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Company endures with its daily grind

The workshops smell of oil, grease and metal. Heat rises from giant grinding machines that can take raw blocks of steel and grind them to shapes weighing thousands of pounds _ or a few ounces.

B&B Manufacturing Co., a contract machining business, has been around for 42 years, but it's easy to miss the tree-shaded building on the south side of Bryan Dairy Road.

Large commercial/industrial parks have grown up around it. But 16 years ago, except for the then-GE plant (now the high-tech STAR Center), B&B was the only business in the neighborhood.

A dozen toolmakers and machinists work there, making new parts for machines to the specifications of other companies, taking old parts and making them better or designing and making tools from an idea.

"Someone will come in and say, "This is broken, what can you do?' " said owner Louis Bonsey Jr. "We'll get the specs and quote a price back to them. We can make older parts better because we have more exotic and treated metals now that make the parts last longer.

"On the other hand, we may get a job to make something that we may not know where it goes or even what it is _ like this "upper track eye block,' " Bonsey said. "On jobs like that, we have no latitude. We have to make it exactly like the plans."

For 20 years, the company has made parts for the cigar manufacturing industry in North and Latin America. Other tooling jobs include the phosphate and ceramic tile industries and international machine makers.

B&B also makes steel spear-fishing shafts used nationally by the spear-fishing industry and a snow crab cracker. The largest portion of its work is in a specific type of surface grinding of metal parts.

Louis Bonsey Sr. started the business in 1958 in a small shop on the south side of St. Petersburg. Working alongside him was his teenage son, Louis Jr., who began working full time in the business after graduating from Northeast High School in 1960, two years at St. Petersburg Junior College and a four-year apprenticeship as a tool and die maker. In 1963, the business moved to 49th Street, near the criminal courts complex.

Bonsey Sr. retired in 1976 and Louis Jr. and his brother Joseph took over the ownership and operation of the company. Their sister, Theresa Bonsey Duval, recently joined the company as office manager.

In 1984, the brothers purchased 10 acres near the GE plant and constructed a new building, now expanded to 20,000 square feet, at 8100 Bryan Dairy Road.

"We had tried for years to do some work for the plant, which made trigger components for nuclear weapons, but got nowhere," said Bonsey Jr. "But as soon as we became neighbors, we were given secret clearances and we began producing parts for them."

Among the company's multimillion-dollar collection of equipment are tool room lathes, radial drills and computer-controlled machines.

"The industry is changing dramatically," Bonsey Jr. said. "The workshops of today are immaculate.

"But it's a difficult trade to learn. The thrill and personal satisfaction of this work is that you make something useful of your own design or from someone else's plans."

To encourage others to learn the trade, the Bonseys are members of the Bay Area Precision Machine Trades Association that sponsors an on-the-job apprenticeship program.