WOODWORKERS AND TINSMITHS
Woodworkers and tinsmiths spent many hours working on the body of the L&K model (1914)
EACH CAR BODY IS UNIQUE
Until the early 1950s, woodworkers were among the carmaker’s busiest employees. The load-bearing framework – timber support – was covered, for example, with artificial leather and later solely with sheet metal.
The lumber yard in the Kvasiny plant (around 1935)
A wheelwright working on spokes set in perimeter felloes (1914). During the L&K period, the wheelwright shop was part of the wood shop
The body framework was mainly made of hardwood, such as ash, oak, maple or beech. Ash wood was the most suitable because of its strength (with low weight) and flexibility, as well as easy machinability and pliability. Initially, the timbering was nailed not with sheet metal panels but with boards made of poplar, linden or alder covered with Fabricoid, which is “artificial leather” or, more precisely, ground leather scraps with a binder. The floors were made of oak planks, and hardwood also came in handy for the felloes and spokes of wheels. Not surprisingly, 100 years ago, wooden parts made up a good quarter of a car’s weight. Supports, ribs, reinforcements and partitions used to be connected with pins, battens, screws or glue, mainly of animal origin – for example, from ground horns. Experts from Mladá Boleslav were doing an extra precise job. They created mahogany cabinets, minibars and other gorgeous interior elements for luxury models. And what did the old woodworkers’ equipment look like? Instead of computer-controlled CNC machine tools, they used vertical band and circular saws, milling machines, lathes, hand planes, chisels, rasps, sandpaper…
The company headed for serial assembly by constructing a five-storey body shop in 1926 (today, it houses the ŠKODA Academy, including the VSME). Wood travelled from the basement warehouse to the dryer (its humidity could not exceed 10%) and then to the wood shop on the ground floor. The first floor consisted of upholstery and saddlery workshops, using almost exclusively natural materials: woollen fabrics, felt or pressed animal fur or horsehair, seagrass and the like. Timber supports for car bodies were assembled on the second floor. Next up, one floor above, was plating, which used thousands of nails – as in the case of attaching upholstery. Finally, car bodies were painted on the fourth floor.
It was only after World War I that felloe wheels with separately removable rims began to give way to sheet-metal discs. In the early 1930s, metal stampings eventually prevailed. Wooden floors and dashboards disappeared soon as well. The steering wheel’s wooden rim was replaced with plastic.
The timbering itself became a thing of the past in 1952 with the advent of all-metal bodies for the ŠKODA 1200 Sedan. However, the woodworker workshops did not disappear as they produced transport boxes for the global export of complete or disassembled ŠKODA cars.
… the rise of the tinsmiths
Sheet metal is much better suited to painting than a wooden board. The more durable material also makes it possible to form more demanding lines with a small radius of curvature.
An L&K tinsmith would pick up a sheet of metal from the warehouse in the morning and manually hammer an arch for a car that was being completed. Let’s say he turned his handiwork in before the end of the shift – and the next morning, he started to form a bonnet or a door from a new sheet. The result? Each piece was unique. Replacing the same part from another car would not be possible without slight adjustments in shape and dimensions. The work was slow, and manual hammering with thousands of blows made it impossible to create a perfectly smooth surface.
Work done by the first tinsmiths was extremely physically demanding (1911)
It was only the presses that opened doors to standardised dimensions and the much faster manufacturing of smoother body elements. In 1930, it began with arches for the ŠKODA 422 model, with pressed parts still delivered from Pilsen. In the mid-1930s, massive presses were already working in Mladá Boleslav as well. Although only a few thousand ŠKODA cars were manufactured each year, there were several model lines in countless designs, and they were often facelifted, so the tinsmiths had quite a lot on their plates.
Only the mid-1960s may be considered the start of genuine mass production, after the self-supporting bodies for the ŠKODA 1000 MB had been introduced. The esteemed expert bringing it to life was engineer and designer Zdeněk Kejval. The development of bodywork design was led for many years by Josef Velebný, whose grandson Michal works as coordinator of the restoration workshop in the ŠKODA Museum and presents the historical episode of the My Machine series on YouTube.
Manual tinsmithing modifications to the windscreen frame of the popular FELICIA convertible (1959)
Manufacturing of bodywork for the Model 120 already bore the hallmarks of advanced automation (1976)
Some of the most modern equipment in the industry is currently running in Mladá Boleslav: The servo-mechanical PXL I line was put into operation in 2013 and PXL II in April 2017, which started with a daily capacity of 22,000 pressings for various models. It is technologically ready to produce large aluminium parts (pressing force of 8,100 tonnes) as well. The commissioning of PXL II, weighing 3,000 tonnes, has brought 140 new jobs.