The day I really screwed up on the planer

When I was in college, I had the good fortune (like all the college kids from town) to be hired at the mill in summers, and sometimes over Christmas.  This often meant laboring in 105º F summer heat, or -13 F winter cold, but it was steady work at union wages.  This is how I came out of college owing so little money, and why I remain sympathetic to the labor movement despite its sometime failings.

It meant a lot of jobs that sound worse than they were:  pulling on the chain, sacking shavings, cleaning out the pit, sawmill cleanup, jackhammering the boilers, the bull gang (I managed to escape that joy), and feeding the planer.  This story is about feeding the planer.  Since I don’t expect you to know your way around a lumber mill, it works like this.  The sawmill cuts logs into boards, which are then sorted for efficient drying.  After kilns dry the loads, the dry chain breaks them down for surfacing (planing).

To imagine a planer, picture two elongated drums laying on their sides, one above, one below. (A picture of some drums laying loose.) Along the rounded side of the drums are knives–long steel blades set in at angles.  The drums rotate on axles with a careful interval between them, knives cutting toward the incoming lumber which the machine rams through in a steady stream.  It’s what you did (more like, you assumed was done; who actually did this?) with a plane in woodshop, just mechanical, larger and much more frightening.  The sides of the lumber are planed by side-heads, basically smaller versions of the main drums set to specific widths, with their own little knives. Right near the drums is a big pipe that blows the shavings, sawdust and wood powder to a fuelhouse, whence it will be sent to burn as fuel.

To feed this machine is to stand out front of it operating a pedal-operated hoist which raises a load of rough lumber bit by bit.  As one does this one breaks the incoming lumber down so that it goes through the planer in a solid steady stream of wood.  This is dangerous, especially around the pineapples (rotating things that sort of guide the boards where they should go).  You can get killed feeding the planer, if you are inattentive when something goes badly wrong. Our mill’s technology was very advanced.  When there was a problem downstream, they’d flip a switch that turned on a naked light bulb, and the planer feeder was to stop.  He had to pull a cord hanging from the ceiling until a steel bar rose up to a chalked line, then watch for it to hiccup, indicating that the last board was out.

Two people normally fed the planer:  the operator (a permanent employee) and the helper (often me).  However, the operator might have to be inside the shack about half the time dealing with this or that issue:  jointing a nick out of the knives, filling oil, what have you.  I fed #3 planer, whose operator was Bobby.  Now, Bobby was a character.  A good 6’5″ and at least 400 pounds, it was safe to assume he wasn’t an athlete.  Bobby had a sort of shaking problem where his hands would tremble, but worked hard and was very conscious of safety and production speed.  Like all planer operators, he was more than half deaf.  He had thin dark hair, wore glasses, and yelled at one constantly.  A lot of kids couldn’t work with him.  For whatever reason, he liked me, though that didn’t stop him from yelling at me all the time. I understood that part of his yelling was over the mill noise, and part was to help me stay safe, but I admit I could have done with a few less ass-chewings over the summers.

To be fair to Bobby, since he once saved my life and I once saved his, I have to explain how goddamn noisy this place was, that he had to yell over.  Guys who wore foam earplugs and earmuffs were half deaf. If you spoke in a normal voice, your sound failed to exist.  If you spoke up very loudly without yelling, a person right next to you might catch some of it.  If anyone actually needed to hear what you had to say, you yelled at the top of your lungs to pierce the steady background roar.

One fine summer early 1980s day, Bobby and I were feeding #3.  The machine was having a lot of problems and Bobby spent much of the day inside.  I never knew, really, when I should start up or stop the machine.  The light was not a good indicator, because at times the light would be on but Bobby would want us to keep running.  Other times, it would be off, yet Bobby would bellow like a rutting rhino for me to stop feeding.  I never had any idea what was going on, so I grew used to being bellowed at for circumstances beyond my knowledge.  A couple times so far that day, the light had gone off, I had hesitated to start up, and Bobby had come out to yell at me.  “Why the hell aren’t you starting the lumber up?” Okay, Bobby, I’ll do it.  Communication was not a strong suit there.

So, in early afternoon, came a time when the light went off–yet I could see the bulk of Bobby clambered all atop the planer (he had often been in this way at times I had been bitched at full bore for not starting up immediately).  No idea what was wrong, and it was impossible to go back and ask Bobby whether I should start–he would yell at me for not knowing what was obvious to him and mystery to me.  I decided it was better to be hollered at for productivity than for lazing about.  I saw the light bulb go out, punched the ON button, pedaled the hoist up and adroitly arranged the flow of lumber.  In seconds, through my earplugs came the high tearing whine of knives shaving wood.  Here we go!

For about five seconds.  At which time I heard an indefinable bellow from the planer shack (we left the door open).  Sort of a “HEEEYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY!!!!!” but that doesn’t really define it; that makes it sound like Fonzie.  More like a stallion might emit when prohibited from approaching a mare in heat.  Or perhaps a bull bison denied access to his favorite cow.  I could hear it above the deafening roar of the planer, and looked to my left (toward Bobby).

There he was, and it was snowing.  Snowing shavings, to be specific.  The pipe to the fuelhouse was apart, causing the blower to vent the shavings into the air, settling onto Bobby’s shoulders and stringy sweaty hair.  I’ll never forget it.  He had his arms raised to the heavens and a look of full astonishment, as if I had just done the most creatively stupid deed he could ever recall.  His mouth was wide open in the bellow as the ‘snow’ accumulated on him.  A little surprised he didn’t inhale a few.


Evidently I wasn’t supposed to start up the machine yet after all.  I stopped putting lumber on the table, sent the last board through, pulled the cord and waited for the advanced technology to rid us of the final board.  All the while, of course, there stood Bobby in a shaving snowstorm.  He had about an inch of accumulation, I noted somewhat wryly, keeping any sign of a smirk off my face.


“I’m doing the boards, Bobby,” I answered, aware how lame and obvious this was.


“Well, the light went off, and you’ve yelled at me several times today if I didn’t get moving when the light went off.”


Iron control, slay any hint of levity in the womb.  “Uh… Bobby…you were…kind of in the way.”  After all, he really did not make a very good window.  “And you often have me running when you’re doing stuff.”

For his faults (his son being the chiefest), Bobby had some sense of fairness.  He showed this, this time, by ceasing to yell at me.  He simply gaped at me a little longer, as if stunned that anyone so mentally defective as myself could be admitted to a college (or begotten by his supervisor’s supervisor), turned and shambled back into the shack to finish his work.

I still got yelled at a lot, but I’ll never forget that rutting-animal bellow and the sight of shavings snowing  on Bobby’s head.


4 thoughts on “The day I really screwed up on the planer”

  1. You have pitch-perfect quoting abilities: “Couldn’t you see that I had everything all took apart in there?” LOL Thanks for the first laugh of the day.


    1. Thanks, Christi! I wish I had a pic of Bobby, because my painting of his voice may be more adequate than the image. In the face he actually looked like an aging Charles Manson without the evil. A 6’5″ pear-shaped Manson without a cruel bone in his body.


  2. Wonderful story…I could picture it all perfectly. It reminded me of the time my husband lost the tip of one of his fingers when he and another maintenance guy were working on a machine. His co-worker thought hubby was done and flipped on the machine before hubby’s hand were away from the chain drive. His co-worker (also one of his best friends) was horrified. Things can happen so quickly on a production line. I hope the snowfall of shavings was the worst thing Bobby every experienced.


    1. Oh hell, Debbie, that’s a good case to be made for the dangers of working around that sort of equipment if one is careless. And no, I regret to say, it’s not the worst thing that ever happened to him. I may tell the story of that–it involved a cockeyed board shoving him up against a wall and about to start pushing through him. Then there was the day we fought the oil fire.


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