Metalworking is an industry that stretches back through the history of civilization. Simple methods for making jewelry, plowshares, and swords have developed over the centuries into complex processes for creating engines, industrial piping for dangerous materials, air craft carriers the size of cities, intricate micro-products for electronics, and so much more. It’s a proud industry that supports the infrastructure of our country, from our skyscrapers to landmarks recognized worldwide, like the Golden Gate Bridge. This guide offers a starting place for discovering the history, process, and tools for a career that has been the foundation for the 21
Really, the development of civilization has been marked in many ways by man’s ability to manipulate metal. We rise out of the Stone Age with the Bronze Age, allowing civilizations like early Egypt, Mesopotamia, Mycenaean Greece, the Three Sovereigns (China), and Akkadia to flourish. With the coming of the Iron Age, Phoenicia rises and gives way to Greece, then Rome while Carthage rises in Egypt. In Persia, Alexander the great expanded an empire, and in China, dynasty overturns dynasty, resulting in the construction of The Great Wall. None of this could have occurred without metalworking, because there would be no swords, no armor, no gold or silver coinage to fund expeditions and expansions. Without metal, the power of the Roman Empire would have been dull, and likely it would not have had the social room for developments like roads and aqueducts. The Iron Age sets a stage for a world defined not by basic metals, but by ideas, trade and art. Even so, metalworking would remain key to Muslim expansion, the Crusades, and will shape new musical movements and sculpture processes; and, once mankind hits the Industrial Age, the importance of metalworking only skyrockets.
In the modern era, there are many jobs (over one million) in metalworking. So many overlap, in fact, that metalworking is often discussed as a whole, and the skills developed in one area of metalworking or for a particular employer can be repurposed to another area or need. While a basic metalworker usually needs no more official education than a high school degree, on-the-job training is vital. For more advanced types of metalworking, being knowledgeable in computers, being able to read blueprints, and being good at a number of mathematical focuses is required. Thanks to further technology, knowledge of computer-aided design and manufacturing is valuable. More and more employers look for workers who are certified in various operational areas; this better guarantees competence and professionalism. The National Institute of Metalworkers, Inc. spearheads the accreditation and credentialing of training programs and sets the standards for the Metalworking Industry nationwide.
Skill standards are focused on machining, machine building, and maintenance, metal shaping (including cutting, spinning and stamping), and tool and die making. Tool and die making is one of the growing areas in the industry, but its industrial machinery mechanic, maintenance worker and millwright jobs that are booming. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that sector is expected to grow by 17% through 2022. Mechanics will need training beforehand and maintenance workers get on-the-job training; however, anyone interested in becoming a millwright should expect a four-year apprenticeship. The median pay is just over $45 thousand, but as specialized and sophisticated machinery continues to develop, the upper end of that pay will likely continue to rise.
There are safety concerns with metalworking, of course. Metalworkers often need to be strong, but modern safety concerns are more than about lifting. Most metalworkers will need to deal with metalworking fluids (MWFs), which are used to lubricate, cool, clean, and prevent corrosion at various points in metalworking processes. MWFs include straight oil, soluble oil, semisynthetic, and synthetic fluids. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration offers a best practices manual, and also maintains strict safety directives that should always be followed in metalworking work spaces.
- Pitt Rivers Museum: Explore African Metalworking
- An Introduction to Early Bronze Age Metalworking
- Sewanee University: Metals and Metallurgy – History of gold working
- Materials and Techniques: The Beginning of Metallurgy in Ancient China
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Metalwork
- Cornell: Metalworking Techniques
- Glossary of Blacksmithing and Metalworking Terms
- New Orleans Cemetery Metalwork History and Technology (PDF)
- Yale – The Metalworking Industries (PDF)
- Welding, Soldering and Brazing Workers
- MIT: Metalworking Tools
- International Trade Administration: Machine Tools and Metalworking Equipment
- CCOHS: What are metalworking fluids?
- Diamond Tool Materials for Metalworking (PDF)
- American Machinist: Cutting Tool Materials
- Health and Safety Executive: HSE and metalworking fluids
- AmTrust Metalworking Safety Guide (PDF)
- OSHA: Metalworking Fluids: Safety and Health Best Practices Manual
- EHS Today: Environmental, Health Issues Spur Developments in Metalworking Fluids Industry
- CDC: Metalworking Fluids
Careers in Metalworking
- National Institute for Metalworking Skills: Skill Standards (Accreditation and Certification)
- OOH: Metal and Plastic Machine Workers
- Advanced Metalworking Centers for Excellence: Careers
- Navy Metalworking Center
- American Foundry Society: Careers