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Drawing with fire

Creating intricate designs and practical pieces, two artists find commonality in a powerful plasma torch

Not every plasma torch is used in a high-production metal fabrication shop. While that scenario might represent the bulk of plasma torch users, there are others working in small shops creating magnificent art and utilitarian pieces, including everything from intricately crafted bodies for hot rods to simple yet custom hinges for doors.

This is the case for metalworkers Kelly Phipps and Pat Roy, two artists on opposite ends of the country using Hypertherm plasma torches to create custom pieces.

Intricate designs on scrap metal typify Kelly Phipps’ most popular artwork.

Finding metal

After years and years of desk jobs on the West Coast, including positions at a software company, a tech company and a public relations firm, Kelly Phipps was ready for a change. Coming from a family of talented artists, she had always maintained an interest in art, even hitting up farmers’ markets on weekends to sell crafty items, such as dried flower arrangements.

Things took a turn one summer nearly two decades ago while Phipps visited friends in Eugene, Ore. She noticed they had a plasma torch in their shed and inquired about it.

“They said, ‘do you want to try to cut out something?’” Phipps says, recalling that she cut something really basic, like a flower, and that Hypertherm made the torch. “I had so much fun doing it. The next day, I bought a 1979 one-ton flatbed, a welder and a Hypertherm plasma cutter.”

It might have had all the makings of an impulse move, but it turned into a profitable venture within months. She first focused on customized garden stakes and other crafty metal works, selling her art around the country at various craft shows and art shows, learning which ones were worth her time and which ones to skip.

“I had no intention of doing metal,” Phipps says. “It just fell into my lap. Being able to take something that’s flat and cold and static and turning it into an intricate piece of art by bending it and coloring it – doing whatever you want with it – is amazing. I really liked the plasma cutter. I just wanted to do more and more.”

Hobby killer

Pat Roy, a retired mechanical engineer, tuned into a television program called “Junkyard Wars” about 15 years ago, marking the catalyst for a new hobby that would put an end to most of his other hobbies. The show, which ran from 1998 to 2008, featured two rival teams tasked with building a machine using items found in a junkyard.

Phipps spent a long weekend using her Hypertherm Powermax30 XP to cut out the design on the award-winning hot rod.

“Those guys were having lots of fun with metal and tools,” recalls Roy, who after watching a few episodes, got the idea that he’d give it a try on a non-competitive basis. He began accumulating tools for metalworking and found that his first attempts at creating objects were crude. But, he was patient and persisted. He knew that with practice he would produce something more palatable.

“Then a friend suggested I might like blacksmithing,” he says. “I took an introductory class and was hooked.”

Roy says he was amazed at what could be accomplished when the metal heated up and began to glow, especially when he struck his hammer down upon it. He continued to educate himself and his skill level improved to such a degree that he now teaches blacksmithing and offers demonstrations at county fairs and other events.

Working out of artist coop in Maine, Roy has established Big Rock Forge where he uses modern tools to create barn door hinges, candle holders, letter openers, fire pokers, coat trees, bookmarks, kitchen pot racks and many other items made of metal.

Recently, Roy was approached by the Travis Mills Foundation (Mills was the subject of an award-winning documentary about his recovery from horrific injuries to his four limbs) to offer some of his work for a remodeling project at a lakeside estate in Maine. The estate is a retreat lodge for wounded soldiers and their families.

Growing business

On the other side of the country, Phipps had settled in Hood River, Ore., a small but picturesque town of around 7,000 people nestled in the heart of the Columbia River Gorge. At the heart of this small, quaint town is where Phipps’ studio business is booming.

It’s booming to such a degree that Oregon Public Broadcasting aired a piece on Phipps’ work last fall and again recently, which has prompted calls for custom metalwork, especially the old shovels featured in the program. Phipps makes the shovels by drawing intricate designs on them before making the cuts with her Hypertherm plasma torch.

One of the highlights of Phipps career includes work she completed on a hot rod in 2015. A local car enthusiast, Gary Fisher, was familiar with her work and asked if she would like to be part of a team that was putting together a hot rod from scrap parts for a competition.

She agreed and spent many hours over one weekend cutting intricate designs into the body of a 1935 Autocar. She also created artwork on the suspension and frame, which is a 1972 Dodge motor home. The results are stunning.

They entered the hot rod, which some have called a “steampunk dragster,” into Rat Rod magazine’s build-off competition in Illinois. They took first place and the car was featured on the January 2016 cover.

“The roof on that thing turned out awesome,” Phipps says. “It was a great opportunity, for sure.”

The Hypertherm difference

Roy, though steeped in the traditional and centuries-old blacksmith methods, started out with a couple of welders and an oxyfuel setup at his shop. He used aviation sheers to do most of the metalcutting on aluminum and copper sheets, 18 gauge and thinner. He’d pull out the oxyfuel for anything thicker, but that ended the day he came across the Powermax plasma system.

Roy saw a demonstration of the machine at Maine Oxy, a gas and welding distributor in his region. He looked at two systems, the Powermax30 Air and the Powermax30 XP. Because the bulk of the material he cuts is no thicker than 3/16-in. steel, he decided on the Powermax30 Air, which has a built-in air compressor.

“I liked not having to buy a second piece of equipment and the portability of it,” says Roy of the integrated compressor. “I do a lot of blacksmithing demos at county fairs, and the Powermax30 Air is more portable.”

The oxyfuel torch he once used has remained on the shelf since he picked up his Hypertherm.

“The plasma torch is a very fine cutting tool,” he says. “It’s simple to operate and quick to set up. It only needs electricity in 120 V or 240 V.”

With it, Roy has produced a multitude of metal items, including a forest scene in 12-gauge steel. He also created a support bracket for a bell that will be mounted on the deck of the Travis Mills Foundation lodge.

Roy goes on to explain that with an oxyfuel torch, the operator has to select a consumable type suitable for the job and set the appropriate pressure for each of the gases. It also heats up the part more than a plasma torch. Finally, he says he prefers plasma over oxyfuel because it doesn’t take nearly as much time to start up or shut down.

Phipps is also loyal to the Hypertherm brand and it’s not because of a bias created by her first experience cutting with Hypertherm. She actually gave other brands a try, but happily settled with her Powermax30 XP.

“I tried three different brands and I sent them all back,” she says. “I was trying to save money and let’s just say, you get what you pay for. It wasn’t worth it. The Powermax30 XP is my favorite one, so I went back to that.”

Powermax specs

Roy’s Powermax30 Air features an internal compressor, which eliminates the need for an external compressor and filter. It can be plugged into any 120-V or 240-V power source. Cutting speeds, according to Hypertherm, are 137 percent faster on 1/8-in. material than oxyfuel.

With one tool, operators can cut a variety of metal types and thicknesses. It’s also built to withstand heavy-duty use in demanding environments.

Phipps’ Powermax30 XP system is also small and lightweight and similarly, can plug into any 120-V or 240-V power source. Cutting speeds on 1/8-in. material are 307 percent faster than oxyfuel.

The XP models such as the Powermax30 XP and the recently introduced Powermax45 XP can cut material up to 3/8 in. thick. In addition, the systems cut faster and include automatic gas adjustment for quick, simple setup and operation, while the consumables for the torch offer high quality cuts on thin material, leaving a clean edge and narrow kerf – a must for manufacturers, fabricators and artists alike.

Black Rock Forge

Kelly Phipps Metalworks

Hypertherm Inc.

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