Oil patch history is writ small for a retired roughneck

Models of oilfield hardware offer a close-up look at very big equipment

September 01, 2010

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Vern Blinn
Retired driller Vern Blinn landed his first job on a rig in 1949. He’s been building models ever since

Oilfield icons come to life in the skilled hands of Vern Blinn. Like nautical enthusiasts who lovingly build model ships, he painstakingly recreates scaled down versions of the cable-tool derricks and steam rigs that helped put Canada on the international energy map.

The early, sometimes crudely fashioned contraptions that scored the 20th-century oil strikes from Turner Valley to Leduc by slowly punching holes into the ground, jackhammer-style, are a source of unending inspiration and nostalgia for Blinn. “I lean towards the old steam rigs because that’s what I started working on in Turner Valley,” the 78-year-old reflects. “They were quite an impressive derrick I always thought.”

Blinn was just 17 years old when he landed his first job in 1949. He worked as a roughneck – starting at the hard-labor bottom of the industry ladder, he says – under the supervision of senior drillers who kept a close watch on teenaged beginners. “In those days it was a different world,” he recalls. “The experienced men took care of the young people, because they knew if they didn’t you’d probably kill yourself the first day you were there.”

The churning gears and whirring components on a derrick floor were workplace hazards for generations before the modern advent of automated drilling rigs smoothed the rougher edges off the job.

Beginning in the 1950s, Blinn channeled a working knowledge of the equipment and an affinity for rig life into building scale models of oilfield hardware. His handiwork is housed under glass cases at the Leduc No. 1 Energy Discovery Centre in Devon southwest of Edmonton. The 25 or so miniature masterpieces on display include replicas of the infamous Atlantic No. 3 blowout well. The gallery traces expansion of the industry beyond Alberta, out onto the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, with models of offshore rigs including the ill-fated Ocean Ranger. The Hibernia drilling platform took eight months to complete. “That one I worked on full-force,” he says.

The effort shows. Intricate details down to handrails on stairwells are replicated to such a degree that it’s easy to imagine Blinn helped design the original. He aims to recreate the real hardware rather than ideal versions. “Most models that you might see elsewhere are very pristine,” he points out. “They look like a brand new Cadillac. Well those old rigs did not look like that. They were thrown together as best they could to save money. It was the day when it didn’t have to be pretty, as long as it worked.”

Blinn began building models with a similarly pragmatic approach. His hobby started as a way to occupy idle hands between rig jobs and during long stretches away from home. “It was out of boredom more than anything,” he laughs. “I just sort of sat around one day and thought I’d build a rig.”

Using a soldering iron and a welding torch, he tried his hand at a replica of a jackknife rig, a mobile descendant of the steam rig that had a folding derrick and was favored by companies because it was easier to set up and could be moved from well-site to well-site as needed. “It was a pretty sad attempt at the start, but as the years went on I got a bit more experienced doing it.”

With a few exceptions, the models are built to a quarter-inch scale. Blinn says he uses galvanized flashing metal – essentially the same material used by roofers to weatherproof the tops of houses – because it’s easier to manipulate.

Besides practical know-how and something akin to the patience of Job, the secret behind his detailed workmanship lies in a 1960s-era manufacturer’s booklet called a Composite Catalog. The equivalent of the original Sears catalogs for home appliances, the volume and others like it were chock full of information and specifications of oil field equipment. Companies referenced the booklets, which have since migrated online, to order replacement parts. For a model-maker, the guide was a treasure trove of detail. “It was exactly what I needed,” Blinn exclaims.

The dated catalog wasn’t always helpful, though. Building a replica of the Hibernia drilling platform meant contacting the consortium of companies that own the rig in search of blueprints. The firms were reluctant at first to release detailed plans, but they decided to co-operate after a call to the Discovery Centre confirmed Blinn’s intentions were honest.

After eight months spent “soldering, filing and grinding,” he packed the model rig into the back of a mini-van and drove from his home and workshop on Vancouver Island to deliver the completed design to Devon. At the museum, his three-dimensional replicas offer a window into an industry that outsiders rarely see up close and personal. “They’re getting a hands-on experience,” the hobbyist says.

His work is also road-tested. In 2006, he traveled with a contingent of Alberta representatives to Washington, D.C., to participate in the Smithsonian Institute’s annual Folklife Festival. For 10 days, three of Blinn’s miniature derricks shared space with American architectural icons like the Washington Monument and the Capitol Building. The models were one portion of a pavilion that also included a far larger symbol of Alberta’s industrial might – a 180-tonne oil sands dump truck parked in the middle of the National Mall.

The trip was an honor, Blinn says, although he remembers it more as another unexpected twist in the life of an ordinary driller-turned craftsman. “Of all the men that probably should have gone,” he wonders, “I don’t know why they picked me.”

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