This Mentor had a long career as a highly skilled die maker before he recently retired with nearly forty years experience in this trade. He rose to a position with one of the big three automakers where he supervised less experienced diemakers and worked closely with the company’s engineering departments. As technology evolved, he successfully made the transition to the more automated production of dies that required greater math and computer skills. His article contains a number of observations and personal experiences that we feel will be very helpful to YPNG members considering this skilled trade.
My Personal Experience as a Tool and Diemaker
My experience started in a job shop that built dies for larger companies like Ford. I went through a four-year apprenticeship before I became a die maker. I wanted to experience different kinds of die building so I left to go to a place that built die cast molds. These are not like sheet metal forming dies that are stamped out like a cookie cutter. They were closed and injected with liquid aluminum or zinc to make transmission cases for GM, Ford and Chrysler. That was a great learning experience. I then moved to a new shop to make molds that formed plastic parts. The process was similar to die cast but plastic was the material injected into the die instead of a metal.
I worked with many talented people and learned a lot from them. Some of the shops I worked in had 125 diemakers. These were big, productive shops and it was fun. But some things were not as much fun as others. I know I didn’t like to drill holes in the dies where the screws were inserted that held the dies together as much as shaping them. So I always tried to work on another piece of the die and avoid drilling the holes. I liked all the other duties of the trade because every day the job moved forward and you used your variety of skills to keep the job moving to the finish.
Math skills were in play all day long. Everything had a number as to the position on the die and you were always figuring what dimension had to be met to produce the needed outcome. Trigonometry was used a lot because almost every part is full of angles and they had to be figured out in order to machine any part of the die.
I worked for Ford for 31 years and loved to go to work. They are great people to work for. My pay when I left was about $34.00 dollars an hour. So I made a nice living. I once partnered up with a friend and started a small tool shop. It was while I was also working in another shop. We did well but the hours wore me down because it required so much of my time and I soon became exhausted. Machinery was expensive and we fought the good fight but after a year it was time to give it up. I regret that. But I learned how tough getting work was and the competition was huge. The love of the trade never left me and I miss it today as I am retired now.
My Overview of the Tool and Die Trade
Tool and die makers work with metals of all kinds including copper, brass, bronze and beryllium. But dies are most commonly made from a large variety of steel products. We would use machines to cut these steel pieces into precision shapes to either make a complete pattern for one complete die or a section for a multi- piece die.
Dies or tools, as the names are frequently interchanged, are made to specific sizes or dimensions. Every part on the die has a three dimensional position related to the designers finished drawing, whether it be on paper as a blueprint or on a drawing generated by a computer. These dimensions can be easily obtained from the paper drawing or the computer picture.
Precision drives the whole trade as I had to constantly be using my math skills to keep the die correct at all times during the build. The process went from drilling holes for screws to hold the die together to shaping and polishing the form to conform to the dimensional integrity of the finished product. The trade now requires a more sophisticated mind and not just mechanical skills but leading edge computer skills. The manufacturing business has evolved into a zero tolerance skill on the part of the engineers and designers down to the die makers on the floor of the shop. It is the die makers who put the finishing touches to the dies to make a beautiful product same as they have always done.
Apprenticeships and Other Training Programs
You can get tool and die training in trade schools and small colleges. The schools now teach mostly computer skills to run these complex machines that have replaced a lot of the die maker’s duties from the past.
Tool and die apprenticeships can be obtained in a number of ways. You can apply at a small or large tool and die shop, taking metal shop in high school or attending a junior college or trade school. These starting moves will help you acquire a position to start your training in a field where you can use your mechanical skills on a daily basis that will lead to a satisfying role in a trade.
Attending classes during the apprenticeship is also required. This is usually the math and functions of machining part of the tool and die trade. Although any part of the trade may be covered in school.
A great career can be enjoyed in this trade, as it is always something new every day. From building a die to make a milk bottle to making precision car parts, a lot of satisfaction can be had by joining this trade.
My Typical Day as a Die Maker
Starting to build a die involves selecting a size for your die shoe, a plate of steel that holds the die. It is larger than the die so it can be bolted to a machine called a punch press. Once this is selected you drill and bore precision holes to guide this plate along with another upper plate to complete the upper and lower die holders. The guide holes match the upper and lower plate to align the upper and lower die when they are finished and then attached to the shoes.
Next you select the proper tool steel to make the die. It is always larger than your finished die size to give extra steel stock to remove as you square up the die steel. The piece of steel you choose from the specifications of the designer requires it to have at least three square surfaces.
The first step is to saw off a piece of steel a quarter to a half inch larger on all sides for machining stock. Then you put the piece of die steel in large enough grinder to grind clean all slag and deformities. That side is called the face of the steel. You then turn 90 degrees and grind the side of the steel. You then turn the piece so all three surfaces form a square corner. The final step is to grind the end of the steel to a clean surface. Now you have three clean surfaces that all have a common corner. Face side and end has made a 0,0,0 corner at which to start the die steel.
All dimensions will now be taken from this square corner. This also requires another piece of steel the same size for the upper die, as a die is usually a minimum of two halves. So you would repeat the process of squaring up on the upper die steel. Now you have upper and lower pieces of die steel into which the form of the part is machined. Either the diemaker cuts this form into the upper and lower dies or has a person that runs a specific machine for this operation do so. A die maker runs many machines and cannot be well versed in all of them. This is especially true if the machines are computer controlled and require a complex programming before cutting the forms into the die halves. So die making requires a team effort.
Once the female shape and male shape are cut into the upper and lower dies, the surface of the die that forms the part must be hand worked to a fine finish to have a result a proper part produced from the die. Depending on the type of surface finish needed to form and make a proper finished part, polishing must be done to the level where there are no unwanted tool marks from the cutting process that show on the finished part produced by the die.
I have seen how technology has affected my trade. New methods are being used today to make dies quicker and more precise due to computer-controlled machines. When coming off these kinds of machines, the die requires little intervention by the diemaker to start making parts where in the past we often had to make adjustments to the die. This new technology has allowed more precise tolerances and has constantly improved the quality of the parts we made and the cars my company, Ford, produced.
Federal Labor Department Statistics
This trade is paid on an hourly basis and runs from a low of $15.03 for the bottom 10% to a high of $34.05 for the top 10% with a median pay of $23.06 per hour.
There are approximately 78,000 people employed in the U.S. as tool and die makers. The States with the largest number employed in this trade are the states in the industrial heartland around the great lakes and also California and Texas. But there are some employment opportunities for this trade in almost all states.
Job growth is estimated to be about 7% for the next several years as manufacturing is growing again in the US.