Wizard Frames & Roofing Trusses
James & Frank Merlin
The sign above the entrance said it all. My father James and his Brother Frank ran a frame and truss manufacturing business. My father started out building houses with Frank as his apprentice; the usual practice was to order the rough sawn timber and then cut it to size on the job site. Father realised this was a time wasting procedure so set about procuring a disused aircraft hanger and erecting it on the family farm.
With the hanger, now a workshop, he purchased machinery to speed up the operation. Rough sawn hardwood went through a planer thicknesser and dressed all sides, this gave them a uniform and easy to handle lengths of timber. Instead of cutting individual lengths they now were cutting batches of the same size, with careful planning, they cut all the timbers for a house. A series of jigs to aid assembly with a portable gang nail press and air operated nail guns they realised a huge saving in time, plus the added advantage of being out of the weather.
Very soon other builders noticed the ease which the Merlins were erecting their houses. Inquiries to manufacture frames and trusses followed. As the workload increased they found themselves focusing on the framing and the building side of the business declined until framing became a full time operation. Wizard Frames and Roofing Trusses was born.
I grew up with sawdust in my boots and splinters in my fingers, from an early age I was in the workshop every spare moment. I started by pushing a broom and picking up scrap pieces of lumber. Nothing was wasted, the scrap lumber was sold for firewood and the shavings and sawdust to farmers to put down in muddy areas, garden suppliers were also buying it as well.
As I grew older and more responsible, they trained me to use the planer and the docking saw. Safety was always pounded into my head, every docking order had a safety heading on the slip and woe betide me if I tried to take short cuts. After I finished my schooling I was indentured as an apprentice, by this time I was able to carry out all facets of the business. Strong emphasis was placed on the office side of things, in particular reading and interpreting blueprints.
With the post war boom, housing was in great demand, the influx of European migrants into Australia meant we were supplying more and more house lots. This meant more employees, quite a few were non English speaking migrants, a hammer is still a hammer even if it's from a different lingo and soon they were working as good as anyone else.
With a surname of Merlin I soon gained the nickname of 'Wizard' which soon broke down to 'Wiz', I wondered why the girls all giggled when they heard it, until one informed me that when girls took a leak the called it going for a 'whiz'. Strange creatures girls.
As time marched on, radiata pine replaced the good old Aussie hardwood, this came in fully dressed and speeded up our production even more; the builders appreciated as well because of the weight and uniformity. Our scrap ends were now run through a finger jointer giving an end product equal to, if not stronger than the original.
I had a mate, Freddie Smith, he worked as an apprentice motor mechanic with the local passenger bus service. Our great plan was to buy an old bus and do it up as a caravan and go around Australia. Man plans and God decides. In the last year of my apprenticeship the bus company Freddie worked for, decided to upgrade its fleet of buses. Freddie advised me that an old Bedford was in fairly good nick, the engine had been recently overhauled, with a bit of skulduggery he arranged to scavenge a good set of tyres from the other busses that were up for sale. Uncle Frank was a good friend of the owner and worked out a good deal, he and Dad then gave the bus to me as a present for completing my apprenticeship. Freddie's parents were adamant, their son was NOT going to be bumming around our great land until had finished his apprenticeship, which sadly for him was a fair way off.
With the bus in the yard, I proceeded to strip the interior. Mr Price, an old employee who was about to retire, took a great interest in my project.
"Tony, as you know I'm getting close to retirement, My dear wife runs a pretty tight ship and is very set in her ways. When I'm home full time I will be under her feet, this won't make her a very happy person. Why am I telling you this? I need a project, would you allow me to help you fit out your bus, I don't want payment, just the opportunity to ease into retirement."
"Mr Price, I would be honoured to have you help me, you have the old time skills that I never had the time to learn, this would be a tremendous help."
And so project motor home was launched. Mr Price true to his word turned an old bus into a very comfortable home. The day arrived and Freddie and me took her for a shakedown cruise, a weekend over at the beach ... perfection. Freddie suggested we talk to an old school mate who had taken an apprenticeship as a sign writer to jazz up the exterior. Ray Clough took to the project with great enthusiasm.
"She needs a name Wiz, what are you going to call her?"
We kicked around a few and came up with 'Alchemy', with a name like Merlin and a nickname Wiz, what else could it be? Ray took to the project with great gusto, the exterior paintwork was cream and good condition, with a maroon stripe bearing 'Logan's Bus Line' along both sides. An application of wet and dry abrasive paper soon had the banner removed, masked up and repainted Ray then applied his skills and 'Alchemy' was born.
"Looks good Ray, you're not just a pretty face mate."
"Thanks Tony, what I would like to do if you don't mind, is paint a mural on the front and back."
"What have you got in mind Ray, not naked women I hope."
"No, what I thought was a portrait of Merlin the magician, I reckon it would look shit hot and fitting with the name."
"If you've got the time and patience go for it mate, I reckon a trip to the beach for us is fast approaching, that's the least I could do for payment."
"I'm looking more at putting a picture of my work in my portfolio Wiz, but yes a beach trip would be grouse."
Alchemy now in all her glory and what glory, Ray had out done himself, a brooding Merlin in full wizard regalia glared down from the front and back of the bus.
"Ray you are a genius and I can see you going far with this type of work."
"Wiz, thanks for the opportunity to express myself, if you prang Alchemy up I'll never forgive you."
"No way mate, she's special. Start planning for a week end at the beach, we's agoin' in style."
The trip to the beach was exceptional, the bus with Ray's artwork was a chick magnet and Ray was bursting with pride whenever I pointed him out as the artist.
With the bus complete I suggested to Mr Price that he take his wife on a week's holiday, he'd put a lot of time and effort into the project and now was the time to reap the rewards.
When they returned, he suggested a few small mods that Mrs Price though would make life a bit easier. I told him to go ahead and make it happen.
My uncle Frank had two sons who were just starting their time. My cousins, Sam and Joe were keen to get started with their apprenticeship, like me they had started at an early age pushing the broom and working their way up. It was time for me to discuss taking a sabbatical.
Over tea that evening I broached the subject with Mum and Dad. "Now I've finished my apprenticeship and Alchemy is ready, I want to take a twelve month sabbatical. When I return I'll throw myself fully into the business."
"You're far too young to go traipsing all over the country Tony..."
"Slow down there Mavis, he's not a kid any more, he's old enough to vote, go into a pub and if there was a war, old enough to join up. Tony has worked hard, right from a ten year old up to now; he's done a fine job and I'm proud to call him my son. I'm getting to the age where I should be tapering off and letting him have more responsibility. He needs this break to get out and sow a few wild oats and see a bit of the world."
"You better not be sowing any wild oats, any children from you will be from a proper Catholic marriage, just be very certain of that Tony, we brought you up to be a good boy."
"Mum, a sabbatical isn't a licence to rape and pillage, all I want is a chance to make it on my own and see a bit of the world. As Dad said, when I come back I'll be shouldering more responsibility."
With a lot more discussion and Mum putting several demands on the trip (which Dad tipped me the wink) it was agreed I would take a year off, but I would need to keep in touch and let them know where I was staying.
So, with everything I needed or thought I would need packed, I set out on my journey. With foresight I had enquired about a grape picking contract I had seen in a newspaper. Contact with the vineyard owner and I had my first job. It was a fresh morning and I was full of enthusiasm, keen to put a few miles under Alchemy's tyres.
Alchemy was a suburban bus, although it had a split differential for highway use, it was a bit tiring to drive for any great distance, my plan was to drive for two hours and then stop for a cuppa, a leak and to stretch my legs. Six hours driving was my planned maximum behind the wheel, I wasn't on a fixed timetable so there was no hurry to get there.