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Tube & Pipe

Car craftsman

By Lynn Stanley

Ron Covell crafts metal into complex shapes for street rods

September 2011 - World-class welder and metalshaper Ron Covell, Freedom, Calif., has been stretching the boundaries of metalworking for more than 50 years in his quest to marry hand-crafted artistry with custom-built dragsters, motorcycles and street rods. But if you ask Covell to divulge the secret behind brilliant fabrication, his answer is simple: “It’s figuring out how to do difficult tasks to make what you want with what you have.”

As a curious 12-year-old, Covell recalls looking at a book his parents had. It was filled with photos of Italian craftsmen building bodies for exotic sports cars like Ferraris in crude shops with rudimentary tools. “I knew cars in the U.S. were stamped with high-dollar dies and expensive machines. Fascinated by the images, I thought, ‘These men are hammering metal against a hollowed-out tree trunk, creating things of beauty.’’’

For Covell, fascination became a passion. After high school, he took a collision repair class at San Jose State College where he learned to weld. A classmate introduced Covell to race car body builder Arnie Roberts. “I quickly realized Arnie was working in much the same way as the Italians I’d seen in the book,” Covell says. “I begged him to teach me how to shape metal.”

Before long, Covell’s work caught the eye of dragster chassis builder Kent Fuller. Fuller set Covell up as an independent businessman. “I was a rather shy 22 year old and didn’t realize at the time what a rare gift he had given me,” Covell says. “He bought me the equipment I needed, set aside space in his shop and fed me all the work I could take. With Arnie I had gained a wonderful sense of style and learned how to shape metal. Kent taught me fabrication and how to run a business.”

Earning national recognition with a Tom Daniels-designed track roadster built for Tom Prufer, Covell returned to San Jose State College and earned a masters degree in sculpture. Don Potts, a member of Covell’s graduate committee, exposed him to the artistic use of metals and other materials. Combining the lessons of his three mentors, Covell re-entered the world of street rods and motorcycles. A two-time winner of the America’s Most Beautiful Roadster Award, Covell found himself drawn to the street rod. Street rods, epitomized by the 1932 Ford, typically are defined as pre-World War II-era cars that have been modernized with an eye toward performance and style. Modifications to the engine, brakes, suspension and body are common and have generated a huge aftermarket for components.

The traditional approach

Covell, who has spent the majority of his career building custom cars or parts, still prefers the traditional, old -school approach. “A press brake, for example, is a very costly machine,” he says. “A lot of one- or two-man shops don’t have the budget for that kind of equipment.” Covell uses a leaf brake to form metal like lighter-gauge steel. The brake operates by raising and lowering a leaf bar. “If you are fabricating a hood for a 1932 Ford, it has a, somewhat, unique shape. The hood is a series of curves, with a larger radius at the back and a smaller radius at the front. You can’t achieve that shape with a standard radius die due to its lack of taper. I’ve designed radius dies for my leaf brake that provide me with a simple yet elegant way to make tapered bends using the simplest tooling and it works great.”

For chassis work, Covell cuts steel tubing to size and then TIG welds the metal for a stronger, higher-quality weld. In addition to welding, Covell uses innovative hand techniques for bending round and rectangular tubing. An English wheel aids in sheet metal shaping. Covell’s reputation has been built on the quality of his work, which echoes that of the Italian craftsmen he first admired.

In 1993 Covell discovered another passion. He started teaching his metalworking skills to others in home-based workshops. They quickly escalated in popularity, taking him around the world. In 1995 he also began to write a column known as Professor Hammer’s Metalworking Tips for Street Rodder magazine followed by a second column for Classic Trucks magazine. When Covell isn’t travelling, he is focused on a personal project. “I’ve had a lifelong interest in a track roadster. I’ve always had a soft spot for this style, so I’m building one entirely constructed from aluminum - my favorite metal.” FFJ

Sources

  • Covell Creative Metalworking 
    Freedom, Calif. 
    phone: 831/768-0705

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