Sunday, March 25, 2012

UV Awazu's Custom Metal Shop

UV and Daughter Ingrid by Dad's First Saw

UV Awazu does custom metal fabrication from a shop in Bridgeport’s old Central Manufacturing District, at a significant intersection of Chicago’s bike cult and its small-industry renaissance.

There’ve probably always been small fabricators who do precise custom work, where half the job is figuring out the best way to do it. And there have long been urban cyclists, maybe also bike messengers racing alleycats in their off hours. But bicyclic culture in Chicago began to accelerate in the late 1990s, sometime around the launch of Chicago Critical Mass. Something happened in its old manufacturing buildings around the same time.

Ken Dunn bought a 1920s era parking garage at 6100 S. Blackstone, and housed the Resource Center there, in the 1970s. It was an incubator of sorts. There was a book and clothing exchange, a community garden, a co-operative workshop, and a curbside recycling program, which Dunn eventually moved to 7800 S. Dorchester and built into a waste-stream fueled economic development engine.

But by the late 1980s when Chicago artist Dan Peterman took up a studio at the Blackstone building, many of the other ventures had disappeared or were in decline. Peterman’s Wikipedia entry describes him as an artist and a practitioner of ‘adaptive reuse’ before everyone else was doing it. He once installed a bus inside one of Dunn’s giant compost heaps -- the heat from decay kept it warm all winter and they let a couple homeless men sleep in it at night.

There was also a big pile of bikes that attracted neighborhood kids, and there was talk of restoring old bikes to useful lives, a concept that didn’t get off the ground until Peterman bought the Blackstone building from the Resource Center in 1994. He wanted to get the incubator started again. And he wanted to tweak the model.

They launched Blackstone Bicycle Works under the corporate umbrella of the Resource Center, and got a grant from Richard Driehaus. The shop would teach bike mechanics and other job skills to neighborhood youth, and also operate a retail shop. Peterman rented the rest of the space to a mix of social and business ventures: a small furniture maker called Big Fish, Wong Lee’s Auto Parts, Jamie Calvin’s Neighborhood Resource Center, also Monk Parakeet, an arts program, and The Baffler magazine.

Peterman says there had been artists staking out a frontiersman lifestyle in old fireproof buildings where they could make stuff for years when he bought the Blackstone building. But those buildings were basically cheap subdivisions let for low rents, they weren’t set up to incubate businesses per se, and “they tended to stay in the art world.” The Blackstone building would be different. It’s evolved over the years, it’s called the Experimental Station now. Peterman saw it as a managed ecosystem operating on principles of mutualism – as opposed to principles like survival of the fittest, or “parasitism,” a business model the Experimental Station describes as “the ‘I'm going to exploit all of the resources that you offer as cheaply as I can’ mentality.”

It made a difference that Blackstone’s reinvention was happening in the 1990s. The urban atmosphere was different than when Peterman first rented his studio from Dunn. In the 1980s, Chicago’s population was still shrinking, its buildings, especially its industrial buildings, were emptying out.

By the 1990s, the back to the city movement was visible on the street. The population of urban art students was growing too. At Columbia College, for example, enrollment was about 2,000 in 1975. By 1990, it was about 6,500. Today there are about 12,000 students enrolled in degree programs at Columbia -- it’s one of the largest arts colleges in the US. The School of the Art Institute enrolls another 2,000.

When Peterman, Dunn and Calvin first launched Blackstone Bicycle Works in 1994, they hired Andy Gregg to run it. Gregg was an art student in Michigan, but he had a friend at the School of the Art Institute who had got to know Dan Peterman. Greg was virtually raised in bike shops. Peterman says he was softspoken, and had a certain cool factor that helped charm the neighborhood kids.

While in Chicago, Gregg took up racing with bike couriers. He never worked as a courier himself, but he excelled at alleycats, unsanctioned street races, which is hard to do if you come from out of town. You’ll never know the streets like a courier does.

His cycling acquaintance would sometimes show up at the shop. UV was one of them. Today neither one can put their finger on when UV started working at Blackstone, though Gregg acknowledges he would have been the one to hire him. It was sometime between 1996 and 1998. UV was an art student, a cyclist and a racer. Soon it was Andy coming in #1 in Chicago messenger races, and UV coming in #2.

The kids at Blackstone appreciated that. Blackstone tied some of the Woodlawn kids into the youth program for XXX Racing, then a fledgling sanctioned race team sponsored by Yojimbo’s Garage.

Meanwhile, back at Blackstone, UV was learning how to weld. He says it was Andy Gregg who inspired him to start building beautiful things from metal scrap. Gregg was becoming known around town for furniture he made from wheel rims, upholstered with inner tubes -- he’d made a prototype as an art student -- it fit with the Blackstone aesthetic. You can see an early example of one of Gregg’s lounge chairs at Yojimbo’s Garage. Gregg made the bar stools for The Handlebar. Lance Armstrong’s bike shop also owns a few.

Eventually, Gregg would move back to Michigan, where rents are cheaper and off road riding is better. He’s refined his wheel rim furniture and sells it through the internet as far away as Singapore. He’ll still build you furniture from your own parts, if you’re sentimentally attached. And he says he still consults UV for technical expertise in metal work.

A Classic Gregg Lounge Chair

Even back when UV first started building choppers from scrap bikes down at Blackstone, long before he made his living in fabrication, he was known as a perfectionist. There is a strain of chopper bicycle enthusiasts who appreciate the hacked together aesthetic. “I was reacting against that,” UV recalls. “There was a group of people who’d ride together, and they’d laugh about how their bikes would break on the ride.” He would never build something that might threaten the safety of the person using it. But more aesthetically speaking, he couldn’t stand to build something that might break.

For awhile, there was talk of expanding the Blackstone program to include bicycle frame building, partly to accommodate older kids who were ready to learn new skills. Blackstone sponsored UV to study frame building at the Urban Bike Institute in Oregon. In the end, Peterman says implementing a metalworking program was just too complex for Blackstone. UV says he thought about framebuilding professionally, but this was in 2001, he concluded it wasn’t commercially viable.

2001 was also the year the Blackstone building suffered a catastrophic fire, and took years to rebuild. UV kept Blackstone Bicycle Works going from a semi-trailer for awhile. Meanwhile, his metal working business began to evolve.

He launched it with a $3,000 on a 0% interest for 12 months credit card deal -- he started with a saw and a welding machine. He built his business doing fancy custom jobs for wealthy patrons. For awhile he supplemented his income coordinating deliveries for Bari’s sandwich shop. Then a friend moved to Denver and handed over his steadiest client, a wealthy individual with a “really expensive habit” for renovating homes – he told UV he’d finished 60 of them in his lifetime.

A steady patron helped UV transition to full time metal work. In 2006 he moved his business into Bubbly Dynamics in Bridgeport. “That’s when I began doing it full time, versus doing some jobs on the side, out of my house.”

Bubbly’s owner, John Edel, was an industrial designer who was making his living building virtual environments. He bought the real world warehouse in 2002, and was doing the renovations himself, like an exceptionally ambitious home improvement project. His gradual pace, and his creative disposition, let him maximize use of waste stream recycled materials – some of them came right to his door through a deal he’d struck with a waste hauler who would park half filled dumpsters in Edel’s loading yard over night – and free labor from his tenants who’d lend their skills in lieu of rent.

The end result is a small business incubator built out with great care and with a mutualistic culture. Once installed, the tenants would swap skills, or occasionally employ each other to complete big jobs.

UV and Edel were acquainted through bike circles. Edel sometimes rides a high wheel. He was also an early member of a chopper bike gang called the Rat Patrol – he let them set up shop in his basement. When UV moved in as a tenant in 2006, his skills were so helpful he didn’t pay rent to Edel for a long time. If you visit Bubbly today you can see his handiwork in the staircases and doorframes, and especially in the showcase hand railings, assembled to look like cascades of bubbles in stainless and frosted glass.

UV did other jobs. For instance, he taught himself to apply powder coat – an enamel-like finish for metal objects that’s not mixed with toxic solvents. The powder is applied electrostatically and cured with heat. At first, he was doing it manually, using heat lamps and a hand held temperature sensor. Eventually he built a cabinet to simplify the process. It’s basically a big convection oven, assembled from steel plate, with a control panel he built into a modified toolbox.

UV’s known for his careful detail work. He can create special effects through layers of pigment, he can fade colors into each other from one end of a frame to the next. If he doesn’t like how it comes out, he’ll strip it and do it again.

UV Powder Coat Detail

2008 turned out to be a transition year. His client with the house habit had just finished his first new construction project. “It was very high end,” UV recalls. He put it on the market just before the economy collapsed, which slowed him down for awhile.

But by year end, UV had met Rocky Levy, of Icon Modern furniture. “It was totally random,” UV recalls. Levy was looking for a fabricator to build metal bases for a new account. UV had just powder-coated a bike for a friend of a friend of Levy’s wife.

Icon Modern makes furniture from reclaimed urban wood. Reclaimed wood has emerged as a small industry itself. Its rescues good wood from the waste stream, and the furniture comes with a backstory. Icon Modern advertises that in a lot of cases “we can tell you where your table ‘grew up’.”

Levy says they buy wood from the Rebuilding Exchange, which deconstructs old buildings as an alternative to demolition. The Exchange opened in Chicago in 2009. He also has 3 to 4 sawyers who harvest wood from urban trees that have been taken down for other reasons. A lot of them have been infested by Emerald Ash Borer – the scars will be left visible in the finished furniture. Levy says they once sawed open an ancient oak and found a bullet lodged deep inside the trunk – they had sawed it exactly in half. Counting rings they calculated someone had shot the tree about 80 years ago. They left it in the table top.

In 2008, Icon won an account with Starbucks to furnish tables for their midwestern stores. Big retail chains renovate stores on a regular cycle – they work their way through all the stores and by the time they are finished, the early renovations are ready for a new look. Often, that new look means replacing the old furniture, but Icon Modern sold Starbucks on furniture they could spruce up, not replace. The table tops are an inch and a half thick – they can be sanded down and refinished. “And UV builds the bases like tanks,” Levy says.

“I don’t skimp on structural integrity,” UV says, and he’s particularly careful about tables. “People do really stupid things on tables.” He imagines employees standing on them after hours, or even an elderly customer having a heart attack, and sitting down abruptly. “I think of random stuff that could happen, because that’s how life is.”

Levy says in 3 years, they’ve built furniture for 450 stores – they might supply 1 – 5 tables per store. Almost every table is different. That places the job at a spot just between custom and mass production that might pique the interest of large fabricators, but makes them hesitate to do it. UV’s got the flexibility to modify each table, though the job sometimes pushes the envelope of what he can produce.

He hired 3 employees, and trains them to do the welds he wants, exactly the way he wants it done. “I’ve developed a certain way of doing tables. It’s cost effective...if we stick to it. Otherwise we’re wasting labor.

“When I tell other welders how much time it takes us to build these,” he adds, “they’re impressed.”

Though sometimes they still modify a design to work with his equipment. Icon Modern’s latest tables resemble airplane wings: the original design was shaped like an ellipse. In consultation with UV, Levy modified it to a tear drop shape, so the weld is done where the flat sheets come together, and so UV could make it. He bends the quarter inch steel on a slip roller, but “I wouldn’t have been able to do a tight radius bend.”

Levy accepts that as part of the process of using a small local producer. For some of his conscientious corporate clients, the small local producer is part of the appeal. “Just because something could be done, doesn’t mean you should have it done,” especially if it means sourcing it further afield.

And his small local producer can also do his “super custom” work. Levy describes a decorative screen of antique nails he designed for Roka, a sushi restaurant. He had a source for antique iron nails, so he incorporated them into a 40 by 8 foot tapestry that UV engineered.

A Small Swatch from Roka's Nail Tapestry

On UV’s end, volume and time may have tempered his perfectionist instincts.

Once the steel table bases are built, they clean off the oil with acetone and use a torch to burn off lint, and any moisture in the pores of the metal that might seed rust later on. Then they cover the raw steel with lacquer.

UV says the raw steel look is very popular now. But he can’t help adding that “really, if you’re looking for durability, lacquer over raw steel isn’t the way to go.”

A few years ago, he was building steel table bases for the library in IIT’s Crown Hall – a Mies Van der Rowe landmark. He did it the way it ought to be done, which involved primers, toxic solvents and expensive paint, even though the client wanted the look of raw steel. “We have him the look,” UV says, “but we gave him a really tough finish.

“In hindsight, it was over the top.”

While his shop at Bubbly Dynamics is packed to its limits, UV says he’s resisted the temptation to move, because he thinks of the Starbuck’s contract as a once in a lifetime job – particularly since they’re building the tables so they won’t have to be replaced. If he moved to a larger space, he’d fill it with more equipment.

“Maybe I’d pull in more business,” he says. In fact, he has done projects for Icon Modern’s other conscientious corporate clients, like Whole Foods and Google. "But it was a level of risk I wasn’t willing to take.”

Now his wife, Kelly, has landed a great job in Columbia, Missouri – they’ll move there with their young daughter, Ingrid, this spring. So he is selling his Chicago business in 2 parts.

Angela Chan has bought his powder coat business. Her boyfriend, Owen Lloyd, builds bike frames – in fact he founded the frame builder’s co-op that also rents space at Bubbly Dynamics. Before he leaves, UV is training her to do powder coating so she can keep the quality up.

Down in Missouri he plans to start out slow, and see what builds. First thing, he would like to build a cargo bike with seats for a toddler or two, while he’s still got free time.


  1. I was wondering if you guys can make a custom metal sign? I am looking to get a custom sign for my business.

  2. Just moved to the neighborhood! So glad to have found your blog! Bridgeport is a curious place, and I can't wait to explore every nook! Please continue to post your lovely articles, they make Bridgeport less intimidating! ;)

    I was born and raised in Chicago and have lived in almost every zip code (plus the burbs) and Bridgeport fascinates me with the little shops, the melding of cultures, and the randomness of architecture and classes of people. Your site is the only roadmap to finding the good stuff, so thank you!