By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
For more than five years, furniture-making was Hester's side job. He spent weekends in his garage, fabricating four-poster bed frames out of shiny new steel, using the welding skills he'd learned as a teenager and selling the items on Craigslist. Then last July 4, tramping around a junkyard in hair-melting heat looking for usable metal, he had something of an epiphany. "I turned around and saw a 1970s Cadillac Coupe de Ville," Hester says. "It was beautiful. I looked at the colors and the rust patterns on the hood and saw a table in it. I knew right then that this is really what I wanted to do, what I should be doing. I've been chasing that rush ever since."
That day Hester decided to quit his day job at a printing press to go full-time designing and building furniture from recycled automotive steel. He rented a 600-square-foot workspace tucked into a cluster of small warehouses off Interstate 30 and started putting in 12- and 14-hour days, only taking breaks to have lunch with artist-wife Kathryn and their baby son, Fritz. In the months since he started The Weld House, customers from around the country have found his website—search for "modern steel furniture" on the 'net and the Weld House site pops up—and kept him busy filling orders (prices for tables start around $850 and he ships most projects in eight weeks or less).
Hester's first car-table customer was Matt Giese, an advertising agency account manager looking for unusual contemporary furniture to decorate his downtown Dallas loft. Giese says he'd seen some of Hester's earlier pieces in a booth at the Main Street Arts Festival in downtown Fort Worth and liked them. At first Giese wanted a coffee table made of old metal beer signs, but Hester dissuaded him from the frat-house furnishings idea and instead took him out to his favorite auto junkyard in South Dallas. "I remember we had to pay a dollar to get in, and it was really hot out there. My wife was with us and she almost had a stroke," Giese recalls. "We walked around and around, up and down the junkyard for a couple of hours and didn't find what we wanted. He went back out there the next week and sent me photos of cars to pick from."
The long coffee table Hester made out of an old Caddy hood, with its teal-colored paint streaked with orange-brown rust from several decades of exposure to the elements, sits in Giese's living room in his "soft loft" in the old Dallas Power & Light building. "We've designed the rest of the room around it. It's an awesome table and very functional," Giese says. "It will probably last forever. And I always love telling the story behind it."
Hester can point to any of the beat-up car and truck hoods, roofs and doors he's salvaged from junk lots around Texas and tell you tales of how and where he acquired them. Huge 50- to 60-pound swaths of old metal hang on hooks from the walls and ceiling of The Weld House, waiting their turns to be transformed into sleek furniture for buyers who, so far, live mostly on the East and West Coasts, where industrial-chic furnishings are in greater demand than in Dallas. Hester's partial to hoods and rooftops pockmarked by hailstones and to doors and trunk lids etched with graffiti put there by wild kids who hang out in rural junkyards and take out their frustrations on the wrecks. He found a smashed-up low-rider with an Aztec warrior painted in a mural on the hood and turned it into matching end tables. Faded paint and imperfections are left as is, with the finished product covered in a protective automotive clear-coat.
Artist Valerie McGovern, who wanted some tables for her Craftsman-style home in Fredericksburg, Virginia, now owns three Weld House creations, including a large table made from a '73 Chevy hood and a pair of end tables welded from the remains of a yellow school bus. "I didn't want what was on display in all those furniture stores. I wanted something different," McGovern says. "I'm from Detroit, the Motor City, so cars—awesome. I like bright. I like color. I e-mailed Joel and he was really good with me. I asked a lot of questions and he never seemed to mind." She also wanted some furniture her 2-year-old nephew could bang into without him damaging it or it damaging him. "There are no sharp edges on Joel's tables," she says. "You can put your feet up on them. If you dent them a little, that's OK." To her, the furniture is functional as well as a work of art. "I love that he has that vision to see something else in what most people see as an old car graveyard. He pulls some beautiful artwork, usable artwork out of it. I would call him an artist."
"No, I don't call myself an artist," counters Hester, a soft-spoken man with arms flecked with burn scars from years of holding a welding torch. "I guess I'm a craftsman. When people ask, I just say 'furniture builder,' and it usually stops there."