By Nicole Bemboom.
Ever start a project that seems insurmountable? Do you shudder every time you look in that back closet, the one where you stuffed all that overpriced tupperware, now immortalized in cloudy plastic from that time you skipped over the instructions for epoxy resin casting? That sheet of copper you were going to use garden shears to cut in to a hinge for that wood box you painstakingly sanded? That first wood box that you painstakingly sanded so well that you went right through the lid?
Take that pound of steel you picked up at the hardware store on a whim and multiply it by, say… 1000. That’s what Richard Bulan was looking at when he bought a piece of the Golden Gate Bridge and decided to zip over in his two seater convertible to pick it up.
The year was 1994. Rick saw a KRON newscast saying that a section of the handrail of the Golden Gate Bridge was going to be replaced, due to the not inconsiderable effects of decades of salty wind. As a San Francisco native, he was intrigued, and a bit upset: the plan was to sell it off as scrap metal. On the small TV screen (not flat, not plasma) the rail looked like it’d already be a great headboard. “I can just drive over, buy a piece, and stick it on a bed frame,” Rick thought. It’d be “something cool,” as well as a way to save a piece of this iconic structure from the anonymity of industrial recycling.
After tracking down the contractor, he was faced with a piece of steel that weighed maybe as much as his car. With admirable persistence (if I drop a stitch, the entire scarf is abandoned) he hired a truck to take the piece to his house, and even got the contractor to cut it in half for him. This filled Rick’s garage with two pieces of historically relevant, and limited supply, quarter-inch thick steel, and he had no metal working equipment or any furniture design or building experience. He went to the hardware store and ended up muscling through it all, for an entire month, with a circular saw and an infinite number of abrasive blades. He followed a kind of divide and conquer workflow: It’s already cut in half, so I’ll cut out everything that’s not visible or crucial… now it’s just 250lbs, but I’m not sure about sleeping under that, so let’s filet it, I’ll cut the entire thing in half lengthwise.
Rick just meant to make something that he wanted, but friends started requesting their own headboards. The headboards (as well as the rest of the pieces, like a charming wood topped side table) were a way to bring something so iconic, and so historic, to an approachable, fun and human scale. Inspiringly, he made what he loved, and the adventurous pieces spoke to a wide audience. Word of mouth spread like wildfire, and soon Rick realized that he needed to move up from the circular saw.
He went to a hardware store and said, “I need to start cutting metal.” He ended up with an oxy welder and a packet of instructions, comparing the drawing of the flame in the book with the one shooting out in front of his face. He practiced, and took classes, and worked at his cuts, but found that as soon as he’d started to develop his skills that people didn’t want perfectly straight cuts, so he stopped using jigs, and let the cuts have a rough edge.
Even now that he has developed the whole process, hired a few extra hands, and has almost had a decade of experience, it’s not easy. The designs (ranging from tables to lamps, as well as the original headboard) must be adjusted for each piece, as basically every part of the bridge has a different slope and the distances between all the railings are not consistent. Because of this, Rick hires metalworkers from an art welding background. He also likes they can work without direct measurements, as he prefers this to be a more intuitive process. It’s fitting that everything is done by hand, as the handrail was originally hand-milled in Pennsylvania and shipped through the Panama Canal. The Golden Gate Bridge Furniture Company is still small: just Rick, his wife, a woodworker and a metalworker.
Twelve foot, 1000-pound segments are frequently carted between the workshop in Bayview and the showroom in Pacifica on a $300 cart pulled behind Rick’s car. This cart is another way he proves that a lot can be done with not much: because it’s a cheap, but sturdy cart, it doubles as a workbench. (Especially important when your material is ten times your size.)
If you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, remember that you can even muscle through quarter-inch thick steel with a hardware store circular saw and enough abrasive blades and patience. (And it never hurts to keep a sense of humor.)