Cold Hard Art's Tom Patsis on creating custom metalwork
Tom Patsis was about 14 years old when he made the switch from making small-scale NASCAR replicas out of plastic and started using sheet metal, starting the early stages of a business in the process. “I ended up building a 1/18 scaled NASCAR chassis, and then I had to build a body to go over it so I made that out of .025 brass and silver and soldered it all altogether because I had no idea what TIG welding was at the time,” he remembers. “Now that I look at it, it’s pretty much a simulation of what I do for customers these days building 1/12 scale replicas of their vehicles for them as an everyday job.”
Patsis has crafted a strong following as a specialty sheet metal fabricator — creating classic car replicas, art sculptures and custom trophies under his business Cold Hard ArtAt first glance, his shop in Brownsburg, Indiana, looks like any other HVAC sheet metal shop. It has the usual tools: a Rotex punch, corner notcher, bead roller, a Miller TIG Welder, sheet metal break. But his creations tell a different story.
“Creating stuff that doesn’t exist,” says Patsis about his business model, from the complex to the curated. “There’s a lot of custom tools that I have to make because my art is so small. Personally, I’m a paper-and-pencil kind of guy.”
Here Patsis talks sheet metal, running a booming business and shares his favorite types of creations.
You got your start fabricating metal for a racing shop, when did you make the jump as a full-time business owner?
My first job was working at Don Schumacher Racing, where they do top fuel drag racing and Pro Stock Motorcycle racing. At the time, 2005, I worked on the bike team. Then the team went away, and I got a job in the fab shop. I really wasn’t qualified for the job, but they liked that I had drive and was a hard worker. That being said, I practiced a lot of welding and working with materials and dip for different types of materials so I could be up to par with what they were looking for as a welder and fabricator. So my art was like an accidental byproduct of practicing welding for my work and slowly getting better at both art and welding and fabricating overtime.
I kind of had two full-time jobs from building 330 mph 10,000 horsepower Top Fuel dragsters, funny car chassis, bodies for both, headers and all the parts you need on the race cars. Then, I would work to 6 p.m. to midnight building my art each night.
How do you explain the popularity and demand for your metalwork? Another accident?
I would fall asleep at doing my art at home, and my wife told me you need to pick one or the other; you can’t do both. So I chose to focus on metal art over a consistent paycheck, insurance and all the benefits. I had what most fabricators would say is one of, if not the best, jobs you could ever have being in racing, building such awesome stuff every day. But I haven’t regretted it.
You’ve got the skills to expand your shop into the HVAC business, ever thought about this as a third career option?
The only thing I know about HVAC is that they do a lot of work over your head. I have so many orders to do — trophies, art sculptures and replicas — that I haven’t even thought about opening a full-service fabrication shop.
We will do the occasional weld up on some small stuff here and there, but that doesn’t take a lot out of the day. I got enough on my plate. I couldn’t imagine saying we fab up stuff beyond what we already do.
These days, what would you say is the majority of Cold Hard Art’s business?
What I thought the majority of our business was going to be is building replicas of people’s race cars or classic cars. We have a lot of business doing that, but what seems to have overshadowed that is we do a lot of trophies for race events. Anything that needs an award that people are wanting something custom made, either out of used race car parts or clean sheet metal. If you do a good job building a trophy for events during the year, they come back again the next year. So what I thought was going to be just building replicas turned into building trophies. As long as the lights are on and I get to weld and build, that’s fine by me.
What companies have you made creations for?
We’ve done a lot of trophies for NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) STP oil company and K&N Air Filters. We’ve done some unique trophies for Red Bull for their sporting events, Rick Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, NBC Sports, PEAK Auto: Antifreeze company, O’Reilly Auto Parts, Don Schumacher Racing, USAC (United States Auto Club) …
We get it. The list goes on.
Oh yeah, Vice President Michael Pence, former governor of Indiana, also has a piece of Cold Hard Art.
What would you say is one of your favorite creations?
That’s a tough question. I like Motorsports, so when getting to do something different, I would do a lot of trophy trucks, IndyCars NASCAR lot of drag cars custom cars and stuff. Every once in a while I’ll get one that I kind of don’t want to give away. So I’d say anything like an F1 car or IndyCar kind of my favorites because they’re just so slick and sexy looking. But I also like all the big nasty drag cars and stuff, too, so, again, that’s a tough question to answer.
By estimation, what is your yearly revenue from creations? When is your busiest time of year?
Christmas time is busy because everybody wants unique stuff made for Christmas gifts, so that’s crazy. Holidays like Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day are pretty slammed for us, too, for flowers and unique trinkets that we produce. There’s a constant battle keeping the inventory up. I’m not going to tell you I’m a rich man or anything, but we make enough money to pay for the shop and pay for lunch. I just had a little baby girl, Luna, so that adds to the stress when you’re your own business and your wife is your boss. At any point, you can fail if you stop working. We’re about a year-and-a-half on back order for just replicas because the trophies are taking off so well. It’s only me and my wife, so I can’t spread us any thinner. We have been very fortunate with all the success.
Cheers to that!