Jerry Blanchard: The Pleasure of Quality

On Craftmanship  •  by Jerry Blanchard  |  When I was a boy, Sport and Rose Rudolph and their two sons Rocky and Sandy were neighbors; living about half a mile away in Glendale, California. Sport was a colorful and interesting man. He had once owned a race horse and told fascinating stories of races where “buzzers” or small battery powered shocking devices were used to get more speed from horses in a race and then ditched over the rail in the last turn. He talked about the rules of horse racing and of how he lost a fine horse to another man when a rarely used claiming rule was exercised.

Sport worked for Superior Tool and Die in Burbank, California and they made many fine things including the Mustang motorcycle which was sort of between a scooter and a full sized motorcycle. Sport told of his having punched filler holes in gas tanks one night shift and accidentally getting the holes in the wrong half of the tanks. He said for years that one of the slack time jobs at the shop was brazing up the incorrect holes. I remember seeing there a large punch press making thousands of aluminum Hop-a-long Cassidy coins. The press was automatic and had an air blast timed to eject the finished coins from the press. Coins had filled a huge cardboard box and were spilled in heaps on the floor around the press. I still look in antique shops to see if I can find one of those coins.

Sport often said that anyone could do a ten cent job with a million dollars worth of tools but it took a real craftsman to do a million dollar job with ten cents worth of tools. I have two tools of Sports that Rose gave to me after Sport died: a fine Browne and Sharpe one inch micrometer that reads to a ten thousandth of an inch, and a Stanley scrub plane with corrugated bottom and rosewood handles. I use both often in my work and always think of Sport when I do.

Sport often said that anyone could do a ten cent job with a million dollars worth of tools but it took a real craftsman to do a million dollar job with ten cents worth of tools.

For me, fine tools themselves have importance. They are more than just objects to obtain a certain result; they have a certain life and beauty of their own. I find difficult work goes better when my tools are good ones in good order. Pretty good work is not difficult for me to do these days, but really fine work takes not only skill but much mental and emotional effort. The true cutting edge of the tools is mind and emotion. It is helpful to have the right tools neatly laid out on a clean workbench: sort of a parallel to clearing the mind for the work at hand.

I have fine Starrett and Snap-On and Stanley tools, some of which belonged to my father, uncle, and grandfathers. I grew up knowing these brands to be excellent but with age and experience I learned they were not necessarily perfect in every case. Especially today when inspection standards have slipped for these companies, one has to inspect every tool and reject the poor quality ones. I do have a good selection of these brands as well as tools by other fine makers that I use a great deal. It pleases me to use precision tools that belonged to my father, my Grandfather Ralph, my Uncle Clarence ; and I oil and care for them well and think of these men each time I use them.  I believe it is important to record and pass on with a tool a record of who owned it and something of the history if known. I keep many records in my files about my own work and tools for this reason. Among craftsmen , artisans, and machinists, having fine old tools that belonged to your ancestors is sort of like having Grandpa’s gold watch.

I have made many tools over the years and especially like the smaller ones for hand work. I make most of the knobs for my engraving tools; turning them on my lathe from special and rare woods that in many cases have special memories for me. I made my snake wood handled burnisher for sharpening wood scrapers and turned a special ferrule for it from a one inch diameter bar of silicon bronze Neil Weston gave me when we worked together in the Carmel Highlands building his 35 foot wooden sailing vessel the Kraig W.

I used a short length of the thick walled seamless copper pipe we used for the rudder shaft tube to make a little cup to hold engravers pitch. I use it to hold delicate objects by heating them and sticking them in the pitch for engraving.

My favorite gravers ball I made from stainless steel and use it a great deal. My friend Bob Ditrick, owner of Ditrick Industries machine shop in Burbank, California allowed me to use his shop to do milling and turning of parts for the ball. Bob is the finest machinist I have ever known.

Bob had been plant manager of one of the two plants of Applied Research Laboratory in Los Angeles. My father was plant manager of the other. My father later became assistant to the vice president of the company before losing that job when Bausch and Lomb purchased the company and brought in their own staff. I had worked for Bob and his lovely wife Juanita while I was in college; working as a machinist during the summer. Years later when I was teaching Industrial Arts in Monterey, California, Bob got me some special aircraft grade stainless steel and made room over a weekend so I could use his vertical mill to cut the slides on the jaws and base of the gravers ball. It was a marathon weekend because of the large amount of difficult close tolerance machining to do in very tough 17-4 PH stainless steel. Later when I had finished the rest of the machining and hand work on the ball in my own shop in Monterey, Bob had the jaws and base heat treated by a company doing aerospace certified heat treatment. The ball holds many good memories for me of Bob and Juanita, and Elizabeth¹s patient support during the long days of machining.

I have built many things of larger nature: my 50 ton hydraulic press, a portable chainsaw sawmill, rolls for shaping steel bars, a strong bender for metals, large sheet metal stakes and holder, gear and chain driven drawbenches for pulling precious metal wire and rods through dies, large workbenches, various pieces of furniture and casework, buildings,etc. These larger things are useful but do not have for me the appeal of smaller things I can use often and transport easily. When I travel I like to take along a few smaller things I have made and particularly like: my personal snakewood walking stick; a hinged box in thick silver and gold with a Burmese ruby in one gold knob, held safely in a leather case I made of alligator lined with ostrich leather; my personal locking folding knife made of 6AL4V titanium and heat treated 17-4PH stainless steel and gold with a blade of wrought Stellite 6K cobalt alloy, the metal for which was given to me be the Cabot Corporation. I made a case for the knife from shark leather lined with pigskin , all hand stitched; and made a forged and engraved silver knob for the case. There are other items in silver and African Blackwood, and snakewood, and antique tortoiseshell that I carry as well. Holding the silver box in its alligator case is pleasing to me and I often slip it into my jacket when going out. I know the little secrets of its making and appreciate the thickness and heavy weight of its parts.

My rifles, made long ago, were very challenging works: fiendishly difficult in part because of my youth and lack of experience. In a way they were journeys into far and strange lands and having made the journeys I returned wiser and more experienced.

My sons Michael and Morgan each have one of the rifles, and they are old enough and knowledgeable enough to properly care for them. They also have all the drawings and tooling and prototypes and certification papers and records on the materials and wood.

Again, I believe it is very important to keep records on ones work: a little message down the years to other craftsmen and owners.