A menagerie of metal

  • By Debra Smith / Special to The Herald
  • Wednesday, June 16, 2004 9:00pm
  • Life

Bob Throndsen’s six-car hot rod garage in Arlington is a temple of testosterone with posters for cigarettes, classic cars and babes in bikinis lining the walls.

But stored in an old Partridge Family-style bus out back are the graceful creations of an artist: Swimming salmon, trotting horses with cowboys, curving water lilies, dainty frogs and more are crafted from steel into metal yard art sculptures and signs by Throndsen.

About five years ago this closet artist turned his hobby into a business called Dipstick Designs. The name is a nod to his love of cars and fits his slogan: “It’s OK to be half a quart low.” He’s one of almost 100 vendors featured this weekend at Sorticulture.

His gear-head buddies think he’s crazy, but maybe his artistic streak is not so strange at all.

“It goes hand-in-hand with the cars,” said Throndsen, 47, who also specializes in custom framework on cars. “The undersides of my cars are so graceful. I look at the underside of a car like a good woman: People want to flow their hands across the tubing and see where I welded and find out it is all so cool. I am anal about that, and I want this stuff to be just as cool.”

And it is. He can use a photograph of almost anything – a dog, horse or flower – and etch out its likeness in steel. The result is slick and attractive. He says his art appeals to women and men. Bears, elk, cowboy scenes, horses, eagles and motorcycles with a Harley-Davidson “swoopy” look are some of his most popular sellers. The dragonflies and frogs he makes are snapped up at Sorticulture.

He builds everything from plant holders, garden stakes and trellises to gate doors, signs or towel bars. Large, custom pieces can cost as much as $500, but most pieces range from $9 to $100.

At past Sorticultures, he’s taped a picture of one of his homemade Radio Flyer-style wagons (another business) to the back of the booth to lure in men: “It’s like putting milk at the back of the grocery store,” he said. “Pretty soon the guys are moving in while their wives are looking at the frogs.”

Stakes with salmon have been a surprising bestseller. Throndsen applies a clear lacquer over the steel and uses heat to produce swirling tints of orange, red and brown. Others have a bubbled finish. He mounts the fish on a three-pronged stand after customers said they wanted to display the work on their decks and sidewalks.

Much of his art is made to order but many of his big sellers such as the frogs and dragonflies are mass-produced in his shop. Like Henry Ford, Throndsen uses assembly lines. He draws a design and feeds it into a computer hooked to a plasma cutter. Some images are used repeatedly in different pieces because it saves time and money.

“There are a lot of people who put a shape on a stake and put it in the ground,” he said. “I am trying to be a little more creative with what I can cut out of steel and make it an art form that’s affordable.

“There’s a lot of high end stuff, and I admire the guys that do it, but I can’t afford to hang onto one piece of artwork that’s thousands of dollars, hoping it’s going to sell sometime soon.”

He eschews the high-end art scene in other ways too: although he’s been encouraged to sell his work at the pricier events, he’d rather sell locally.

It may be that he doesn’t need to sell elsewhere. He’s been so successful at past Sorticultures he’s had to stay up until 2 a.m. to produce more artwork to sell.

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