Joel Hester uses his training as a welder and his love of old cars to design and make cool, unique furniture from junkyard metal. A summer job as a teen introduced him to metalwork and welding, and that fall he constructed a queen-size, poster-style bed frame that got rave reviews from friends. “People would tell me I should build furniture and sell it. I laughed them off for 10-plus years, but when I wanted to do something new, welding and metal furniture just made sense,” he says. The result? Weld House, his Arizona-based workshop and design studio.
We caught up with Hester and grilled him about his work as an artist-welder.
What’s your favorite piece you’ve made, and why?
The very first automotive sheet metal coffee table I built. I was building it out of hot roll steel for a client named Matt. He threw me a curve ball by bringing me a very small, thin sheet metal beer sign to incorporate. I was stumped on how to mix this thin old metal in with the thick new metal and not have sharp edges. Plus, I had aesthetic issues–after all, it was a beer sign. But Matt insisted on this damn sign. I headed to a junkyard looking for anything to fix this coffee table. I rounded a corner and came face to face with the back of a very old, very large Cadillac. The truck was massive and the colors on the paint were unlike anything I had ever seen. Even by 2017’s standards, the patina on that original Cadillac’s trunk is phenomenal.
It was a light bulb moment for me: I knew I could skin the thin sheet metal off that trunk and cut/bend it across the table so it would be one piece, with no sharp edges. I was totally thrilled with this new idea, and Matt was on board. I needed a solution so bad and the answer I got was equally amazing–it just blew my mind. I am so thankful to Matt for insisting on getting what he wanted and forcing me to think outside the box. Granted, I am a creative type and I don’t quit, but I am grateful for my clients pushing me in new directions.
Check out the process of turning a gorgeous red Cadillac into a coffee table.
Has anyone ever brought you their beloved old car and asked you to make furniture out of it?
One project will always stand out. A family’s patriarch, nicknamed Shorty, had passed years prior. For decades, he ran a food truck to support his family. Shorty’s food truck was something they could not part with yet, but it could not sit by their house forever. When they saw my automotive sheet metal coffee tables, they knew that would be the perfect solution. They shipped me the hood and VIN plates, and I made them into a cool table. I added a burgundy pinstripe to match the roof of the truck, and Shorty’s name was wrapped into the pinstripe as well. They were so grateful, but I was really taken aback by the gravity of building something so meaningful to this entire family. I lost my dad unexpectedly in 2007, so I understood the emotions they must have been feeling. I’ll never forget that project.
Why do you feel it’s important to use reclaimed metal as much as possible?
I didn’t start out with recycling on my radar. I was brand-new to welding and had my hands full with the learning curve. It took years to really get comfortable with the welding machine and be able to consider aspects to furniture other than the simple mechanics of welding. It was not until a customer brought me a scrap piece of metal that they wanted incorporated into their new furniture that I had to think outside my normal steel-tube bed frames. That was the genesis of incorporating recycled metal into my furniture.
Ever tempted to work with wood or other materials?
When I have my own building with adequate space, I’d like to work with wood and cast concrete. Really cool things are being done with used skateboards glued together to make wood furniture, and the colors are mind-blowing. That type of creative niche is what I like.
Have tech advances changed the way you work, or is welding still the same method it’s been for years?
Technology is changing much faster than I even know. I thought welding would be a trade forever, but with 3D printing, I am not so sure anymore. I watched a video of a robot on wheels 3D printing itself a bridge in mid-air; it kept printing structural track until it crossed over a small creek to the other side. 3D printing replaces not only welding but cutting, bending, assembly, supply chain of raw materials, and the list goes on. The artist side of welding, I think, will be safe longer than the industrial side.
Are you working on anything particularly cool right now?
They are all cool. I love the days when I can get in the truck and go hunting for metal. I am still chasing the high I got when I saw that original Cadillac for the first time.
Any famous person you think needs one of your pieces in their home?
I’ve often thought it would really be cool to have a piece of furniture in the White House. Hopefully someone here in the US is making the White House furniture, so why not me? I’ve had designers buy for people they could not name, but I’d be perfectly happy building for families like Shorty’s any day.
Watch Hester on a junkyard trip and hear him talk about his unique work.