Bernie and the jet

The mechanic at Jay Leno's Big Dog Garage finds that waterjets are a cut above the rest

The FABRICATOR April 2006
April 11, 2006
By: Dan Davis

Jay Leno's car collection, housed at the Big Dog Garage in Burbank, Calif., is not meant to collect dust. These cars are to be driven. Bernard Juchli is in charge of that, and now he has a waterjet to help him fabricate hard-to-find or non-existent parts and to keep the cars on the road.

What do you give one of the world's most recognized entertainers who owns a collection of 84 cars and 73 motorcycles? A waterjet sounds appropriate.

Of course, the waterjet won't help Jay Leno with his "Tonight Show" monologues, but it has done wonders in terms of keeping his car and motorcycle collection up and running. That's pretty much the raison d'etre for Leno's Big Dog Garage, located in a Burbank, Calif., industrial park.

Bernard Juchli runs the garage and is the master mechanic. He used to own a Jaguar repair shop in northern California, worked on Leno's Jaguar XK 120®, and postponed semiretirement five years ago to run the garage.

Juchli and Leno share a passion for cars and motorcycles. Juchli raced vintage Jaguars during the '80s and '90s and still races motorcycles during the spring and summer. Leno, who once worked at a car dealership when he was a kid, purchases vehicles with the intention of driving them, and he has written about those experiences in a column for Popular Mechanics called "Jay Leno's Garage."

"He's an absolute motorhead. This is what he lives for—his cars and bikes," Juchli said.

Juchli keeps that passion alive with some help. Juchli's wife Roslie details the cars, and Jim Hall handles fabricating and engineering. A body and paint technician, a security guard, and a handyman round out the Big Dog Garage team.

This 1930s Rolls-Royce chassis with a Merlin V-12 engine from a World War II-era Mosquito fighter plane is symbolic of Jay Leno's car collection. It's a technological marvel that's a joy to drive. Unfortunately, parts are hard to come by, and that's where the waterjet helps.

No Parts Store for These Parts

So why does a garage need a waterjet? Because NAPA Auto Parts doesn't carry gaskets for a 1937 Fiat Topolino®.

That's a pretty specific example, but it's typical of the problems that the Big Dog team faces every day.

Big Dog Garage's Calypso HammerHead waterjet has a 5-ft. by 10-ft. work surface, and the KMT STREAMLINE SL-V 50 Plus pump is capable of producing a jet of water and abrasive up to 60,000 PSI. The team uses the waterjet system mostly to cut sheet metal, but they also have cut glass and carbon fiber material, which has a tendency to flake up quickly if too much pressure is applied.

"The idea is to be able to do whatever we need to do in-house," Juchli said. "Of course, for a lot of the cars that we have there are just no parts.

"These Stanley steamers we have here," he continued. "If you need something, you have to make it. Or with our 1925 Doble, another steamer. There are no parts. So you have to make everything."

Such is the case when the car collection spans nearly 100 years—from a 1906 Baker electric car to a 2005 Ford GT®. In some cases, cars in the collection were one-of-a-kind models or very few were made, so cannibalizing parts from other, similar cars is out of the question. In other cases, the Big Dog Garage creates a custom vehicle, such as the Bowtie Deuce roadster, a 1932 Ford chassis with a GM small-block V-8, the same engine used in the 2006 Corvette Z06®. The roadster made its debut at the 2005 Specialty Equipment Market Association Auto Show in Las Vegas.

"Every day there is something new that happens here, something new to fix," Juchli said. "Probably most of the time, we do things we have never done before. So each car is sort of a learning curve in how to fix it."

Water Works

Learning is always easier with the right tools. In 2005 Leno decided a waterjet would be a great fit for the garage.

"I thought that was great because there were a lot of things that we could cut with a waterjet. We had stuff sent out a lot of times to get it cut," Juchli said.

By the middle of the year, a Calypso HammerHead™ waterjet, with a 5- by 10-foot work surface and a KMT STREAMLINE™ SL-V 50 Plus intensifier pump, capable of pressurizing a jet of water to 60,000 pounds per square inch, was in place and ready for cutting at the Big Dog Garage. Calypso also provided a digital abrasive feeder, an air-conditioned computer console, and the Calypso software suite to round out the system.

Leno favors U.S.-built equipment, which is one reason the Calypso and KMT combination ended up in his garage. The Big Dog Garage also has Lincoln Electric welding equipment, likely made in Cleveland, and a Fadal machining center, manufactured in Chatsworth, Calif.

Steam-powered cars, such as these Stanley steamers and this 1925 Doble (above), could sit in a corner and gather dust, but Leno prefers to drive them. To get them up and running, the Big Dog Garage once had to rely on others to fabricate gaskets and gears. That led to the acquisition of the waterjet.

Another reason for the purchase was Leno's respect for the technology. John Dedic, marketing manager for KMT Waterjet Systems, recalled two specific questions Leno asked about the KMT equipment. First, he wanted to know why it was important for the pump to stroke slowly (so the equipment's two seals won't wear out as fast), and second, he wondered why the intensifier pump had a threaded cylinder design (so that when it's time for maintenance, the pump simply can be unthreaded and pulled out).

The garage put the waterjet to use the first day it was delivered.

"We were able to make parts the same day. In fact, we needed some lock plates for a 1931 Bentley sedan," Juchli said. "Even with drawing that part for the first time and making the part, we probably spent only half an hour doing that. It would have taken hours to make it by hand, whittle it out of a sheet of metal."

Juchli admitted to having some difficulty adjusting to the waterjet. He said his inexperience with a machine that pumps water at such great pressures and operator error may have led to some minor leaks at the cutting head early on. But once he took the time to understand how the waterjet worked, simple maintenance steps solved the small problem.

"It's easy to replace seals and stuff like that yourself. It's designed to be user-serviced, so you don't have to call in a tech and wait for two days for the guy to show up and fix your machine," he said.

Automotive Applications

What happens if a cylinder head gasket is needed for a 1937 Fiat Topolino? You cut your own on the waterjet (inset), and you don't waste a call to the auto parts store.

After cutting the plates for the Bentley sedan on the day of delivery, the Big Dog Garage put the waterjet to work. The cutting applications are as varied as the vehicles in Leno's collection. Juchli shared a few with The FABRICATOR:

  • In the past when a gear was needed for a Stanley steam-powered car, a new gear was ordered, and it had to be sent out to a fabrication shop to get 6 inches cut out of the center of the solid gear. Now the garage team can do the work in-house.

  • Because the waterjet can cut a variety of nonferrous materials, the garage uses it to cut glass lenses for dashboard instruments.

  • When a 1937 Fiat Topolino needed a replacement shim to set up the end float on the crankshaft, the waterjet was used to cut metal shim material, which was as thin as 0.001 in. To cut the thin material without distorting it, the crew laminated the shim material between two aluminum pieces before engaging the waterjet.

  • Working on the differential on a 1950s Hudson Hornet®, the team needed adjustment shims. This time they stacked up stainless steel shim material, placed two pieces of aluminum on the top and bottom, clamped it together, and cut out several shims.

  • Because the waterjet is not a thermal cutting method, it can cut materials that otherwise would burn or melt if cut by plasma or laser. With this knowledge, Juchli used the waterjet to cut exhaust gaskets for the Topolino out of carbon fiber material. He said when you attempt to cut the same material with scissors, it flakes and falls apart.

  • Leno owns a homemade car built by teenager Robert Shotwell of Park Rapids, Minn., in 1931. (Leno took ownership of the car after Shotwell's death in 2004.) The crew wanted to install a new aluminum instrument panel on the Shotwell car, so Hall drew up the plan on the computer, put the aluminum sheet on the waterjet, and watched the panel come to life. Juchli said only a little bit of deburring was needed on the panel's back side. Before the team would have needed drills, hole punches, hack saws, files, and hours of time to create the same panel.

  • The garage had big chunks of 7075 aluminum hidden underneath a bench because no one could ever figure out what to use the 1.75-in.-thick material for. With the waterjet, they were able to cut off a smaller chunk of the metal, and then machine that smaller piece down for a needed part. The 2- to 4-in. cut of the thick aluminum on the waterjet saved hours of work with a band saw.

  • Leno's team needed a wing rib—a wing-shaped addition to a race car—for a restoration project. Hall used the software to create a plan to cut out a rib. The waterjet then was used to cut the rib shape out of plywood and a larger form out of aluminum. The aluminum was bolted to the plywood, and the metal edges hammered over. One new wing rib is close to completion.

Juchli now has his eyes set on Calypso's new software that simplifies part creation. A 2-D part to be fabricated only needs to be scanned, and the software can generate a computer program to re-create the original on the waterjet.

"We just scan it, load it into the computer, clean it up, put it into the waterjet, and cut it," Juchli said. "We'll save hours of drawing."

That'll give him time to attack one of the hundreds of jobs that await at the Big Dog Garage. This type of specialized approach to fabrication is becoming more common, according to KMT's Dedic.

"What we are seeing is that people who want to do rapid one-off production will use waterjet because it can cut a variety of materials," he said. "A lot of people want to cut many different things, and it's been a big change with job shops and fab shops."

Apparently, friends of the Big Dog Garage team have noticed as well.

"Now, of course, friends and people that we know know we have a waterjet. They come up with all of this stuff, and they ask if we can cut things for them," Juchli said.

So the man who owns a fleet of the coolest cars and motorcycles has friends asking to borrow time on the waterjet. That may not make for monologue material, but it's still pretty funny.

Calypso WaterJet Systems, 14086 Proton Road, Dallas, TX 75244, 972-488-8661, fax 972-488-8730,,

KMT Waterjet Systems, 635 W. 12th St., Baxter Springs, KS 66713, 620-856-2151, fax 620-856-5050,

Dan Davis

Dan Davis

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-227-8281

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The FABRICATOR is North America's leading magazine for the metal forming and fabricating industry. The magazine delivers the news, technical articles, and case histories that enable fabricators to do their jobs more efficiently. The FABRICATOR has served the industry since 1971.

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