Hot rod dreamer

By Gretchen Salois

Above: Reminiscent of the 2015 film "Mad Max: Fury Road," many of fabricator Steve Darnell's creations resuscitate vintage cars otherwise destined for the junk yard.

Growing up with a steel yard as his playground, it's natural that Steve Darnell reinvents vintage cars.

April 2016 - Many a dreamer is limited by lukewarm ambition and inaction. Then there are the relentless. Thrust into a self-made frenzy with ever-changing expectations, the bar is always adjusted upward. Steve Darnell, founder of Welder Up in Las Vegas, is of the latter set, a man whose dreams are as lofty as they are heavy on his shoulders.

“I grew up in an industrial life,” says Darnell. “My dad was an ironworker who worked seven days a week.” Admiring his father’s example, “my work ethic developed following my dad. He could weld and build but chose to focus on being an ironworker and building his business.”

As the company grew, so did Steve, learning how to repair equipment along the way. He became essential to the operation. “I was in charge of fixing things so my dad’s guys could keep working,” Darnell recalls. “That meant if I had to stay late or get there early to weld a shear back together, I did it. I worked 15-hour days.”

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Above: Darnell's “Train Car” was built from pure imagination, including its airplane cockpit-inspired windshield on the 1928 Dodge.
Below: The 1954 GMC Cab Over Engine “Fruit Rod” truck has details such as wood paneling from old produce crates and taillights made from mason jars.

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Out of high school, Darnell took on more duties, such as making deliveries and running down with his dad to Tijuana, Mexico, to pick up inventory. Soon he was building 30-ft.-long flatbed trucks using a stick welder. “I burned a lot of 7018 and learned a lot on my own,” Darnell recalls. “I would look at other people’s welds and compare my own. I asked the older guys if I was doing it right and developed my skills until I started Welder Up in 2002.”

Darnell’s respite from his workdays didn’t mellow much with his hobby of choice, rodeo. Twenty years of team roping nurtured his hunger for nonstop change. One false move or fall the wrong way, and it’s all over. He formulated his best ideas as his mind snapped back and forth during those adrenaline-pumping, split-second decisions and he wanted to experience those moments of clarity to life in his own fab shop.

Fearless fabrication

When Darnell opened shop, he took on jobs unique to clientele off the Vegas strip. In addition to the more mundane farm equipment and tractors, jobs like enormous chimpanzee cages required his expertise with a torch. “Nothing scared me,” Darnell says of the unusual requests. The only fear he had was to become “stuck in a hole,” working a job welding pipe.

“A lot of people are scared to take on diverse projects,” he says. “There are so many different levels of fabrication that as I built my confidence, I found I could be unstoppable.”

Soon, Darnell’s skills eventually came to focus on fabricating hot rods, vintage vehicles mainly from the 1920s through the 1960s. “My dad had a lot of cars so it was a natural fit for me,” he says. “He used to take me around and show me the different models—he was into them so I was into them. I wanted to like what he liked and he was a huge influence for me.”

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Above: Attention to detail is everything as each seam undergoes close inspection.
Below: Each piece of the frame and chassis is carefully constructed.

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Cars allowed Darnell to experiment. His first test involved rebooting a vintage ride into a diesel-run car, or D-Rod. Installing a diesel engine wasn’t typical practice when Darnell did it in 2008, he says. His interest in a diesel version of a fab rod was the result of years working on a ranch with diesel-run farm equipment. The reliability and speed seemed a natural fit for a fab rod.

"They always turn on and have powerful engines. I realized that fab rod fabrication offered me endless challenges. It’s more than ordering everything from a magazine and putting it together in a shop,” he says. “It’s me working on making my ideas happen. And there’s nothing that pushes me most than someone telling me I can’t do something, or that an idea won’t work or can’t be fabricated—and the challenges just get bigger and bigger.”

Shop skills

Darnell hired people who have a strong work ethic and represent a balance of welder and artist. Some employees are family members and friends who grew up alongside him at the steel yard.

“The guys on my team have great welding skills, like my brother in law—we’re family but when he shows up here he’s all business and knows what he’s doing,” Darnell says. “I can hand him a job and go to work on an R&D project I’ve got. Before it was just me and one or two other guys but we’ve grown. I’ve got the best team now and a lot of these guys have been friends of mine for over 20 years.”

Despite those close connections, Darnell holds his team to high expectations. “Things don’t always work the way you want them to. I’ll see something one of my guys has worked on and I’ll just straight up hate it,” he says. “He has to take it all apart and start over. We don’t always see eye to eye and people get aggravated but that’s part of the process, part of the job. That’s how we end up at the final product, with a lot of input and reworking—and patience.

“I’m out there for my entire crew, not just myself,” he continues. “You work with your guys, not against or above them—you have to be a part of them, or they won’t respect you. You have to outwork them, make them feel guilty, make them want to out-do you.”

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Above: Darnell is joined in the shop by his sons, Chase, left, and Cash, who share a passion for metalworking and cars.

Rod form

Welder Up often makes vintage hot rods street friendly. “We put an old truck on top of a new frame, including newer gears and transmissions,” Darnell explains. “You have to remember that back in the 1940s, cars didn’t have to stop at lights when driving down the strip like they do now. You can’t take a 70-year-old car and have it drive down the strip as is.”

Then there are the projects Darnell dreams up from scratch. Such projects include everything from the chassis, extension, radiator and headlight brackets to chopping and channeling the body. “Those are the fun ones,” he says. “Those are the projects where I can put some personality into it.”

One of those projects includes the Train Car, developed when a customer sought a finished product but had no suggestions whatsoever. “He came in, gave me money, and told me to do whatever I wanted,” recalls Darnell. “It came out like a train. I spent a lot of time on the details of that one.

“These projects, they get in my head and I get to take creative little turns and add details to the car someone else might not think to add,” he continues. “It’ll take you two hours to really look at all the details of the finished car. As a fabricator, this is where I’m able to really blow people’s minds with how I was able to get something to work or fit.” Such was the case with Darnell’s Train Car, where he redesigned the windshield of a 1928 Dodge to look like an airplane cockpit.

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Welder Up makes vintage cars street friendly, often adding old trucks or cars onto new frames with newer gears and transmissions.

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Tomorrow’s titans

Darnell never stops dreaming up designs that will test his resolve. His enthusiasm spills into his community and is a source of inspiration and encouragement for would-be creators. More and more, Darnell receives photos from children building their own fab rods out of Legos. “Whatever they send me, I try to send something back, tips, encouragement,” Darnell says. “These kids are already using mechanics in their heads to create these projects. They are like I was—creating pine wood cars all wrong because I couldn’t follow the directions. So I made it work by working it a different way.

“It doesn’t have to be metalworking,” he continues. “These kids are interested in the mechanics of things and how they work—they learn geometry, mechanics, physics and definitely work ethic. And that’s what we need.”

The 100-hour work weeks invested to build the business have segued into a well-known shop that continues to create and is being featured for a third season on the Discovery Channel’s “Vegas Rat Rods” later this year.

Perseverance in addition to picking up a torch is what Darnell hopes will inspire his own children. “If you’re a welder, you’re a sweater, you’re a bleeder. It’s miserable and I love it. That’s what separates a welder from someone stuck in a cubicle somewhere. You go home exhausted and pass out and wake up the next morning ready to do it all over again because you love it.” FFJ



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