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."
It takes about a week, between 40 and 80 hours of work, for Hester to make one table, depending on its size (the 11-foot-long, 500-pound "community table" he just finished for a Miami Starbucks took longer). The process starts with using an angle grinder to separate the "skin" of a car hood or roof from the reinforcing layer underneath. The flatter the original steel, the better. "There's no part of a VW Beetle I can use," he explains. "It's all curves." He designs each piece "by eye" and says the metal itself dictates what type of furniture it wants to be. Hester is a perfectionist about the final product. Joints have to be welded velvety smooth. Legs must be perfectly straight—"If you get the metal too hot on a welded joint," he says, "one leg could become a bit of a wanderer." Hester even finishes out the bottoms of his tables, attaching Vehicle Identification Number plates from the car or truck he used to make it. The tables are disassembled for shipping, with instructions for the new owners on how to match the legs to the correct corners through a pattern of raised dots.
Hester is always looking for raw material, taking time every few weeks to visit salvage yards where he has to "hike hoods" one at a time, often hundreds of yards back to his truck for transport to the shop. From his hours among those acres of dead autos, he's become an expert on the weathering and rusting patterns of specific makes and models. A 1980s Chevy pick-up offers the biggest single piece of metal with a minimum of side creases. Certain years of the Mercedes 240D were painted a blue that over time turns the color of the Mediterranean. Some Ford trucks from the 1970s sun-fade to a bright turquoise and then develop pretty polka dots of deep red rust. The roofs of 1960s Chevy Suburbans make excellent conference tables. At a gas station one time, Hester paid a guy $100 on the spot for the rust-speckled hood of the ancient truck the man was driving.
"As I'm working on pieces, I often think 'I wonder what all that truck has seen,''' Hester says. "In really old trucks out in the yards, I'll find calendars still clipped to the sun visors, scribbled with notes. As I read them, it's like traveling through time."
Stockpiling pieces of the heavy steel used on American-made cars in the mid-20th century is now a race against time for Hester. Junkyards are filled mostly with wrecks from the 1990s or later—stuff he can't use because the paint quality is too good and the steel quality doesn't pass what he calls "the thump test." "Most of the cars I would want to use have already gone to the crusher," he says.
There is that one near-mythic junkyard out by Azle that Hester has seen from the highway, sprouted to the horizon with rusted junkers of the right vintage. The owner is a bit of a hermit, though, maybe even a hoarder, and he won't let Hester in to pick the bones of the rotting cars. "Maybe someday," Hester says. "I'll get in there someday."