Bolt people: There’s an Appel for that
Trained welder makes metal art a full-time career
Steve Appel of Prescott, Ariz., has been making his bolt people full time for the last 23 years. The variety of requests and the kick he gets out of people’s reactions have turned this one-time hobby into an enjoyable career.
In the present-day world there seems to be a phone “app” for pretty much anything you could possibly want or need. In Steve Appel’s world, there’s a bolt for pretty much anything—a bolt person, to be exact.
Appel doesn’t need a smartphone or apps to entertain himself. Instead, he repurposes nuts and bolts and assembles them into interesting and humorous sculptures that depict hobbies, occupations, and other past times.
It’s rare for Appel to run into a request that he can’t handle, although earlier in his career it did happen.
“Years and years ago someone asked me to make a swimmer, and I couldn’t figure it out. So I sent his check back, which I had never had to do up to that point. But now I can make swimmers. Go figure,” Appel said.
And it’s not for lack of creativity because, as he explained, in the 23 years he’s been doing this, people have asked for the strangest things. But it’s those requests as well as those that he thinks up on his own that have led him to create more than 250 designs for his bolt people. You name it and he probably already has a design for it—bolt people playing tennis, driving an off-road vehicle, riding a roller coaster, scuba diving in an aquarium, playing paintball, getting married. The possibilities are endless—just the way Appel likes it.
Nuts, Bolts, and Beginnings
Appel took a job as a welding apprentice at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard in 1981. A co-worker made rudimentary bolt people and Appel liked his work.
“I remember it was the day I had to take a pipe test, which I flunked. My friend was making bolt people, but his proportions were way off. I thought, ‘Hey, I can do that.’”
At first he used the scrap metal he found in bins around the machine shop. When co-workers took note of what he was making, he began fielding requests and giving items away free of charge. When he got laid off in 1989, he used his newfound freedom as an opportunity to spend more time making his bolt people. Already familiar with the art show circuit, he took a chance and threw himself into it head-first.
“That year I did like 40 shows. My first show was in Concord, Calif., where I made $2,000, which is a lot of money for me.”
So what are some of the oddest requests Appel has ever gotten? Better find a comfortable chair because he could bend your ear for hours about some of the stranger things people have asked him to make. Pool tables, semitrucks, dog groomers.
And that’s fine by him because there’s really nothing he won’t try, even if it’s a little off the wall.
“I did a show in Santa Monica on the pier and this woman came up to me and asked if I could make a gynecologist. So I said, ‘Well, I’ll give it a shot.’ It turns out her daughter was an OB-GYN. So I made it. When her daughter showed it to her friend, she ordered one too.”
While some requests are strange, others are moving. Like the one that came from a band teacher in Colorado last spring.
“They had started a band at a certain high school four years ago and these kids were graduating. He [band teacher] wanted to give them something to remember him and the school by, so he ordered a bunch of band pieces. Then when the kids graduated, they got their diploma and also on the table—I’m going to get a little teary-eyed saying this—was their position in the band. It was so touching. That really made my year.”
For Appel, as much as he enjoys creating his bolt people, he enjoys hearing the back stories of those making the requests just as much.
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