‘Pattern makers are a dying breed’

By From page A1 | October 10, 2012


PATTERN MAKER Billy Moore, 72, holds wooden patterns he made of railroad parts in his workshop on Silverado Road. Democrat photo by Shelly Thorene

As a pattern maker, Billy Moore, 72, is a member of a select group of highly skilled craftsmen.

Unfortunately it’s a craft that is slowly disappearing.

A casualty, like so many others, of the offshoring of much of America’s industrial base to places like China, India, and Mexico, Moore has an expertise that is now largely only put to use in the service of the few and the well to do.

Born in Long Beach, Moore began his career as a pattern maker at a company called National Supply Company in Torrance, California. The company manufactured oil drilling equipment and industrial steel products.

Moore started work there in 1964 while taking classes at the local junior college. “But once I got into pattern making, that was the end of that,” he said. It was at National Supply where he learned his craft. “It was 38 acres of buildings, foundries, storage, machine shops and giant lathes. Mainly I did oil field draw-works which is the complete system for drilling for oil.”

He said he also worked on making patterns for fuel test stands for the Rockwell B-1 Bomber, 40-foot-long cannons, pulleys, turbines, and a lot of commercial and industrial gate valves.

In 1971, Moore left National Supply and with a partner opened a pattern making company called Lomita Pattern Engineering. They operated it from 1971 to 1980 doing subcontracting work for the likes of Rockwell, Lockheed, Douglas Aircraft, Northrop, and National Supply.

Jobs included making patterns for oil field equipment as well as for steam engines, pump turbines, heater ducts and manifolds. They also took on more exotic projects such as a water impeller for the City of Singapore and making all the components for the HiMAT jet fighter. HiMAT stands for Highly Maneuverable Aircraft Technology. Built by Rockwell International for NASA, it was a remote-controlled plane made of composite materials.

In 1979, after looking for a new place to live, Moore and his family moved to Placerville. He set up shop on his property and continued working, but he could already see that pattern making was starting to move to China and India the same way manufacturing had.

His old employer — National Supply — finally closed up shop in 1985. It was Torrance’s last old factory to go. “There’s a Taco Bell on the site now,” said Moore.

Cast aside

While the pattern-making business declined nationally, Moore continued working on and off in the trade from his ranch in Placerville. At the same time, he renamed his company The Wood Barn.

Moore said to make a pattern, a designer or the customer typically gives him a drawing or prototype of what they want and then he machines or carves the pattern out of wood, metal, or high-impact epoxy taking into account the amount of shrinkage in the casting material. Typically wood patterns are made of mahogany or sugar pine because those woods are easy to work with.

Once completed, the pattern is taken to a foundry where they pack it in sand. The sand is held together with a binding material and then baked to make the mould. The completed mold is then used to cast a part or a die. Moore said that in the past, foundries used molasses as a binder and when they baked the molds, it smelled like they were making cookies. Now most use a product called Co2 sand which turns into brick.

Over the years, Moore has turned a part of his backyard into a machine shop to carry out his business. He converted an old metal chicken shed into a workshop that is filled with tools, equipment, and odds and ends. “I’ve done several million dollars worth of work in this chicken shed,” he said.

Adjacent to the workshop stand different kinds of milling and planing machines and a 5,000-pound slab of granite used to check the flatness of items. Another large shed holds more milling equipment and a slap belt lathe that runs on a leather belt and rumbles like a small airplane engine once cranked up. Moore said he hasn’t used it in a long time, as evidenced by all the dust and leaves in the room, but it started right up nonetheless.

Vintage work

Moore admitted that since 1999 he hasn’t been doing the same kind of work he’s done most of his life “once the foundry industry left me standing in the road.” Instead, over the past few years, he’s built a different business doing auto restorations and recreating vintage parts for customers.

A current project he is working on is restoring the metal frame of a 1927 Ford Model T Touring Car that is badly corroded. “It’s for a local,” he said.

He’s also made patterns for the spoked wheels of vintage cars and the control wheels of two vintage planes: a Travel Air and a Stinson Junior monoplane. Moore said for a number of years he and his wife both flew small planes. He even bought a plane that had crashed into the top of a tree and spent four years fixing it up. But he later sold it and stopped flying altogether after hearing about the number of small plane crashes.

Two large-scale restoration projects he has tackled in the past required returning vintage automobiles to their original condition. One was a 1948 Dodge Hilo Sampan that had, at one time, been used as a tour bus on the Kona Coffee plantation in Hawaii. He cut it off behind the windshield and then rebuilt the rest of it right down to the island themed upholstery and wood panels on the sides of the car. It took him three years to do and was finished in 2010. The vehicle now resides with its owner in Palos Verdes.

He also restored a 1932 Packard Model 900 for a client in Texas. He said it took 18 months from start to finish.

“I started with a complete car but it was in rough shape,” he said. “I took 100 percent of everything off the frame of the Packard, took the frame apart, and then repaired, repainted, and rebuilt the entire car.”

He said the finished car is now worth $150,000 and when it was shown at a Concours d’Elegance, it scored a 99.8 percent.

Moore said people are willing to spend a lot of money restoring old cars because of the feelings attached to them. “It’s a strange phenomenon. It may be because that’s the model of their parents’ first car or the car they used on their first date with their wife to be.”

Nowadays, Moore said he doesn’t want to make patterns even though he estimates he’s the only pattern maker within 50 miles.

“I prefer working on old cars,” he said. “Pattern makers are a dying breed.”

Contact Dawn Hodson at 530-344-5071 or [email protected] Follow @DHodsonMtDemo on Twitter.

Dawn Hodson

  • Recent Posts

  • Enter your email address to subscribe and receive notifications of new posts by email.

  • Special Publications »

    Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our Terms of Service (updated 4/30/2015) and Privacy Policy (updated 4/7/2015).
    Copyright (c) 2016 McNaughton Newspapers, Inc., a family-owned local media company that proudly publishes the Daily Republic, Mountain Democrat, Davis Enterprise, Village Life and other community-driven publications.