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Everything is illuminated

By Stephanie Andrews

One artist shines a new light on rusty relics

April 2013 - We’ve all heard the old adage, “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure.” For Rodger Thomas, owner of Benclif Designs, Atlanta, if it’s worn out and rusty, he wants it. “I work with metal pieces mostly because they’re vintage and antique relics. Rusty metal is what I try to work with. I do a little sheet metal work, but not much,” he says.

Rodger Thomas has had a passion for rusty treasures since childhood. “When I was a kid, we lived in Guantanamo Bay on the naval base and I remember going in the woods and pulling out discarded [items],” he says. “Someone threw a Tonka truck into the woods and it was completely rusted. I loved playing with the rusty ones.” 

leaFFJ-0429-webex-illuminated-imag1Not much has changed from his childhood days. Benclif Designs has been in operation for almost two years, and Thomas credits his famed percolator lamp as the launching pad for his success. “In 2005, I had a friend who had a booth at an antique mall in Atlanta,” he says. “I had made one of [the percolator lamps] and he asked me if he could put it in the booth. They just started selling and they didn’t last long. I realized people were enjoying them, so I started making more.” 

But with a corporate job, it was hard to balance work and his hobby. “I was back in my corporate job and wasn’t making them as much. And then I stopped doing it completely.” In early 2011, an antique shop owner called Thomas asking if he had any items he might want to sell in the store. “I made a couple things and they weren’t in there two days and they were gone. So, I just kept doing it and then opened up a shop on Etsy in August 2011, and it opened me up to the world. It’s been an expansive ride for the last year and a half.” 

An enlightening hobby 

Finding these hidden, rusty treasures can be difficult if you don’t know where to look. Luckily, Thomas has a long list of places he uses to track down items. “I find my pieces at estate sales, junk shops, second hand stores, antique malls,” he says. “I go on trips as far west as Texas, and North Carolina all through the mountains.” He scours the country, mostly on weekends, looking for old, worn-out pieces. “I’m really looking for rusty, dusty items that are pretty much forgotten that I can reanimate. A lot of times I find them and they are just encrusted on the shelf somewhere in someone’s little shop and it’s been there for years. I clean it and I animate it with light and it becomes something provocative and interesting.”

This hobby, better known as upcycling, takes unwanted and old items and revives them. Thomas credits his grandmother—the ultimate upcycler—as his inspiration. “She had gone through the Depression as a young married woman,” he says. “By the time I got to know her in the late 1960s, she made things out of old things all the time. She kept old coffee cans and folded aluminum foil in the drawers. I would stay with her during the summer, and she would give me a bunch of old spools and buttons and glue and old advertising and tell me to make something.”

This passion for upcycling carried him through college and into the present, where just a simple glance is enough for him to judge whether a piece will work or not. “When I see something I just know immediately, I just have this knowing inside of me that this is what’s going to happen. I get it on the bench in the studio and somehow it comes into being. It just happens.”

Lighting the way 

Having worked with a plethora of scrap metal, Thomas certainly has his favorites. “I adore copper. Copper is hard toleaFFJ-0429-webex-illuminated-imag3 find now because most of the time people are melting it down for scrap, but I love to work with it.” He also enjoys working with aluminum and iron. “I love iron, that’s another thing I work with as well. I find these rusty, iron relics like old pulleys, well wheels, vices, to work with.” 

So how does one transform rusty junk into something shiny and new? “I work mostly with aluminum, and they are pretty scratched up because it’s a soft metal. So I clean them really well and sometimes take an abrasive piece to brush out some of the more obvious scratches to give it a different look.” Once clean, the item is put through a battery of tests to determine durability. “I thoroughly test all of these items before I create something. Once the lamp goes through a mock-up process, I pull on it, twist it, turn it, do everything I think a customer could possibly do to it to make it come apart. That’s when I determine that the item is sound enough for me to go ahead and build.” 

Once assembly is complete, the final stage is adding the electrical wiring. He credits his grandfather, an electrician, for teaching him basic wiring and circuitry. “It’s not terribly complex, it does look that way, but it’s not,” says Thomas. “He taught me how to do wiring for a house, pulling a wire through the house and doing outlets and switches and putting up light fixtures—the basic stuff. I’ve been doing that for so many years that it’s just second nature.” As a kid fascinated with building things, his parents would buy him batteries, wires and switches to tinker with. “I would wire my sister’s dollhouses with lights and lamps because I loved doing it.” 

Currently, Thomas is working on a couple different projects, including a new percolator lamp. “It’s a 1940s percolator and a 1950s coffee can that has the date on it. I love doing those because when I sell one I can make another one. It’s exciting and fun to work on. I also just finished a set of shuttle sconces for a new hotel that’s under construction in New York City.” With the rustic industrial style a current trend, Thomas says his items have become increasingly popular in more commercial settings. 

With his company thriving and his corporate job a distant memory, Thomas can now revel in what he truly loves. “I took the leap of faith and started doing this full time. I have my nail biting moments, but it’s the age old thing, ‘Do what you love and the money will come.’ That’s kind of my philosophy.” FFJ




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