Craftsmanship, and a multidimensional life

“Now he’s going to build choppers…oooh-K.”

I don’t talk about my plans openly much (at least until started blogging) but when I do, I find that I will often catch wind of responses like the one quoted above. In fact, in the last year or two I actually left a friend behind due to how he reacted to me sharing about my desire to open another custom shop, albeit a private one. 

I even had my artist, Lorin Michki, do me up a straight BADASS logo for my shop, and I can’t wait to share it with everyone when it’s all properly protected and set up. I shared my logo and my plans with my friend, who I thought would be super receptive to the idea and think it was pretty cool. He wasn’t at all cool about it. In fact, he openly just pretty much doubted me and even trash talked some of my plans.

As they say,
“don’t nobody got time for that kind of negativity”
Adios, hombre.  

So, dovetailing off of my last blog post The One-Dimensional Dilemma, I wanted to dive deeper into the topics of craftsmanship and artistry, two things I spent a good part of my life chasing and will be returning to very soon. 

Roots run deep and wide

I’ve lived many lives. It’s true. I hit the ground running and I have never stopped. I go all in. I succeed or fail, walk away or crash and burn, and then get right up the next day and go head first into the next endeavor. I’ve chased many dreams, lost many fortunes and made more mistakes than I’d care to remember (some I am still paying for). But I fucking do it, that’s for sure. 

Way back into my youth my burning desire was to build custom cars and motorcycles. As a poor kid with no one to show me the ropes I just hustled my ass off, traded and bartered for blown up cars and parts, read every Hot Rod magazine or book I could get my hands on, and did the best I could. This was my small hope in between all the violence, drugs and drinking that went on in my whole world, and that I was a participant of, back then. 

I didn’t grow up with a dad that had nice tools or any decent skills. I was lucky to have a garage, even though it had no door and no heat. That’s where I got my start. 

I think I was 14 when I dragged home my first car, a running 1976 Camaro. Probably bartered or hustled to get the $200 I paid for it. Between then and when I went to prison at 19, I probably had over 20 cars and a few bikes, swapped a dozen motors and transmissions and had collected a respectable collection of parts. Man, I’d give anything to have those parts today, they’d be worth ten times as much as they were then.

Straight out of prison at 24, while I continued to train and workout, I attended the auto body program at Owens State in Toledo, Ohio. I graduated that program in less time than allotted by taking 20 hour weeks of coursework while I did 40 hour weeks at Larry Pahl’s Body Shop in Bowling Green, Ohio.

I also lived in an abandoned apartment that had no electricity for $150 a month. The nice landlady’s son was my cellmate in lockup, so she hooked me up. She even let me run an extension cord over, so I had that going for me. I spent 18 months there, and it was not a bad life at all. 

I left there and enrolled at Northwestern University in Lima, Ohio for high performance mechanics. I didn’t even finish two semesters though because I was offered a job from one of my hero’s, Scott Guildner, at Scott’s Rod and Custom in Van Nuys, CA. I mean, at that time Scott was literally on the cover of Rod and Custom magazine like every other month, so this was a fucking dream job. 

About two years out of prison, living on my own from day one, I owned about 8 cars and trucks: two 72 Torino’s, a 78 Camaro, a 70 Newport, etc. So I had to sell some off, move some around, and I took a beat up Chevy K20 with a smashed fender and slapped a brand new crate 350 4 bolt in it, and I broke that bitch in hauling my Uhaul trailer from Ohio to Van Nuys with my doberman pup, Thor. 

As it turned out, I hated LA, so I wasn’t there long at all. Thor was also killed there at the young age of 9 months old, so I was over it. But I had seen what I needed to see. I got to watch and study the work of a master fabricator. I lived in an apartment over the shop so I was there 24/7. My driveway was full of Barris customs, chopped 49 Merc’s, chopped 32’s…just endless cool shit. 

I high-tailed it out of LA (which I regret in some ways, I wish I would have stuck it out longer) and headed to Tennessee. I stayed with a cousin there and went straight to work for Bobby Alloway, back then the king of street rods and basically on the cover of Street Rodder magazine every month. I was the guy who slicked frames, and I slicked much of the Alston-built custom frame on the 1956 Ford Skyliner that went on the cover of Popular Hot Rodding March 2002 issue. 

Can’t say I stuck around Alloway’s place for long either. As with many industries, meeting your “heroes” can be pretty disappointing, to say the least. 

I worked in some production collision shops, and did a ton of insurance job painting, but eventually, I opened my own shop around the Oak Ridge, TN area. I was ahead of the curve and opened just before Fast and Furious hit the theaters. I was slicking body kits and building bagged cars and trucks like crazy very quickly.

This is where I really came into my own as a fabricator. I didn’t have any fancy tools or machinery. Luckily my exposure to both Larry Pahl and Scott Guildner gave me that old school fabricator’s eye, able to bend and shape metal using torches, hammers, dollies and whatever else is laying around the shop. I was back-halving trucks and cars, chopping frames and building completely new designs that came out of my head. I barely put any of it on paper, I just figured it out and built it. 

As I mentioned in my last post, I won some shows, too. The Ford Ranger pictured below actually took 2nd Place Ford at NOPI Nationals that year. I built it for a kid named Jordan Fox. He drove that truck for 2 years that I know of with no issues after I built it. A chopped up, bagged truck that can place high at the Nats and drive for a few years with no issues? That’s winning. 

I closed that business down about three years into it for personal reasons. I went on to work in a few more shops but the business had lost the luster for me. I started to hate it. 9/11 had knocked the market out, there just wasn’t the money being spent on custom cars anymore it seemed. I got swindled by some shop owners. I never even finished a car for myself enough to drive. I was done. 

Custom Guitars

Upon leaving the car world, I went and opened up a guitar shop. I had to have a place for my creativity to go, so I struck a deal to clean up a shitty old storefront on the main drag in Girard, Ohio for two free months rent. I had very little money, so I spent one month cleaning it up and the second month earning that first rent coming up. 

I’ll spare you the business details and save that for another story someday, but the fabrication work I did was next level at this spot. I took a course in Michigan under Bryan Galloup for luthiery, and began repairing guitars. It wasn’t long before I had the busiest shop around and hired a few techs to work under me.

I quickly became known as the guy who could fix stuff other shops would turn away. I didn’t care about the value of the guitar, I cared about how much the customer valued it and that they were willing to pay. Check out one of the crazy repairs I did:

It wasn’t long before I was hand-carving and custom building guitars myself. I was already a finishing pro, and shaping wood was a lot like shaping bondo and metal. It was easy, honestly. I also understood the wood really well. I could look at a neck and tell how it would bend and react to tension. Being a player myself I loved the guitars and I loved making them from scratch.


I built six total customs. They sold for $1800 to $2500 a piece. I kept one for myself, my Douglas fir topped tele. They were all beautiful and visually flawless. In the end, my bolt-on neck design wasn’t great, but my neck-thru and set necks were rock solid. 

One thing I will say about that adventure is that I owned about 175 guitars at the peak of my inventory. I literally had 2 floors of guitars and they were all paid for. I can remember years before, sitting in prison where I learned how to play guitar on a piece of shit $60 Hondo, and being super pissed because I couldn’t play a real guitar. I swore, “Someday, I’ll own a building full of guitars.”

Motherfucker, I did it.

Coming Home

I’ve told the story several times about growing up around the biker lifestyle, and how prison probably saved me from going too far down that path (or maybe it would’ve been better, who knows?) I wish I had pictures from my youth, the bikes were so fucking cool. I idolized those guys, my uncles and their friends, living the club life and riding built shovels and pans. I remember one in particular had a 56 panhead chopper with a springer front end and an open belt driven primary, it was my dream bike as a kid. 

Random old school chopper pic

Yeah, there were a lot of problems about the way I grew up. But there were a few amazing parts of it, too. The bikes, the fun, the way they treated me as a kid–as one of their own coming up–it was great. I will miss that for the rest of my life. I’m going to fulfill a few of those other visions soon, though. And I definitely have the skills to do it just the way I want it. 

So, 30 years after I first started wrenching, chopping and fabricating cars, bikes and guitars, I want to build stuff again, badass stuff, and I want to do it for myself. Fuuuucckk a customer build. I will have a shop, probably off of the side of my gym, and I’m going to build the old school choppers I grew up around as a kid and have wanted my whole life. 

Back then when I was learning and working all those jobs, I mistakenly thought that being in that business would lead to me owning all that cool stuff. It didn’t really work out that way. Add in trying to play by the rules, a few marriages and two daughters and all my cool cars and bikes disappeared. Now, it’s time for them to come home.

Not a chopper, but my current rider, 21 year old HD Road King, getting new rubber here after I installed the 14″ apes and new lines and cables.

It’s time for me to come home, too. Not “home” in the sense of where I came from, because honestly that would be my personal Journey to Ixtlan, that home doesn’t exist anymore. My home now is on the coast of Florida where I am working to open a small hardcore gym, hang out on the beach a lot, and build cool fucking bikes that I will ride up and down A1A until I can’t ride anymore.

And let me say, none of this comes fast or easy for a poor kid. Even today, at 45,  when I speak of opening my gym and having a small hobby chop shop, I have literally been buying and storing gym equipment for 6 years now (from when I opened my first gym), and I have started slowly buying equipment to work on my bikes here and there. It’ll take ten or fifteen years to accumulate what I want, but I will own it when I do. All mine, no debt. Screw the banks. 

To some, this story sounds like a full life, when in reality it was just a slice of my life. There is a similar story about my life-long pursuit of strength and fitness knowledge and business, much of which happened parallel to and in-between all of this. And of course, everyone knows my story about violence and training. Maybe it sounds outlandish because so many just live inside the safety of the common rules: don’t take risks, save your money, work really hard at one job…all that jazz. 

I lived in abandoned apartments, trailers with no interior walls, traveled on way less money than was ever safe to do and repeatedly gambled everything to get these experiences. 

I probably went as far as I could each time until it broke me, and perhaps shouldn’t have tried to do things I didn’t have the money or support to achieve fully. It has taken a toll on my life, on my financial and physical health as I age, and on my spirit.

But I wouldn’t change it for anything. I had zero guidance or positive examples or support in my life. Zero. I did my absolute best with what I had to work with, which in most cases started with nothing but myself.

 It’s not for the weak. I can work on my own stuff, and fix just about anything that breaks.

Go ahead, live that multidimensional life. 

So you want to be a Master? The One-Dimensional Dilemma

“Don’t try to compete with a zealot. They are one-dimensional, and you’ll never win.”

This is the advice a good friend recently gave to me, and I’ve thought a lot about it in the past month or so. I’m going to say that, at least in the context through which I see it, it’s definitely true. The one-dimensional person in the marketplace of a given industry will be forever stuck on that one topic. He will seek relevance in that field non-stop. In that arena, he can be a people’s champion, and he will gather all the attention he ever wanted.

But he will be denied the ability to show other sides of himself, if they even exist. The people don’t love him for that. They love him for the fast shooting, the tough talking, the whatever-it-is-that-he-does thing that brought their attention to him. That one, single, thing.

Sure, they’ll tolerate a bit of “showing your human side” as they call it. It’s good for business! They love to see the wife and the cute dog here and there. But he better make sure he’s right back in uniform doing the dance rather quickly, coming up with “new” ways to dole out old information before the audience of social media moves on to the next shiny thing, making him obsolete.

This seems to be the way of the world these days. But, I came up in a different world. Imagine this: I grew up, rode mini bikes, got in fights, built fast cars, went to prison, lifted weights, opened a couple of businesses including a custom car shop and a personal training business, rode motorcycles, and traveled the country…all before the invention of social media!

That’s right, there was no incentive to be immediately gratified by posting a picture on the internet so the world could see how cool I was. Shit, there weren’t even cell phone cameras around back then. If you wanted pictures, you had to use a camera and take the film to a little shop to get developed and pick them up later. No immediate gratification. 

And guess what? I still excelled at all of those things. In my teens I built cool cars out of junk. Camaro’s, Monte Carlo’s, Mustang’s, etc. For sometimes months at a time the cars would sit in my garage while they were getting finished, and no one would be able to see it. You would work on it everyday for months on end with no social gratification. I had to finish it and drive it just to be seen with it, and that was only locally. But we still did it. And it was still rewarding as hell to mash the gas and fry some half bald-assed tires when you were done. 

Varg 1990, 15 years old with first car, 1976 Camaro

The most interesting part, is that we didn’t have the record of accomplishments available on a device in our pockets to show the world all we had done. In fact, it flat out sucks that some of the coolest shit I ever did was never photographed at all, and it now only lives in my memories (like the badass Buick LaSabre Sport Coupe I dropped an Olds 455 big block into and jacked it up on some used Cragar’s…). But we kept doing it anyway. 

Same thing is true when I started bodybuilding and powerlifting in the early 1990’s. Shit, I have zero pictures of that since most of that was in prison in the beginning. I was 185 squatting 385 for sets and topping out at 405, but there’s no record of that. In today’s world, it may as well never have happened (except for the fact that as a coach I get people phenomenal results because I know what the fuck I’m talking about when it comes to strength training). 

But even after that, I went on to have a great career as a full-time personal trainer spanning several years and a few states. What do I have to show for that? One trainer picture from 2006. Did it happen? Yes, and the experience I gained is a part of what drives my success with my clients in my remote coaching business today. But there’s no cool pictures to show you, so it’s just a story you have to read about. Boring, huh?

Or how about the time I started a custom car shop on a serious shoestring budget and operated for 3 years, going on to win some pretty big shows including second place Ford at the NOPI Nationals in ’03 ( or maybe ’04? Damn, I can’t even remember now).

Fucking MySpace didn’t even exist when I ran that shop. But I was there fabricating and building crazy bagged trucks, frame draggers, cars with hydraulics and hot rods, and getting business from as far as the next state away. 

How’d we even do it back then? We just did it. We didn’t need something we didn’t have, and we don’t need it today. But the zealot, the one-dimensional and their followers can’t see that. They’ve either grown up in this social media world, or they have become so acclimated to it that they just can’t see any other way. And if you try to go head-to-head with them, you’re not just pitting skill against skill. Oh no. You’re battling it out with followers and social influence, and he who has the most money for the coolest gear and equipment, is the flashiest or most controversial, or has the coolest credentials will win that game all other things equal

Now you have this new level of rejection to deal with, so many people who openly like people who do the things you do, which you are good at, but you’re not as cool as that other guy so they don’t pay attention to you. Literally some dude half your age with way less experience in the actual skill set, but way more money, time and social media skills will eclipse you and leave you feeling like no one even sees you. 

Man, fuck all that noise. What are you people even doing? There were many of us who were out there doing awesome things way before cell phone cameras, smartphones and social media. And believe this, you had to be REAL back then, because you couldn’t fake your way into an income very easily, not one that would last anyway. The good news was you could also be a real person. You didn’t have to be a one-dimensional dancing monkey for an audience that will leave you the minute you feel stale. 

I have spent ten years watching that exact thing happen in the social media realm of the tactical training industry (yet another career I excelled at). Guys who were once the literal heroes to the training world, and who held legitimate credentials, have went from being the authority on the subject to being made fun of and laughed at, and even called fat and other derogatory shit.

The one-dimensional champion has one shot at the plate, and that’s all you get. Make it last as long as you can, because when they’re done with you it’s over. 

(If you’re still reading this, kudos to you. I love long-form blogging and I love the people who enjoy reading it.)

I often write about the different jobs I did, or the businesses I’ve owned. Some people may get tired of the repetitiveness. That’s OK. I personally get tired of the repetitiveness of the unending one-dimensional personalities we are all encouraged to follow now. I prefer to be the sum of my total experiences, and to live my life pursuing even more skills, hobbies, knowledge and experience. You can excel in multiple disciplines. It just takes a lifetime, but you never run out of cool things to do, and they never get old. 

Be free. Free to not look just like others, or think just like others. Be free to explore new things. Go deep into all of them, spend ten years a piece on them. In the end, you’ll have lived a full life. And don’t worry about what someone on social media is doing, or how many followers they have, or how full of shit they are. Post a few pics and walk away, be busy doing cool stuff in the tangible world. It’s a lot more fulfilling out there.