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The Big Dog and Barking at Young People

The Big Dog and Barking at Young People

p>Jay Leno, host of the Tonight Show, is on the cover of American Machinist this month holding a new part for a stationary steam engine built in 1831.

The engine is the oldest steam engine Leno has in his collection, which famously includes cars, motorcycles, steam engines and other stuff that he houses in his private garage — affectionately known as The Big Dog Garage.

The garage is Leno’s own personal playground. It’s about 17,000 square feet and has a metalworking shop that’s complete with a CNC mill, a standard mill, a lathe, a waterjet machine, sheet metal working equipment, and welding equipment.

His car collection ranges from a 1909 Stanley Steamer and a 1909 Baker Electric car; to a variety of classic motorcycles that go back to a Hartford, Conn.- built 1918 Pope; to a 2006 Corvette and a variety of other vehicles and enough collectibles to make any metalhead envious.

The new engine part Leno is holding was recently re-engineered with a computer-aided manufacturing program — GibbsCAM — so that it would last longer and keep the engine running longer.

One of the great things about Leno is his passion for those cars and bikes and other stuff in his collection. And if you go to his garage website (, you can watch as he talks about several of his pieces in videos that stream onto the page. He goes through the history of the vehicles and talks about why they’re in his collection. The video on his Stanley Steamer is particularly entertaining.

Leno’s genius is to combine the use of the Internet with his passion for the artisanal machines that he has collected, and I wish that some of his genius and passion could be transferred to more of today’s young people.

The consistent message you get from his website is that “These old machines are cool,” and — if you read about how the steam engine part was re-made with the help of GibbsCam — it’s likely you’d think that what’s happening now in machine shops also is cool.

It’s a fact that we have gone from the hand-crafted machines that Leno collects to more utilitarian machines. The machines of today don’t have the aesthetics of the 1938 Bugatti that’s in The Big Dog Garage. But only a few people at the time could have afforded to own that hand-made Bugatti; the vehicles we build today are owned by millions.

Some aesthetics were dropped as we moved from the artisan world into today’s high-volume manufacturing, but at the same time, the brain power that went into the aesthetics now is focused on the impressive technology — the CAM packages, five-axis machines, and such — that produce everything we demand for our lives today.

Leno’s Internet page points out that he set up the machine shop in his garage because you can’t go to the local auto parts store to find parts for a car that was built a century ago.

But is that really different than the work our manufacturers do every day? After all, you can’t go to an industrial catalog to find wing components for Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner — or for that matter, components for any car or motorcycle that’s going to be built in 2009 and beyond.

Bruce Vernyi

These parts, too, will have to come from a machine shop. And they will start from a custom, one-off model. And if there are words to describe how “cool” the work is that machine shops are doing, I don’t know them.

It takes multimedia presentations — the type that you find at Leno’s website — to deliver that message, and those types of presentations are the things that kids in schools — kids who are needed in this industry — will respond to. Leno’s website could be a great resource for anyone who is reaching out to attract young people to this industry.

Bruce Vernyi
[email protected]

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