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Local welder has been in business for 50 years

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By John Barnhart

    Leo Klein had been in business for 52 of his 74 years.

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    A welder and machinist, he’s been at his current location on U. S. 460, east of Bedford, for 22 years.
    “I came out of Pittsburgh,” Klein said.
    Actually, he has worked for other people, but even at those times, he’s had a business on the side.
    He got started working with his hands as a kid, fixing bicycles. Later, he went to school and learned how to weld. He also went to school — Penn State — where he graduated in 1959 with a degree in mechanical engineering.
    The degree means that he can design items, but he doesn’t do that now. He does, however, at Leo Klein Welding and Machine, fabricate items from other people’s drawings, such as engineering prototypes. He does light fabrication, anything that will fit his 9,000 pound forklift “or that I want to get involved in.”
    He can also make parts for machines for which parts are no longer available. If a customer brings him a broken part, he can take measurements from it to make a replacement. Sometimes he can even repair the broken piece.
    At one time, Bedford’s waste water treatment plant was a customer for that skill. Klein said that the plant had a 40-year-old pump and he made replacement parts for it.
    “Everything you see in here is mathematics,” Klein said, gesturing to the machines in his shop. “You have to have a math background to run all this machine shop equipment.”
    The bulk of his machines are older machines, so they have no computerized controls. This is why the machinist needs to be good at math to set them up.
    “What you see here is basically an old-time machine shop,” Klein said.
    Klein said that his advantage, by having old-fashioned machines, is that with these manually operated machines, he can profitably make only one or two of an item. Klein said that the break-even point in a computerized machine shop is between five and 10 of an item.
    Another advantage is that he was able to buy vintage machines cheaply, primarily because they didn’t work when he first got them. He pointed to a lathe that was damaged when he bought it in July.
    “I bought that lathe very reasonably,” he said. “Now I have to put it back together again.”    
    He has to replace some of the gears in the lathe’s gear box, but that’s no problem for him. “
    “I can make those gears,” he said.
    He doesn’t necessarily have to make parts to fix an old machine.
    “It’s amazing what you can find on eBay,” he commented.
    But, he can make them.
    He pointed to another machine called a vertical shaper, or slotter.
    “That thing sat in a farmer’s field for three years,” Klein said. The farmer had no idea what it was.
    Klein disassembled it, restored it and put it back together.
    Sometimes the old machines will let him do special work. He pointed to one vintage lathe, made in 1942, that still has identification plates on it for the World War II era Pittsburgh Ordinance District War Production Board. The Hendey Machine Company, a manufacturer that is no longer in business, made it.
    “What I can do with this lathe, I can’t do with that lathe,” he said, pointing to one dating from the 1970s.
    Klein describes himself as a maintenance machinist and maintenance welder.
    “Anything I can make a dollar at,” he said.
    His machine shop is set up like a machine shop in the 1950s, but that’s because it lets him fill a niche — doing something that others aren’t. His welding machine, in his truck, is state of the art. He also has his own generator so he can do welding at job sites where there is no electric power. He’s equipped for both electric arc welding and oxy-acetylene welding.
    Klein can’t imagine not working.
    “This is me,” he said. “This is what I like to do. You can’t wake up in the morning and say ‘what am I going to do today?’ You need something to look forward to. I’ve worked with people who retired and, in a year, they were gone.”
    Peter Buchannan, a blacksmith, works with Klein on some projects. He describes Klein’s machine work as like sculpture.
    “You start with a block of metal and end up with a finished part,” he said.