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How to Make an Art Car

Obtainium Works leader Shannon O’Hare shared his wisdom at an August event in Vallejo

Sunday, August 25, 2019
Riding the Fire Salamander

Steampunk fans in the San Francisco area received a master class in “How to Make an Art Car” during a presentation Aug. 3 at the Obtainium Works studio in Vallejo, California. Shannon O’Hare, who leads the organization, offered details about how he and other crewmembers built vehicles such as the Pirate Ship, Steampunk Flying Saucer, and Fire Salamander.

The event was listed in Meetup, which caught the attention of some engineering students from China who were in the Bay Area to visit Stanford and UC Berkeley. They showed up in a tour bus, so the house was packed as O’Hare made his presentation. The students were obviously delighted by what they saw, and some of them later took a few vehicles out for a spin.

The “obtainium” in the group’s name refers to repurposed materials the artists use to make the contraptions. Their best-known work is the Neverwas Haul, a three-story self-propelled Victorian house that’s been a highlight at many Burning Man festivals. This year, it’s on display at the Lyft Art Park in downtown Las Vegas.

A few of their vehicles were seen in a 2018 episode of Jay Leno’s Garage on CNBC. Obtainium Works was also featured in Vintage Tomorrows, a 2015 documentary about steampunk that’s currently available for free viewing on Amazon Prime.

First Steps

Before building your vehicle, O’Hare advised that you ask yourself the following questions:

How do you plan to use it? Many of their contraptions are built on mobility scooters, but these are best suited for short distances. “If you’re building an art car to take to Burning Man, it’s a whole new ball game,” he said. The batteries in mobility scooters don’t hold up, and the desert playa “is very hard on small drivable vehicles. If we have a project to take to Burning Man, we use gas-powered golf carts.”

Neverwas Haul, their largest vehicle, was built on the base of a fifth wheel travel trailer and powered by an 18-hp Honda utility engine.

They’ve also made vehicles based on bicycles, such as the Wine Trike, which uses a gear-and-chain mechanism to pour from a wine bottle. It was one of the vehicles featured on Jay Leno’s Garage.

Neverwas Haul and Wine Trike
Photo of Neverwas Haul (left) by Stephen Jacobson. Photo of Wine Trike by The Steampunk Explorer. It’s from a gallery show in March.

How will you transport it? Some scooters are made to be disassembled, or they can be rolled into a van. “But once you attach a zeppelin, it kind of limits the ability to transport,” he said. He keeps this in mind when designing each vehicle. For example, the flying saucer can be broken into quarters that slide into each other, and parts of the salamander can be removed.

How will you get in and out of the vehicle? The new flying saucer is tricky in this regard: You have to crawl under it and wiggle your way into the seat. “It’s not for the faint-hearted,” he said.

How many people will it carry? “If you just drive it yourself, that’s easy,” he said. But “if you’re transporting people, you have to think about how to do that safely.” On the other hand, “if it breaks down, it’s great if you have other people, because they’re going to push it back.”

Mobility Scooters

The mobility scooters are typically donated, and his first task after obtaining one is to make sure it works. “Motors generally don’t go bad,” he said, “but a lot of things can go wrong beside the motor,” such as the throttle or controller. To test the scooter, you’ll need compatible batteries.

Once he’s confirmed that the scooter works, he strips it down, removing the plastic parts and sometimes the chair as well. For example, the salamander doesn’t use the original chair.

Chairs in mobility scooters have detachable arms, and if he keeps the chair, he sometimes uses the arm sockets to attach the frame.

Making the Frame

To build the frame, he often uses steel electrical metallic tubing (EMT). It’s inexpensive and “you can bend it to whatever shape you want, whether it’s a whale or a ship or a unicorn,” he said. The tubing is available at hardware stores such as Lowe’s or Home Depot, but be sure you ask for steel EMT, because aluminum is costly.

He cautioned that you should remove the tubing’s galvanized coating before welding, because it emits toxic gases when heated.

Wine barrels are abundant in the Bay Area, and he finds that the barrel hoops are useful as cross bracing to connect the tubing.

Creating the Skin

Once he’s made the frame, the next step is often to cover it with chicken wire or stucco netting. “I put that over the steel frame to kind of fill it out,” he said. On top of that, he puts foam padding or carpet padding. The latter can be expensive, so he tries to obtain it from discards.

“Old dead sofas are another great source of padding,” he said. He especially likes leather sofas, which he describes as “the buffalo of obtainium. I use every piece of them. The backs will have beautiful leather that has not been cat-scratched or stained.”

In some projects, the next step is to cover the foam with heat-shrinkable polyester. “When you glue it to the frame and heat it with a heat gun, it shrinks and tightens up and gives you a smooth surface,” he said. Once that’s done, he applies primer and then house paint.

Pirate Ship Detail
The skin of the pirate ship was made from heat-shrink polyester. “Barbie of the Deep” on the front of the ship came from a hair salon. The photo is from a gallery show in March.

LED lighting can provide a final touch, especially for night-time effects. It is “so cheap and so low power,” he said. He’s planning to add some LED lighting to the flying saucer.

The Role of Serendipity

When he gets a request to build a vehicle, he begins by looking at his stash of obtainium to see if he has the pieces he needs. “I start designing it around the material I have,” he says. “But that doesn’t always work,” and he’ll have to find additional components.

This often happens by serendipity. He might try designing a project around a scooter, and then realize that the job calls for a golf cart or warehouse vehicle. “The next day, someone will call and say, ‘I have this warehouse hauler I need to get rid of,’” he said. “Part of it is saving the material long enough that it gets applied to a project.” The other part is the magic, when “I’ve needed something and it shows up within two or three days.”

Sometimes the donated material suggests the project. For example, they got the idea for the flying saucer after receiving a couple of large satellite dishes. But that project also had a bit of magic, as a donor offered a Roman helmet the day before they were set to ride in a Fourth of July parade.

Fans of old Warner Bros. cartoons will recall Marvin the Martian, a character who wore a Roman helmet. So “we have a Marvin the Martian helmet the day before we need to use it,” O’Hare said. On the other hand, “I never wish for pianos or paint. Paint shows up on its own.”

Roman Helmet
Crewmember Joe Phillips wears the Roman helmet while driving the flying saucer at the Obtainium Cup Contraptor’s Rally in July.

After the presentation, O’Hare invited the attendees to take free leftover obtainium from bins in the studio. Then they ventured outside to see the vehicles in action. See the gallery below for more scenes from the event.

Correction: This article originally stated that O’Hare uses heat-shrinkable nylon to create the skin of some projects. It should have stated that he uses heat-shrinkable polyester.

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