Al Osterman of Cave Junction shows an example of his work, a scale model of an 1880 W.F. Barnes metal lathe shop.

The Soul of an Old Machine

Al Osterman has built just about every kind of industrial machine and tool you can think of — metal lathe, milling machine, shaper, vise, planer, power hammer and more — by hand, and in miniature.

If you leaf through the thick album containing photographs of his creations, it's like getting a glimpse into a century-old shop, until you notice the thimble or pencil or ruler in the picture that gives away the size of his perfectly replicated miniatures.

The 83-year-old Junction City resident has been interested in tools and machines his entire life, starting in childhood when he used to love watching his grandfather, a tinsmith and plumber.

By the time he was in high school, "I remember sitting in study hall drawing machine tools," Osterman recalls.

"Cars didn't interest me," he says, but aviation did. "I was kept so busy with the family farm. And when I did have a little time off, I would go to the airport."

While four of his friends built their own airplane, Osterman "measured it, made drawings and made a model. I've just always had the urge to make things."

Born and raised near San Jose, Calif., Osterman grew up in the family's nursery business.

"We had fruit trees, ornamentals and hundreds of thousands of rose bushes," he says, but he didn't want to make that a career.

Because of illness and injury sustained in World War II, he couldn't fly planes, "so I got interested in firearms," Osterman says.

When the state condemned 30 acres of nursery land for a school and then built a big highway overpass right over it, the family moved to Oregon and bought 12 acres of land east of Eagle Point, along what's now Highway 140.

When his parents retired, he built a shop and put a sign in front it which read "Al Osterman Riflemaker" and "it really worked," he says.

He custom-built rifles from scratch, usually starting with specifications provided by the customer.

"Most people wanted their choice of inlays" on the stock, Osterman said. On old-style rifles that usually meant curly designs, or once in a while an animal.

Part of his job involved repairing old rifles, including some that came across the plains with the ill-fated Donner Party that became lost and stranded during a winter blizzard in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

"A lot of the old rifles were kept in the family, and often they ended up in a corner somewhere — usually in a pantry," he says. "For some reason back then, people would put a new coat of apple-green paint on their cupboards every year, and there were a lot of rifles with green paint spatters on them."

He kept on with the firearm business after he moved to Springfield in 1978 to be nearer his grown sons. Eventually he sold the business and moved to Junction City, where he continued making his exquisitely detailed miniature machinery. A collector named Ralph Koebbeman purchased a whole machine shop's worth of the little machines, which now are on display in a museum in St. Charles, Mo., Osterman says.

He crafts most of his models one-sixth the size of the originals, and he takes pride in using the same metals for each part that were used in the originals.

"I use mostly iron and steel, and bronze bearings," Osterman says. "It can be hard to do, but it's authentic."

Although age has diminished his eyesight, he dons his blue work apron and spends most of each day in his well-equipped workshop.

"Work keeps me busy; I have two part-time apprentices," he says. "One makes flutes. The other is a retired heavy machinery repairman; he built a model steam donkey that looks real. He knows tools, just not models."

His greatest sorrow happened in December 2004, with the death of his 55-year-old son, Daniel Osterman, from a stroke.

Despite Osterman's great skill in making models, he contends that Daniel had even more talent. He still keeps two models — a pocket derringer and a Kentucky pistol — made by his son.

"I still say he was the better craftsman," Osterman says wistfully. "He would tackle things I wouldn't dream of."

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