Troll YouTube long enough and chances are good that you’ll come across all kinds of videos of the “How It’s Made” genre. And buried in with the frying pans and treadmills and dental floss manufacturers, there no doubt will be deep dives on how pipe is made. Methods will vary by material, but copper, PVC, cast iron, or even concrete, what the pipe factories will all have in common is the high degree of automation they employ. With a commodity item like pipe, it’s hard to differentiate yourself from another manufacturer on features, so price is about the only way to compete. That means cutting costs to the bone, and that means getting rid of as many employees as possible.
Such was not always the case, of course, as this look at how Irish Stoneware & Fireclays Ltd. made clay pipe, drain tiles, and chimney flues back in the 1980s shows. The amount of handwork involved in making a single, simple piece of clay pipe is astonishing, as is the number of hands employed at the various tasks. The factory was located in Carrickmacross, County Monaghan, Ireland, near an outcropping of shale that forms the raw material for its products. Quarrying the shale and milling it into clay were among the few mechanized steps in the process; although the extrusion of the pipe itself was also mechanized, the machines required teams of workers to load and unload them.
The amount of handwork that went into the pipes once they came out of the extruder was remarkable, especially the sewer pipes. The creation of the “Armstrong junction,” a complex fitting that serves as a cleanout and inspection port for sewer lines, was fascinating to watch, especially since almost no jigs were used and no measurements were taken. It was strictly Mark I eyeball stuff, along with skill and decades of experience.
We love these documentaries that capture what are now some of the long-lost methods of making stuff. The “Hands” series was made in the 1980s by RTÉ, Ireland’s public service broadcaster, and one gets the sense that even then, long before the current wave of off-shoring and globalization had begun, they knew they were capturing the last days of dying industries. We’re glad they did.