Special Report: Custom Fabricating

A fleet of furniture

By Nick Wright

L.A. studio finds gold in aircraft scrap, transforming it from junk to functional goods

September 2013 - Sitting aboard a commercial airliner, we don’t give much thought to how old the plane is. Surely it’s in good enough shape to fly, even after thousands of pressurization cycles (the metric by which airliner lifespan is measured). As it is, airliners generally retire after about 20 to 30 years of use, depending on the plane and its history. Unlike cars, planes can’t be run into the ground, so to speak. For those planes both old and new that are otherwise destined for the scrap yard, many find new life.

Enter MotoArt Studios. There, co-owners Dave Hall and Donovan Fell get their hands on fleets of defunct aircraft, from storied warbirds to commercial jets. But the name of their game isn’t restoration—rather, the opposite: MotoArt dismantles planes and turns them into high-end corporate furniture. Sometimes, MotoArt will buy just parts or sections from vintage aircraft, like the burner cans from Lockheed F-80s, World War II practice bombs, and nose panels from B-25 Mitchell bombers. From its amalgam of aircraft accoutrements, the 16-man fabrication crew at MotoArt constructs functional furniture reflecting the planes’ service era.

Located in El Segundo, Calif., MotoArt’s 20,000 sq. ft. shop is a stone’s throw from LAX. Aside from its logo on one facade, there’s not much that sets the MotoArt building apart from nearby one-story offices and auto repair shops until you notice the remnants of fuselages, wings and jet engines stacked beyond the cars in the adjacent parking lot.

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Much as an artist produces limited runs of a screen print, MotoArt creates limited runs of a furniture line based on its inventory of certain parts. For example, on a recent visit, fabricators were polishing and assembling 60-in.-wide conference tables each made from two Grumman Albatross ailerons—the flat, hinged wing component controlling a plane’s roll.

“Open aluminum structures, like the ailerons, are hard to come by,” Hall says.

When they use up their inventory of ailerons, that specific table design will be retired. Then, they move on to the next airframe or component. Some of the material, which hangs from the rafters above or sits on shelves, awaits a design.

“We haven’t worked with a lot of these parts,” Hall explains, gesturing to shelves of metal cylinders and disks. “Look at these B-52 burner cans. We bought all those and haven’t used them. Sometimes we buy inventory and have no use for it yet. Until we have an idea, it might be lights, lamps or legs of a table.”

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Take off

Before MotoArt was founded 12 years ago, Fell and Hall worked as contractors for Walt Disney Imagineering, building high-profile architectural graphics and signage for theme parks and stadiums. They specialized in aluminum and stainless steel. Eventually, Fell’s knack for metalwork and Hall’s marketing prowess gave them the spunk to team up and make the switch to aircraft-inspired work.

When MotoArt first took off, Fell and Hall would take items to air shows, car auctions and other events—venues where the money was. 

“After a while, the works just sold themselves,” Hall adds. Because its catalog invites enough attention, the company rarely advertises. Its clientele includes Red Bull, Boeing, Leo Burnett, clothing retailer Robert Graham and a handful of celebrities. It regularly ships finished work overseas.

MotoArt buys planes from several sources around the country, the identities of which Hall prefers to keep mum. But he shares modus operandi for evaluating what to buy.

“We buy planes in multiples. The part has to be somewhat recognizable from the aircraft, so then we reverse engineer it and make something fun out of it. Usually, we get the inventory first, then figure out what to do with it.” 

For example, he recently bought 150 Beechcraft Model 18 rudders, and MotoArt is trying to nail down a couple of designs. Beyond glass-topped conference tables and desks, which are currently hot sellers, MotoArt makes crafty fixtures like ejection seat bar stools, airline fuselage partitions, and radial engine piston lamps.

MotoArt doesn’t buy just any aircraft, however. It has a few criteria for picking planes, and can buy any without restrictions as long as they’re accessible, Hall says. But also there’s a gray area. 

“We don’t want to take something out of the sky that’s airworthy, so we make sure there’s not a big need for the parts in the air community. These Beech 18 rudders will never be used. They were only good for the planes they were used on.”

Finding enough planes that are grounded for good shouldn’t be a problem for Hall. In 2012 alone, the Federal Aviation Administration cancelled the registration of 4,245 civilian aircraft that were removed from service, presumably to be scrapped, destroyed or repaired for display. The same year, about 10,000 aircraft registrations expired. That doesn’t necessarily mean the plane is ready to become a glowing credenza, rather its owner probably forgot to renew. Either way, the FAA has no way of knowing. But with more than 10,000 plane statuses up in the air, a few could end up in MotoArt’s sights.

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In the hangar

As you might imagine, most of the material coming in and out of MotoArt’s hangar-like shop is aluminum. Crews cut, grind, polish and paint mainly aircraft grades, such as 6061-T6, 0.080 in. thick. They have equal capabilities for working on wood and glass.

When assessing parts, MotoArt cuts them down on-site to the shape it needs before bringing it in the shop. Its workflow is divided into three departments: fabrication (metalworking and woodworking), metal finishing and assembly. Projects can take weeks to complete. The first step, however, is to get the best metal from the aircraft before attacking a project. Once sales receives an order and measurements, then the right chunk of plane is located. The fabricators get it first.

“They make the raw cuts on everything,” says Tommy Arellano, production manager. “Sometimes they’ll wait to do their final cuts until after the guys have manhandled it around. After cutting, it either goes to [paint] stripping or directly to polishing, depending on what state the piece is in.”

As the fabricators begin working on the aluminum, surprises pop up. Especially on commercial aircraft, they encounter layers of thick, heavy epoxy paint (depending on how many times the plane was painted), which obscures the underlying aluminum’s condition. 

“We don’t always know what we’re getting into, and removing all that paint is a chore in itself,” Hall says. 

With older planes, it’s not just the age but also aluminum’s fragility. Each project offers lessons on how to deal with all materials so salvaged metal won’t break.

“Sometimes, when we get World War II aircraft, you only get one shot at it,” Hall says. “I can’t tell you how many times we screwed up the frame when we went to work on it, and walked away with nothing. Commercial aircraft are much more durable. You can stand on it, weld on it, and not be afraid of hurting the aluminum.” Vintage propeller-driven aircraft generally didn’t have pressurized cabins, so the aluminum is much thinner and thus more finicky to modify than commercial jets, which have thicker skin. However, some older military planes were made of Alcoa’s Alclad, a high-purity aluminum that some say is better quality than modern alloys.

Parts go from fabrication to sanding and finishing. If needed, the finishers use a liquid paint stripper before grinding. In the sanding area, workers wearing face masks and goggles run humming orbital palm sanders across sections of fuselage. With two hands, they use the sander edge to get down into the seams and rivets, exposing fresh aluminum below. This is where everything is made beautiful. Using 80- to 100-grit abrasive sandpaper, the finishing department grinds parts down to the original aluminum substrate, sending a white dust into the air, to get the scratches out.

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“We’re pretty aggressive with our polishers,” says Jason Wilms, one of MotoArt’s metal finishers. Depending on the desired finish, they’ll move on to a 150, 220 or 320 grit sandpaper. To get into the hard-to-reach crevices, they use abrasive flap wheels and modified die grinders. “The C-130 has a lot of rivets and thin sheet metal, which can be tough to clean up. With the flap wheel we can get into the rivets without taking them off. Take the paint, leave the rivet, then we can polish it and get the eye candy,” he adds.

In assembly is where additional elements, such as metal mesh, LEDs, leg supports and glass are installed. Fabricators weld or bolt aluminum desk legs, clean up tight edges with a router and deburr them before final polish, says Jonathan Petrucci, one of MotoArt’s fabricators. 

The finishing department runs the metal through multiple polishes, and it’s topped off with a grade S polish to give the metal its pop. After assembly, items are photographed, disassembled, crated and shipped.

During FFJournal’s visit, one worker was giving a final buff to a couch created out of a float gas tank from a late 1940s Albatross Coast Guard seaplane, revealing a lustrous sheen. 

“We just love the original shape of it, with all the rivets, so we decided to make a couch,” says Fell. “The legs are fabricated from aluminum I-beams and it’s all highly polished.”

Premium on imperfections

No matter the plane, each project might have nicks and blemishes incurred from years of service. There have been planes that have thousands of tiny dings from flying in a hailstorm. In such cases, where imperfections might cause a client to reject a finished product, moving forward comes down to a judgment call on MotoArt’s end. 

“We’ll tell the client it is what it is. This has been around the world enough, flown a million miles, and each one of these dents represents a little story. So we give them the option to be put on a waiting list for a part that’s identical if they don’t want it,” Hall says.

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Meticulous sanding and finishing is key, because aside from paint removal, MotoArt’s crew might encounter Bondo putty or other anomalies.

“You never know what you might uncover,” Hall says. “It’s a bit of a challenge when you start working with it.”

Bullet holes aren’t unheard of, either. One client complained after discovering a hole in a desk made from a World War II-era B-25 bomber and sent the desk back. 

“We put together a replacement, and meanwhile we looked at the one he sent back. There was a bullet hole that went straight through the frame. We ended up selling it again for several thousand dollars more,” Hall says.

Prices are based on the original aircraft’s rarity and degree of finish; in the case of the bullet hole, what one customer might find fault with could be a nuance highly coveted by another. Even if the aluminum is in immaculate condition, MotoArt’s crew nonetheless treats every piece like a custom one-off job. Customers provide measurements and specify add-ons, such as data ports and outlets in a conference table.

Andy Valle, lead fabricator, says despite the shop’s knack for pushing the envelope with new designs, the most difficult aspect of fabrication can be figuring out individual dimensions for what seem like repeat works.

“Every desk and cowling has different measurements. Even if it’s the same product, it has its own measurements that might vary a little bit,” he says. “Cuts of planes aren’t always the same. Depending on the manufacturer of the plane, where we cut it, and the customer specification, we have to follow tight dimensions.”

Two recent completions—an LED-filled bar fashioned from a Gulfstream GII’s rear stabilizer, and a Boeing 747 jet engine cowling rendered into a glowing 12-ft. diameter conference table—are strikingly emblematic of MotoArt’s design prowess, execution and ambition. Although some projects aren’t functional without wood, glass or lighting complements, the sheen of refinished and expertly fabricated aircraft aluminum easily stands on its own. FFJ