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Tube & Pipe

Metal mollusk

By Lynn Stanley

Whimsical creations combine imagination with a do-it-yourself mindset

February 2012 - When Jon Sarriugarte’s Golden Mean—a giant iron snail car—rolls into local fair grounds, appears in a parade or visits a nearby school, it’s like watching one of the fantastic creatures from Jules Verne or “Doctor Doolittle” come to life. The street legal vehicle’s surprise element—the ability to shoot fire from its eye stalks—also brings a touch of “Star Wars” to mind.

Like his creations, Sarriugarte, owner of Form & Reform, Oakland, Calif., is an eclectic mix of skills and interests. If the blacksmith, fabricator and sculptor isn’t morphing metal into serpents, lady bugs and moon walkers, he is making steel furniture, Zen fire gardens, light fixtures and other custom items. He moved from Idaho to California’s Bay Area to join the theater but instead teamed up with Survival Research Laboratories, a group of artists, scientists and metalworkers that create and stage mechanized presentations. When Sarriugarte met his wife, Kyrsten, in 2005, the two began to collaborate, using their own imaginations as a drawing board.

In November 2011, the History Channel’s “Modern Marvels: Weird Machines” featured Golden Mean along with another Sarriugarte creation, a restored 1920s Hogan Tesla Coil. For Sarriugarte, who is passionate about promoting a do-it-yourself mindset, the metal contraptions are a way to help re-energize education among young people and promote family.

Growing ideas
“A lot of the stuff we make, we rent,” says Sarriugarte. “The rule of thumb now is it has to be something our kids and other children can enjoy or that can be used in a family event like a parade.” Sarriugarte worked with his wife to transform the 1966 Volkswagon Beetle into a giant snail but says the idea was Krysten’s.

The couple’s first steps included removing the body, steam cleaning, installing new ignition parts and other components. Without the body, the frame needed to be stiffened to provide a stable platform for welding. Steel tubing was used to create the base of the shell. Sarriugarte chalked the shape of the shell on the floor then bent steel tubing to the outline before welding it to the frame. The gas tank was positioned just behind the right front tire.

With the help of a small crew, the shell’s main supports were bent and welded in preparation for laying out the spiral. “We used a combination of rolling, bumping and blacksmithing metal pipe to create the spiral’s frame,” says Sarriugarte. “The door, dressed up with a porthole cutout and two decorative straps, was made by bending two pieces of tube, welding tabs with holes in them and attaching a piece of sheet metal.”

Practical application
Before filling in the snail’s growth rings, the team painted the frame, pan, running gear and rims and mounted a new set of tires. “We used tape so that we could fine tune the rings by moving it around after checking sight lines for both driving and a realistic look,” Sarriugarte says. The crew used a 20-ton press and dies to produce rivets for steel strapping used to replace the tape, custom cutting and bending each one to recreate the curve found in a natural shell. Sheet metal helped create a wall between the passenger compartment and areas set apart for storage, the engine and fire effects.

The crew began working from the inside out to install and build out the shell’s panels. Careful patterning, marking and cutting helped ensure the largest portion of the shell panels were installed with relative ease. Sarriugarte wanted to give the car a warm, coppery feel so a chemical patina was applied on the exterior of the snail. The tape was then removed and the growth rings cleaned with Scotch-Brite pads before sealing the surface with a polyurethane coating. The addition of lights and fire brought a fanciful feel to the vehicle, which can seat up to six.

The Golden Mean typically is thought of as the desirable middle between two extremes. “Fabricating the snail car was a mix of imagination and careful planning and we felt the result approached that of the Golden Mean—hence the name,” says Sarriugarte.

A civic leader in the West Oakland neighborhood, Sarriugarte also is involved in the local chapter of MAKE, which promotes do-it-yourself projects that show individuals how to optimize technology at home and away from home. “I like to set up a booth at the schools for what we call mini-maker fairs or at the fairgrounds where we might have up to 50,000 people attend because I think helping to expose the youth to these skills and practical applications is really important.” FFJ

Sources

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Cosen Saws Omax Corp.
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MetalForming Inc. HE&M Saw American Weldquip
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