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Aluminum

Molten metal

By Nick Wright

Former Disney artist works with aluminum for custom motorcycle tank designs

 January 2012 - It’s not easy to imagine custom metalwork for motorcycle fenders and tanks without the clang of pounding metal, the flash of an arc weld or a polisher’s whir. For artist Marix Stone, owner of Hells Bells Customs, Philadelphia, simple, hand-sculpted techniques that require not much more than aluminum, heat and gravity are tools of the trade. 

Stone creates one-of-a-kind 3-D metal sculptures that bond to motorcycle gas tanks and fenders. “Everything is done by hand, no programs, no Photoshop or anything,” he says. “I’m very old school when it comes to that. There’s not a lot of designing going on technically. I’m more of a sculptor, I get in there and work with my hands.” 

His works appeal to a gothic, war-like style, often depicting flames, barbed-wire and skulls. “War artistry was very ornate,” says Stone. “You go to any museum and see their swords and battle axes and really see that they spent a lot of time in this artistry—it’s more than a weapon. That’s what I’m trying to bring to the table. What I’m doing isn’t original by any means, it’s just reintroducing something.” 

In his 3,000-sq.-ft. shop on Philadelphia’s formerly industrial north side, Stone first creates a sculpture using materials like wax or Plasticine, which is then used for a mold. Then, out of the mold, he sand-casts the aluminum ornament in his shop’s foundry. Using a patented heat-treatment process, the mold is poured literally onto the tank or fender, ensuring it conforms to every contour. “You can’t make a generic piece and expect it to fit on every fender out there,” Stone says. “You can’t make that casting work like that, that’s why it’s done straight out of the mold.” 

Gravity then takes over. The curves of a motorcycle lend themselves to the artistry, he says. The metal drapes over the gas tank, and as the metal cools, Stone uses hand-held tools to help it flow. “My biggest thing is that I line it up right while its hot,” he says. “It’s kind of equivalent to glass blowing, once it cools a lot of that work is done.” 

Finishing touches are minimal to give it a raw, signature look—he’ll blacken and burn the metal with a torch before sometimes applying a wax, he says. “It won’t rust or anything. It’s very low maintenance; you want it to look aged in the first place. This is the opposite of what’s traditional in the motorcycle world, where everything is clean and polished.” 

Typically, a job turnaround is four to six weeks. Of course, some can take longer, he says. A backlog of jobs he booked at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in August keep will keep Stone busy through the winter. 

Facades to fenders 
Stone says he did sculpture and set façade work for Disney beginning in the late 1980s, a craft he had no experience in beforehand. Around the same, he took up airbrush painting motorcycles on the side. A customer came into his shop one day, saw some of his sculpture work—hands coming out of the wall—and asked where Stone got it. “I told him I made it. He said, ‘You think you could do what you do on my bike?’” says Stone. “So [the idea] really came from a customer.” 

Because of aluminum’s low-cost and malleability, it’s ideal for this work. “With metals I don’t try to expand too much. What I do now is cost effective, simple enough and I don’t really have to outsource it,” he says, adding he’s experimented with nickel and brass. “I haven’t worked with copper. It’s very expensive, too. I would love to do some hammered copper work.” 

His approach to each design results in a unique mold for each customer. “They always get a one of a kind, regardless, and that’s what they want,” he says. “They want a bike that nobody else has.” FFJ

 

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