Meet Tim (The Tool Man) Williamson

Tim Williamson (back) and Dave Jessup capturing Bighorn sheep in the San Jacinto Mountains in the early 1990s. 

Tim Williamson was only five years old when he took control of his first piece of heavy machinery. Propped in the front seat of his father’s Jeep, he towed a hay trailer from one end of his family’s ranch to the other, back and forth.

“All I had to do was point it down the field,” he says now, decades later. “You just steer the thing from here to there, and people will throw the hay on it.”

He makes it sound simple enough, but that doesn’t change the fact that most five-year-olds have only piloted toy trucks at that age. 

Williamson is the Facilities Coordinator for the Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN), which is a program of the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center at UC Davis. Most of his colleagues are scientists and researchers working directly with wildlife. He maintains and builds the tools and equipment they need to do their job -- whether that is a straight-forward oil change on a service vehicle or the design and construction of a pump system to test the effects of chemical dispersants on oiled birds. (More on that later)

The job requires a unique skill set, which Williamson began accumulating the first time he pulled that hay trailer on his family’s ranch in Mendocino County. By the time he was 12, his dad bought him his very own tractor, which he was in charge of operating and maintaining.

“He told me, ‘This is your tractor, and you’re going to operate it in any spare time you have,’” he said. “After school and all summer long, I worked on the ranch.”

Over time, this carved out an affinity for tinkering in Williamson: “How do I fix this? How do I make this work better?” Those are the questions that propel him in his job and in his hobbies, which are pretty much one in the same.

After a year of college, where he studied electronics, Williamson was drafted into the Navy during the Vietnam era, where he worked as a boilerman on the USS Midway aircraft carrier. The Navy put him through propulsion school, where he learned about the inner workings of pumps and motors – a vital skill that he applies in his current role with the OWCN.

When he got out of the Navy, he followed his gearhead sensibilities into the racing industry, building engines for boats, cars, and motorcycles. After 20 years in racing, he met a man by the name of David Jessup – the veterinarian who helped found the OWCN. Williamson’s career working with wildlife began with that relationship.

We sat down with Williamson in November to talk about his work.

How did you start working with wildlife?

I had met David Jessup while in the racing industry, and I started fixing things for him. He’d come up with an idea and say, “What do you think about this?” and I would do it for him. I had my own machine shop and I wasn’t doing the work I really enjoyed anymore. I was managing people, which was not much fun, so I decided to change my path.

I started volunteering for the (California) Department of Fish and Game (now Fish and Wildlife) while working as a construction framer in housing. I also worked as an electrician, a plumber and I did concrete. After some time spent volunteering with Fish and Game, I was hired at their Wildlife Investigations Lab in 1989, and I stayed in Fish and Game until 2011 when I came over to the OWCN. Largely, I’m working with the same people I was working with there, doing many of the same things.

As Facilities Coordinator, what’s your role in an oil spill?

I work with all of the equipment. If it’s going to be a really big spill, then you have to think: In the future, are we going to need more pools? We have tent structures; are we going to need those?  A lot of those experiences have actually happened, so we have a lot of those supplies in stock. You have to think about the future before it happens. You have to be on the fly all the time.

What kinds of projects do you work on between spills?  

I’m involved with upgrades on facilities and making sure everything’s ready to go anytime. Right now, we’re redoing the filter systems on the pools at our facility in Cordelia, California. There was some research several years ago about a pool filter that’s designed to take suntan oil out of public swimming pools. We thought, “why wouldn’t that work for taking oil out of our pools?” So we’re actually installing a couple in Cordelia to see if they’ll work.

Is there a tool that doesn’t currently exist that you think would be extremely beneficial?

It may already exist in some form, but I would really like to design something portable that has water softeners, pressure pumps and heaters all in one. You could just slide it into a truck and take it somewhere. It takes about 100 gallons of water to wash a bird. The water has to be 3-5 grains of hardness in 101-106 degrees, plus up to 60 pounds of pressure at the nozzle. Getting all those things in one spot at the location of an oil spill is a problem.

When a colleague asks you to design or build something, what’s your process?

It might take a little while to draw an idea out of your head, but it’s there ... What spurs me on is the dedication of everybody else.

They sit me down and tell me what they want to do, and I figure out how to make it work. It’s a lot of fun. I think about my raw materials or what I have to work with and try to figure out the most dependable, quickest way to go. I’ll probably do a prototype immediately, then ask the researcher, “Would this type of thing work?” They generally end up asking, “Where did you come up with that?”

But if you just relax and think about it, it’s easy. I started working like this when I was five. It might take a little while to draw an idea out of your head, but it’s there. What spurs me on is the dedication of everybody else; they’re just so into this.

Do you do a lot of Googling?

Oh yeah. When I have an idea I start searching for what’s available, and generally speaking, if you have the overall knowledge, you can tell yourself something like, “Well, I have a pump that has to deal with a bit of oil in it, and it has to be water tight, and it has to be able to operate under water if possible,” and you just work with the information you have.

What do you and the OWCN have on the horizon?

Prior to now, we only responded to marine spills on the coast. Now we’re going to respond to any spill in the state of California, and we won’t know exactly what species we’ll be dealing with. Before it was primarily birds, but now you could be washing a skunk. I mean, in the spill in Canada last year, they were washing rats and beavers, and you name it. Skunk washing doesn’t appeal to me [laughs], but it could happen now.  

What do you enjoy most about the job?

Mike Ziccardi (Director of the OWCN) asked me the other day, “Are you bored yet?” I said, “Hell, I never know exactly what I’ll be doing the next day. How can I be bored?” It’s a wonderful thing. If I didn’t like the job, I wouldn’t be doing it. 

By Jasjeet Dhanota


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