Master of his craft
Jerry Turner finds unique niche to turn his art into business
You could say Jerry Turner was a typical youngster – if your notion of “typical” were, say, Orville and Wilbur Wright.
“In kindergarten I carved a little boat, which I still have today,” recalled the Otis Orchards resident. “My folks could see I had a talent, so when I was in third grade they bought me a table jigsaw.”
Soon Turner was displaying entrepreneurial acumen, as well.
“My dad gave me a board off a job he was working at, and I made little pot holders. Out of that one board I earned $75.
“When I was in fourth grade, I had my own business cards printed, and I had four stores selling my products.”
Several years later, Turner discovered another passion.
“In the sixth grade, I told my dad I wanted to learn to fly. He said that was fine, as long as I paid for it. So I got a paper route and saved my money. By the time I was 16, I had enough for lessons, and I’ve been flying ever since.”
But for the past four decades, Turner’s primary focus has been reproducing small, decorative parts for antique cars, airplanes, motorcycles, bicycles, boats and snowmobiles.
He discussed the evolution of his company, Nostalgic Reflections, during a recent interview.
S-R: What did you think you’d do when you grew up?
Turner: I didn’t know. I was expected to go to college because my brother went. He’s a very brilliant man, but he admits barely knowing how to use a screwdriver. I was the opposite. I’m left-handed and dyslexic, so I’m a learn-by-watching kind of guy. After one year of college, I quit and got a job with McDonnell Douglas aircraft in California. I always loved anything to do with airplanes, so I was in seventh heaven working there.
S-R: What did you do at McDonnell Douglas?
Turner: I was hired as a tube finisher, but pretty soon I was transferred into a very interesting position. When there was what they called an A.O.G. job – an aircraft on the ground somewhere, waiting for a part – I would take a piece of stock to each operation and watch it being manufactured, and then march it out to the flight line for delivery. That’s where I learned a lot of the skills I’ve used ever since.
S-R: How old were you when you started this business?
Turner: Twenty-eight. A friend got me reinterested in antique cars, and I got a 1936 DeSoto. The car was missing certain parts, like the instrument faces. So I made my own. When my friend saw what I could do, he asked me to make him some door sill plates. They came out gorgeous. So he told others, including a transportation museum, about me, and almost right away I was busy making parts full time.
S-R: Were other people doing this?
Turner: Not to my knowledge. But two or three years later, I ran across an old-timer – Harry Pulfer – who had made this kind of stuff. He said, “I’m getting old and somebody has to do this,” and he taught me most of what I know.
S-R: So business was good from the start?
Turner: Absolutely. It’s just grown through word of mouth, yet I have customers all over the globe. If I’m working at 3 in the morning and the phone rings, it’s probably someone from Australia or Europe.
S-R: Is it lucrative?
Turner: Oh, yeah. But I’m a craftsman, not a businessman. If I had the knowledge to run this the way it should be run, it could be a fabulous business.
S-R: What’s going to happen when you quit?
Turner: Good question. I have two daughters and two sons, and all of them have their own talents and interests. So as far as somebody taking it over, I don’t think it will be anybody in my family. But as long as I can see and work with my hands, I’ll keep at it. I love making this stuff. If I were a multimillionaire, I’d be making it for free.
S-R: How many other people do it today?
Turner: I don’t think anyone else in the United States does this. Other people sell it on the Internet, but it comes from China and the Philippines. They look like mine from a distance, but when you get up close, you see theirs are screen printed and mine are acid etched like they’re supposed to be.
S-R: If someone had an original badge from, say, an Indian motorcycle next to one of your replicas, would they be able to tell the difference?
Turner: No, except one is new and the other is old. But a lot of my customers want me to add a patina to make mine look old.
S-R: Has anyone tried to pass off your reproduction as an original?
Turner: They do it all the time. I find my work on eBay constantly. I’ll see a bike badge I sell for $85 on eBay for $250, and the seller claiming it’s new old stock (meaning an original part that has been in storage for decades).
S-R: How can you tell it’s yours?
Turner: Well, an artist always knows his own work, and I have never been stumped yet.
S-R: What if someone wants a part they don’t have?
Turner: I do a lot of research on the Internet to see if I can find one, or I may go to an antique wrecking yard. Sometimes I can do it from a photograph and dimensions.
S-R: What’s the most popular thing you sell?
Turner: Bicycle badges. There are a lot of collectors out there. Occasionally I’ll sell a complete set of every badge I’ve made, which number in the thousands. Schwinn alone has produced more than 5,000 different bicycle badges, not all of them carrying the Schwinn name. They created their own competition to discourage others from getting into the bicycle business, so there were a lot of different brands out there that people didn’t realize were made by Schwinn.
S-R: When you make a custom item for someone, do you make more than one?
Turner: In most cases I’ll make six or eight extras that I can sell on eBay. I don’t do any advertising, other than throwing stuff on eBay.
S-R: And you call the item a reproduction?
Turner: Yes, and I get a lot of business from that. People say if he can do that, he can surely make our part.
S-R: Any particularly unusual requests?
Turner: Every job is an unusual request. People send me stuff – a part off their guitar or their buggy – and ask if I can reproduce it, and I’ll have to look at it with my microscope and try to figure out how it was made originally. Then I make my own tooling to reproduce it the same way. The earliest stuff I’ve reproduced was from the mid-1800s.
S-R: Any requests from famous clients?
Turner: Not personally, but I’ve done things through other people. Someone in Germany ordered some plaques for Yoko Ono. And I’ve made stuff for astronauts.
S-R: Is most of what you reproducce decorative?
Turner: Yes. You might say it’s the jewelry of automobiles or bicycles or airplanes.
S-R: Is there anything you can’t reproduce?
Turner: Not to my knowledge. But there are things I elect not to do, such as doors and body parts. I don’t like making big stuff.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Turner: The artistry and detail that went into creating these things in the first place.
S-R: What do you like least?
Turner: The phone. It rings constantly.
S-R: Is trademark protection ever an issue?
Turner: Yes. That’s why I don’t make anything for a car that’s newer than 15 years old. That’s the cutoff.
S-R: Have you ever been sued?
Turner: No, but I did receive a cease-and-desist letter from John Deere. I explained to them why what I do is in their best interest. If you go to an antique tractor show and see an old John Deere that’s been repainted but still has its original, beat-up old data plates and instrument faces, it’s bad for the company. I said, “You’re shooting yourself in the foot when you come after me, because I’m making your products look like they have longevity.” After months of research, their attorney called and said they decided I make quality products and they’d look the other way. I said, “Would you please put that in writing?” And the attorney said, “Absolutely not!”
Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at email@example.com.