Bill Bullock, a machinist in the sheet metal shop at Newport News Shipbuilding, designed the aluminum casing for the bottle breaking at Saturday's christening of the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford.
NEWPORT NEWS — — No one should worry about flying shards of glass Saturday when the bottle breaks across the bow to christen aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford. Bill Bullock has seen to it.
The machinist at Newport News Shipbuilding has one of the more interesting side jobs in the sprawling yard. He custom-makes aluminum casings for bottles that christen the many ships built by Huntington Ingalls Industries, whether it's an aircraft carrier in Newport News or a Coast Guard cutter at Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Miss.
Bullock started at the shipyard in 1973 and began building bottle casings in 1978. He's lost count of how many he's made. "This has been my fun job," he said. "I enjoy doing this."
A small, decorative case might seem an odd product for a company that moves house-sized pieces of steel and favors a color motif that pretty much stops at gray. But Bullock said he's applied the same exacting standards to the bottle case as he does when machining larger pieces of metal for aircraft carriers.
In fact, his instructions are so detailed, running across multiple pages, that others who have inquired about helping out have politely declined, leaving him the sole manufacturer.
The burnished aluminum has a slotted body that allows the sparkling wine to spray forth while the glass pieces stay inside. It is a design he improved upon after first seeing the bottles in 1973.
When he saw portions of the bottle that were spot welded, he knew that had to change. "That led to marks all around," he said disapprovingly. "You'd try to sand them down as much as you could."
Bullock switched to an epoxy that holds the slots in place. He also changed the finish. The old bottles had a mirror-type shine, but the end pieces were not shined at all. That wasn't up to standards. "I've gone to a satin-type of finish," he said, holding the burnished bottle to the light.
It requires a meticulous job of sanding with different grits of sandpaper, then finishing up with tissue paper. New technology has also added to the appearance. Portions of the casing are cut with lasers. "You get a lot cleaner cut on them, plus it shines up a lot prettier," he said.
He added one final touch that is both decorative and practical: A red band around the body gives the sponsor a point of reference when taking the big swing. That should help the accuracy of Susan Ford Bales on Saturday as she christens the first-of-class carrier named for her father.
All in all, one case takes Bullock about 12 hours to make and looks more like a piece of sculpted aluminum, as opposed to four separate pieces.
Bullock is conscious that his handiwork is not only a piece of Navy history, but has likely been photographed hundreds of times. "I'll put it like this," he said. "When that bottle goes out, I make sure it's as perfect as I can get it. If I see a flaw on it, especially when I do the sanding, it bothers me. It really does."
Supervisor Mike Mulcahy credits Bullock with improvising and improving the design over the years, and he's equally happy that the work gets a public showing every few years. "As his supervisor, I can say, 'that guy works for me,' " Mulcahy said.