Home & Design August 4, 2008

Garage Workshops

What These Crafstmen Produce is Homemade, but not Humble.

Mark Sheehan:

Metal Fabricator Extraordinaire

Approaching Mark Sheehan’s house on Fourth Street in Bellevue, the only thing that catches the eye is a nondescript, six-foot high, cedar plank fence. But unlatching the gate is like cracking open a crystal-studded geode.

His front yard is crowded with an assortment of toys, sports equipment, lawn tools, furniture, plants, flowers—and several large and imposing metal sculptures.

Beyond is the rambling ranch house where Sheehan, his wife Lisa Phillips and their six-year-old son Sean live in eclectic comfort. And tucked away on the south side of the house is the garage.

However, this isn’t your father’s garage. First, as Sheehan points out, the space is 35-feet long by 25-feet wide with a ceiling that’s 12-feet high. He says it’s what you’d expect in a rural setting: “It’s a garage, it just happens to be a generous one.”

And Sheehan happens to need a generous garage since the capacious space is positively crammed with just about everything—except motor vehicles. That’s because he’s turned the garage into an elaborate and well-appointed metal fabrication workshop complete with gas-fired forge, power hammers, anvils, electric saws, grinders, cutters, welders, torches, tongs, an overhead boom, spacious workbench, many homemade dies and other tools of a trade he has practiced in the Wood River Valley for three decades.

It was thanks to California College of Arts and Crafts classmate Gordon Williams, a Wood River native, that Sheehan, as well as glass artist Jacques Bordeleau, arrived in the Valley in 1972 with plans to open an art gallery.

That idea fizzled out but soon Sheehan found himself creating, as he puts it, “functional art” for “the great big black hole in the center of your living room.” It was the early ’70s and he says, “Darcy DuPont was my first fire screen and it was my first collaboration with Jacques Bordeleau.”

Although he’s moved about the Valley, from Triumph to McCanville to Northridge, before settling in Bellevue five years ago, he says he’s moved his shop, called Cherry Glow Forge & Fabrication, every time, “usually by myself,” he adds.

But wherever he’s lived, he has designed, cut, heated, hammered, welded, polished and painted metal tubing, angle iron and sheeting into an impressive array of products—often with his signature bas relief trim. These include, besides the fire screens, chandeliers, fire tools, gateways, railings, signs, fountains, headboards, tables, door hardware, weathervanes—even a kitchen sink for Rosemarie Bogner!

His client list reads like a Who’s Who of Sun Valley and beyond: the Jansses, Michael Engel, Bill Hewlett, the family of Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, David Stoecklein, billionaire banker Herbert A. Allen (whose decorator tracked him down), and Carlyn Ring all have environments enhanced by Sheehan’s architectural metalwork. He was even commissioned to do andirons and a fire grate for Teeter’s Knoll, the only Frank Lloyd Wright home in southern Idaho.

Ring’s hearth features an iris-embellished fire screen with curvilinear forms echoed in a metal and glass table, also fabricated by Sheehan, as well as a handrail for her stairs—the synergy of the whole combining alchemically to exceed the sum of the parts.

Ring calls the effect “absolutely fantastic. I’ve always had many compliments on them.” She says she considers Sheehan “one of the great creative geniuses in the area.”

Sheehan forges with iron and steel, but his finished works often look like brass, copper or bronze (metals too soft to withstand the several hundred degree temperatures required to stand up to fireplace duty) thanks to heat-resistant paints. He says he does “a lot of faux paint jobs—they’re an easy throwback to my art school days.”

What’s amazing about Sheehan is that his artistic endeavors are only half of his life. There’s a whole other side to this wiry 57-year-old, who seems very vibrant and young despite his spectacles and white beard.

First, he’s a founding member of Galena Back Country Ski Patrol, and subsequently, a member of Blaine County Search and Rescue—an interest compatible with his ice climbing and skiing hobbies. Then, an antique gun inherited from his father (a German “bring back” from WW II) led to another hobby of tinkering with gunsmithing and target practicing. It was Blaine County’s firearms instructor, Pat Pidgeon, who suggested, years ago, that Sheehan join the Blaine County Sheriff’s Reserve.

“Artists don’t normally do this stuff,” he says, but adds “I was learning about what I was interested in learning about: humanity.”

He was proud to be the first and only reservist to make the SWAT team until a policy change required SWAT members “to have three years patrol experience.” The reserves then led to a nine-year stint as a county jailer. Luckily, his four-day shift there enabled him to concurrently do his metalworking.

But now he says, “I’ve gone through some changes this year and I’m reinventing myself,” he explains. “I was not really suited to law enforcement.”

Although he feels “people in jail are not necessarily criminals, some people routinely make bad decisions and some of those decisions lead to serious consequences,” he says “I got to see how bad it can get, I’ve seen people die. That was one of the things that led to my getting out.”
Ironically, for someone who bends steel to his will, he explains, “It all came crashing down on me. I couldn’t emotionally toughen up for that job.”

Now, he’s hoping to continue with his architectural metalwork while returning to the non-representational metal sculptures that he created, but was unable to market, in the early ’90s—only in a smaller, more collectible format. But, he notes, “This can be a very conservative community in many things . . . People aren’t willing to take a risk on their own, they’ve got to do the research.”

Except for his sculptures, Sheehan says he doesn’t have any inventory since “all the work I do is site-specific and specifically designed as one of a kind.”

Sheehan’s life has taken as many twists and turns as his popular pine bough fabrications—some of which can be seen at the Sun Valley Company’s River Run Ski Lodge at the base of Baldy. But in a very real way, Sheehan’s most fascinating fabrication may be his own life.




Mark Farris and Tom Knudson

Ahhh, the bespoke bicycle. Not only will it turn heads as you climb Galena Summit, but it will offer the comfort of a massage chair and make you soar like Floyd Landis on a good day. It’s a subject worthy of Peter Mayle, who would describe the indignities of having an inseam measurement taken and the impeccable pedigree of the bespoke bicycle builder, a European craftsman whose grandfather’s grandfather has been measuring inseams since flippers evolved into legs, in pursuit of the perfect marriage between man and machine. But some ambiance might be lost when it turns out to be a tale of two guys in a garage whose most notable achievement in the history of their eighteen-month-old company, VO2, is the perfect marriage between woman and machine.

Avid cyclist Deborah Burns commissioned a custom bike from them because she’d started doing century rides—hundred milers—and her long leg-length-to-torso measurement defied the geometry of a production bicycle. She also wanted something one-of-a-kind. “I have to say, the bike stops traffic,” she laughs. The flamingo pink frame, tricked out with bars wrapped in pink tape and an ergonomic pink seat, expresses Burns’ unique joie de vivre. And its beauty isn’t just skin deep.

“On this bike, there’s no more lower back pain, or pain in the neck and shoulders,” says Burns. But the bicycle is no tubby town cruiser—weighing in at just 16 pounds, it’s increased her climbing speed and improved her riding. “She needed a seat-tube length that you’d find on a size 56 bike, but a top-tube you’d find on a size 50,” explains Jason Dykhouse, bike shop manager at local retailer The Elephant’s Perch. “This really shows off what a custom bike can do.”

Comfort and handling derive from multiple variables, among them steering tube angle, top tube length and angle, stay geometry and wheel base. But Mark Farris, one half of VO2, explains that bicycles are relatively simple apparatus. Because of that, every angle matters. “Bikes are like poems. The fewer words there are, the more important every word becomes.”

Tom Knudson, the other half of the fledgling company, and Farris, have completed a handful of road cycles. A pile of shiny tubes on a table is their next project: a mountain bike still in the design phase. While aluminum, titanium, and carbon fiber have become industry materials of choice, their frames are steel. “Steel was kind of a has-been,” Farris explains. “But steel has been getting better and better, and high-end suppliers have embraced the virtues of oversized tubes, which really let you build a frame that is light, a stable descender and comfortable.” Dykhouse praises the metal’s dampening qualities and liveliness, which other materials can’t duplicate.

“All those people who fell in love with cycling (years ago), fell in love with a steel bike,” says Knudson. “So if they find out you can build a steel bike that’s lighter than what they’re riding now, it’s a no-brainer.”

Another reason steel is a no-brainer? “You can’t mold a carbon frame in your garage.”

Farris’ garage isn’t your neighbor’s garage. Among tool and blueprint strewn workbenches stand an unassuming-looking Anvil frame jig and an intimidating, computer-driven monstrosity called a Haas vertical milling center. These two tools are the secrets to building perfectly straight weldments with oversized steel tubes. By cutting and joining with great precision, the tubes stay straight, precluding the need to “cold set,” afterward, or, as Farris colorfully explains, “to bend with another big-ass machine.”

As former director of research and development for Cannondale and managing partner of C1 Design Group, drawing highly precise plans and then executing them is all in a day’s work for Farris. “If you can’t make it yourself, you can’t learn,” he says, hefting a welding helmet festooned with ghost flames.

Farris holds nearly 20 patents in the U.S. and Europe, mostly for transportation components or fly reels. C1 developed the mountain bike suspension system that would become known as Cannondale’s widely used Headshok.

Farris tinkers under a constellation of vintage mountain bike frames of his own design: the Scott Vertigo LSD, the Cannondale Delta V, and three others hang from the ceiling. “They’re not actually attached,” he jokes. “They’re floating up there because they are virtually weightless.”

After Farris has built the frame, it goes to Knudson’s garage for final component assembly. “It’s a lot cleaner over there,” says Knudson. Knudson also contributes superlative bike handling skills, honed during five years of racing Ducati motorcycles. “I know what works,” he says matter-of-factly. “I know when a bike handles well. If I’m going 60 down Galena Summit and can take my hands off the handle bars, I know I’ve got it right.”

A shared love of speed and “anything on two wheels” brought Farris and Knudson together. In 1991, Knudson was the only guy in Ketchum to have an exotic Ducati 888. “Then this guy moved to town.” He gestures to a grinning Farris. “When you hear one, you can tell right away. I heard this Ducati, and saw this guy, and thought, ‘Son of a bitch!’ I follow him over to his shop and I pull up, and he says, ‘Son of a bitch!’”

There was nothing nuanced about how the two went from friends who were two-wheel fanatics to partners in a custom bicycle company.

“I said, ‘We should build our own bikes,’” remembers Tom Knudson. “Mark said, ‘That’s a good idea.’ I said, ‘Do you know how?’ And Mark says, ‘Yeah.’”

Dykhouse was highly skeptical of the duo’s ability to turn out a quality product for the road because most of Farris’ experience had been in mountain bikes. “Nobody really took them seriously,” he says. Then he took their first bike for a spin. “Within a couple of blocks, I was ready to give them measurements and say, ‘build me one.’ It was stunning.”

“VO2” is a measurement of the body’s oxygen use; athletes use it as a marker for their fitness potential. What’s the potential of Ketchum’s VO2? Both Farris and Knudson are hesitant to say. They both call it “an R&D project.”

“We’re playing very seriously,” says Farris. But the best part of the endeavor, they agree, is riding.

“No,” Farris corrects. “Riding what you made.” Knudson nods. “Finding out it’s good.”


This article appears in the Fall 2006 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.