionsville, Indiana, originally. I'm fascinated by a bit of your own personal history. You mentioned that you were in the South Pacific in World War II on a repair ship.

FRED: That was after the war; during the war I was on an LST, part of the landing forces. My hitch was not up until two years after the end of the war, so we had to be transferred and I was put onto a repair ship. I was what they called a ship striker - striker meaning attempting to make the next grade - and they had an opening for a blacksmith, so that was where I went.

ANVIL: Was there a master smith on the ship from whom you could learn?

FRED: Our chief was the master smith. He had gone into the U.S. Navy in 1936 due to the Depression, was a master blacksmith out of North Carolina, and was in charge of the shop. And he ruled it with an iron fist!

ANVIL: Was that good or bad?

FRED: It was actually very good. He was a fantastic man. Even his name was Smith.

ANVIL: Tell us about the blacksmith's shop. What was it like?

FRED: We were not even considered ship's company; we were repair force, working three eight-hour day shifts on a rotation basis, seven days a week. So we had no regular watches to stand; we were just a group of workmen. We did all the battle damage repair on the 7th Fleet destroyers, which was quite extensive. After the war was over, we took care of the major repairs, after minor repairs had been made. What we did was keep ships from having to go back stateside to be repaired. And the shop itself was very well equipped with a 50-pound Erie steam hammer. But we worked with oil-fired forges; the oil was blown into the forge with high pressure and was deafening. We used a lot of what we called `hand-held' forges, which were nothing more than a flame thrower. If you were straightening a hatch that you had fastened down, three or four men would hold these and bring it up to heat, then beat it into shape with sledges. We made all of our own tools. Most of my work was making tools: a lot of chisels, hammers, wrenches and spikes. Whatever we needed to do a special job, we would design the tool then make it to do the job.

ANVIL: In those days the ships were built out of a combination of welding and riveting. Did you get involved in either one of those?

FRED: In both, yes. We did very little riveting on the destroyers. It was nearly all weldi Some of the super structures, I assume, were still the old wrought iron and there were sections that did require riveting.

ANVIL: Why does wrought iron require riveting?

FRED: You can't arc weld wrought iron because it will separate just from the vibration. The reason for this is that wrought mild steel flows and wrought iron doesn't. It won't mingle together.

ANVIL: So they riveted wrought iron and welded mild steel. And that's why there was this transition from riveting to seamless hulls.

FRED: I don't know if you remember or not, but a ship was refurbished in California years ago and one of the people in ABANA was working on it. They were trying to weld mild steel to the wrought iron to replace some of the plates, only to find out that it couldn't be done.

ANVIL: Because they couldn't get new wrought iron to replace the old wrought iron. So they probably had to replace it all with mild steel.

FRED: And they probably didn't have the people who were that versed in riveting to be able to make a watertight hull.

ANVIL: That's another question: how did they make it watertight if they riveted it?

FRED: If the metal is pulled together tight enough with rivets, it literally makes a bond. Then with the paint, it seals right up. There is a certain amount of leakage in it; that's why you have the bilges that the water trickles into and gets pumped out of. Over a period of time, the metal literally grows together from rust and so on.

ANVIL: After you got out of the navy you joined the fire department, I understand.

FRED: I came out of the navy with the trade of blacksmith. In the local newspapers there were advertisements for blacksmiths. But when you would show up, it wasn't truly blacksmithing; it might instead be for a welder or to help build tanks. I went to work for three days welding the inside of a tank-with the old timers coming by and hitting the tank with a hammer-and I said, that's enough for me! I asked the foreman when I would start forging and he replied, `We don't do any forging, we weld.' So that's what it amounted to. My dad was a career fireman and naturally he wanted to see me go in that same direction. I did that for 23-plus years in Indianapolis, Indiana. I retired in 1973. That same year I went to work for the Conner Prairie Pioneer Settlement in Noblesville, Indiana. It's an 1836 establishment and they had an 1836 blacksmith shop. I was fairly adept at forging, but I really didn't know anything about that time period. So it was just a matter of studying and learning the different things that they were making there from what I had been used to making. I made the transition and stayed there for quite some time.

ANVIL: Was that a full-time job?

FRED: Yes, it was, with benefits included. While I was working there I had a heart attack and, under their system, I couldn't continue to work there. So I left and went out on my own. In 1981 I opened my own blacksmithing school in Zionsville, Indiana, and began to teach courses.

ANVIL: Tell us about the school.

FRED: Well, I just started out doing basic beginner's blacksmithing because there was such a desire and such a need at that time. I started out with eight forging stations with eight forges, anvils and vises. I found that I couldn't keep up with eight students. But I couldn't work for any less, so I had to increase my tuition and remove two of the stations. I got one of my friends to help as my teaching assistant. For years it remained a six-forge shop.

ANVIL: How long did the classes run?

FRED: Two nights a week for five weeks, 2 1/2 hours a night-five hours a week, plus open forge time if they were good students and wanted to come over and practice in the daytime.

ANVIL: So you never did have a school where the classes would run for weeks at a time in a concentrated session.

FRED: No, mainly because most of the students were married men, a lot of them with children, and they couldn't afford to spend that much money. At one time I was also certified by the state and federal government to re-train veterans under the G.I. bill. It would have been a great thing, but we were only able to pay minimum wage and the government and the state set that wage, so I couldn't change that. None of the fellows wanted to come and do it. It just wasn't enough money to live on, even with their government subsistence. Had I been caught paying them under the table-which I would have done-I would have lost it all. So instead I just used my certification as a symbol of honor that I had been accepted to go on and teach that way. Then I taught for five summers at the Appalachian Center for Crafts in Smithville, Tennessee. I taught there both for art grade and engineering grade. Whichever they were in, we would tailor the class. The Appalachian Center for Crafts was founded by Congressman Richard Roudebush through Tennessee Tech University.

ANVIL: Would you explain art grade and engineering grade?

FRED: Well, for art, they would have a project and I would teach artistic blacksmithing to them. For the engineering, I would show them how to design the tool and how to make it. We also had a lot of classes just for area people, but others from all around the country came to go to school at Appalachian Center for Crafts. The late Francis Whitaker taught there at the same time I did. They always had good instructors.

ANVIL: Most of your teaching was in basic blacksmithing?

FRED: Always, yes. I won't teach, even today, beyond intermediate. I will help beyond intermediate, but I won't teach it. The reason is that it's difficult for beginners to receive good, basic instruction. But after they get past the basic instruction, there are many, many people who want to get into the artistic aspects and go into the advanced classes. So I figure if I do a good job with them on the basics and up through the intermediate level of skill, then they are prepared to go on and study with anyone they want to.

ANVIL: In the blacksmithing field it seems like we all get proficient to a level, but ther are gaping holes in our education because we no longer have that extensive apprentice program that used to be involved with all the crafts.

FRED: Right. And I am definitely not a master blacksmith, because my own training did not go that far. I was just what was considered `second class' in the navy, a two-striper, and I never had the opportunity to on and further my skill level to where I could be considered at the upper level.

ANVIL: And what happened to the school?

FRED: Well, I got very busy because I started taking on contracts to make tools for utilit companies. And to be honest, it's much more lucrative working for a union outfit when you have the ability to forge to a blueprint, and the quality is number one and the price is number two. So you can make more money working for industry than you can teaching. I also let the school go because my health wouldn't permit me to work all day and half the night anymore.

ANVIL: Part of your health problem was lead poisoning, I understand.

FRED: Well, that was from my days in the navy-lead poisoning and galvanized poisoning. We all suffered from that; it's not anything unusual. And the 23 years in fire risk with the fire department didn't help, either. Then when I had the heart attack in 1979, that really slowed me down considerably.

ANVIL: Since then you've obviously been taking good care of yourself, because you seem to be in perfect health now.

FRED: That's true; I've had no repercussions. At 74 I'm doing okay.

ANVIL: You mentioned that in 1980 you had some breaker bits to forge and you found a 50-lb. power hammer. You said that's what got you interested in Little Giant power hammers.

FRED: Before that I disdained power hammers. If I couldn't make it by hand on the anvil, I wouldn't make it at all. I hardly ever used the Erie steam hammer aboard ship, even. With using a striker and by hand, that was the way we worked. The chief and the first classman were the only two who used the steam hammer.

ANVIL: They tell me that a steam hammer packs one heck of a wallop-much more so than a mechanical or a pneumatic hammer.

FRED: It does, yes-much more. I guess it's because the steam is a more `positive' fuel, if you will. Steam goes in under such high pressure with such force that it makes for a forceful, positive driving mechanism, more so than air. You don't compress steam nearly as much as you can air. It would be like trying to compress water. It's just so controllable-that's the big thing.

ANVIL: Why don't we have steam hammers anymore?

FRED: It would not be feasible to have a boiler. The steam hammers that are out there that a lot of the blacksmiths are using have been converted to air.

ANVIL: You got interested in the Little Giant Power Hammers and began using your fifty-pounder in the early 1980s. And then how did you link up with the owner of Little Giant, Sid Suedmeier? (See ANVIL Magazine interview October, 1998)

FRED: I was doing these workshops on rebuilding Little Giant hammers and doing it by repairing all the parts-there were almost no parts available. When you would call the Dotsun company that owned Little Giant, they didn't have anyone to talk to you. Centaur Forge carried some parts, but they didn't know any more than I did at that time. It was just one of those problems. I would take one of my own hammers and go somewhere and get a crew together. We would rebuild it. We would do everything the hard way, by repairing all the parts. Tom Clark, owner of Ozark School of Blacksmithing in Potosi, Missouri, is a good friend of mine and he had me down to his shop to do one of these workshops on another fellow's hammer. When I got there, he said, `Fred, I'm going to hook you up with a fellow I think you should meet. Sid Suedmeier will be here for this workshop. He's the man who just bought Little Giant.' My answer was, `I believe you're being rather presumptuous, bringing my number one competitor in to observe my methods, when he is going to have all the parts.'

So Sid arrived and one of the first things he did was to call me over and he said, `If you're intimidated in any way by my being here, I will leave. But I do need help; I don't know what I'm doing on these Little Giant power hammers.'

So those were the magic words-he needed my help.

ANVIL: You two have obviously become a great team. You complement and support each other. In the rebuilding classes you both make sure there are no holes in the lectures.

FRED: I think Sid and I always consider each other first. There is no selfishness in this all. We're on the phone constantly and if we find something that the other person might be able to use on a hammer, we're calling and sharing that information. It has just been a wonderful relationship.

ANVIL: And it's certainly working to the benefit of your students at your annual power hammer rebuilding seminars. It looks like Sid has been able to manufacture almost all of the parts for the Little Giant power hammer except for the frame.

FRED: That's correct.

ANVIL: He said that he would never do that because the casting for the frame wouldn't be feasible in this day and age. So how many frames are out there, do you suppose, that could be rebuilt into viable power hammers?

FRED: I have no idea, but I do know that there were only 8,000 Little Giant power hammers made. I know a lot of those went to the war effort.

ANVIL: Did a lot of them get melted down after World War II?

FRED: Yes, they did. Others just laid out in the middle of junkyards, and a lot of them went to salvage. It was not unusual to be driving by a salvage yard and stop and ask if the yard had a power hammer. They often said yes, and they would let them sit around for awhile before they would dismantle them to be resalvaged. There was a time when we could buy them for scrap price, but that didn't last long. There can't be many of them left, but just about the time we think they must be just about gone, a few more will show up. The ones we find now are consistently in poorer condition.

ANVIL: You mentioned that you used to be able to cannibalize them but now you can't, because the parts either need to be replaced or fixed. I think we're dealing mainly with the 25-pound Little Giant in this seminar, aren't we?

FRED: In this workshop we are, mainly due to the fact that I am not physically capable on working on a 50-or 100-pound hammer anymore. It's just easier for the class, too, to work with a 25.

ANVIL: Were there were a lot more 25s made than 50s?

FRED: That was the standard, yes. And there were very few 500-pounders made.

ANVIL: The only one I've ever seen is the one that Sid has.

FRED: There are quite a few 100s and some 250s around, but not 500s.

ANVIL: Did the 50s, 100s, 250s and 500s have that same old style, transition style and newer style as the 25-pounders?

FRED: The 50s and the 100s did, but by the time they got into the 250s they were all what we refer to as the `late' models. And the 500s were all late models.

ANVIL: How do you think they compare to some of these new air hammers?

FRED: It's like comparing apples and oranges. The pneumatic hammers are good little hammers and they are filling a niche because everyone obviously can't have a Little Giant. And there are other mechanical hammers out there that are good hammers, too. But there is no readily available parts supply, and that's what really keeps them from taking off. There are some that can be repaired. I won't say the air hammers are taking the place of the mechanical hammers, but they are in addition to. And it does allow a person to have a relatively trouble-free hammer in their shop. It does necessitate having a good air compressor. But that in itself opens you up to using air tools of all kinds. I used one for five years-a little trip air hammer built in North Carolina. I had the fifth hammer that they ever made and I used it for five years. I was very happy with it, but it was just different from the mechanical. And after five years, I went back to the mechanical hammer, only because I had the knowledge of where to acquire them and the ability to repair them. And I still use the 25-pound Little Giant- that's my favorite personal hammer. I can do more with a 25 than I can with a 50.

ANVIL: That was Francis Whitaker's favorite hammer, as well.

FRED: It can't be all wrong, then, can it!

ANVIL: Tom Clark has just begun importing some pneumatic hammers from Turkey; were you aware of that?

FRED: Yes.

ANVIL: They have a pricetag around $8,000. How does that compare to buying a Little Giant of comparable size and quality?

FRED: I don't really think there is an answer to that, due to the fact that they are so different. The pneumatic is a self-contained hammer which doesn't require a compressor, but it does require either three-phase or really heavy-duty single-phase electrical power to run the motor big enough to do the job. I've never used one, but I've known people who have. And they are a good hammer. But pneumatic and mechanical cannot be compared in any way, shape or form.

ANVIL: They just perform so differently?

FRED: Yes. They're different. It's like comparing a coal forge with a gas forge-almost as drastic a comparison as that. When air hammers strike a blow they also have a pushing action which compresses the metal even more. That can be tuned out with fine tuning, but we're used to a mechanical hammer striking and literally bouncing. And on the rebound is when it completes a cycle. Where the air actually has a follow-through and if the air isn't coming in the bottom of the cylinder fast enough to raise it when it hits, you're going to have follow-through on the blow. And sometimes it will give you a harder blow than you really want.

ANVIL: I hadn't thought about that. I was about ready to say that it sounds good to me.

FRED: It is just a matter of learning how to take advantage of that.

ANVIL: So it's a matter of learning how to use the different types and then figuring out which is more applicable?

FRED: Absolutely.

ANVIL: I suppose that's probably why there are shops that have both, depending on the application.

If I wanted to buy a 50-pound Little Giant power hammer in good shape that was just reconditioned by Sid Suedmeier or you, what kind of pricetag would we be talking about?

FRED: Roughly in the neighborhood of about $4,500. And that will be in better-than- original condition.

Look for Part 2 of this interview in the December issue.

Return to the November 2000 Table of Contents