“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”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.