Crafting Functional Art
Keith Jones is wiry. At 58, he has the long, lean physique of a much younger man, a musculature forged by his daily work of welding and turning iron and steel into gates, railings, stairs and doors.
With no shortage of orders from clients, Keith works six days a week to keep up. Judging by his finished products, it’s easy to understand why he’s in high demand. Each fabrication is a work of art. Piecing together metal isn’t just an art, though, it’s a science ruled heavily by mathematics.
Keith and and his wife Deb live in Black Canyon City, Arizona, where they built their own house overlooking the canyon, including a workspace where Keith does some of his finer fabrications.
For his larger projects, Keith works out of a welding shop owned by our neighbor, Jason Hedgrick, who builds mostly industrial metal architecture.
Keith is the nicest guy you could ever meet, always ready with a smile and gentle sense of humor. He and Deb are both avid hikers, rock climbers, kayakers and cyclists, though a few years ago he was hit by a car that ran a red light at 55 mph. The accident almost put Keith out of business.
He suffered four broken ribs, a smashed nose and had to have his right shoulder replaced. Though he was only in the hospital for three days, it took Keith a year and a half to recover.
“We visited a client after I got out of the hospital,” Keith said. “I was barely walking, had to use a cane, and she told me she had some jobs waiting for me. That’s the only thing that saved me.”
Fully recovered now and busier than ever, Keith continues to create metal architectural features, mostly for his clients’ homes.
One of Keith’s most recent projects was a double lounge chair with an adjustable back. He made one for his own patio and a client who saw it insisted Keith make a lounge chair for him, too. Keith asked $3,000 and the client didn’t hesitate; that’s a remarkable price for a hand-forged, over-sized lounge chair that will most likely outlast all of us.
Born in Tucson, Keith moved to Phoenix with his family at the age of six and grew up around Greenway and 40th Street. He graduated from Shadow Mountain High School and attended vocations classes in automative and welding at Paradise Valley High School. His welding experience led Keith to a job at a machine shop where he fabricated fighter jet parts commissioned by McDonald-Douglas.
“The government gave each piece of steel a serial number and the material was tracked through the entire production process,” Keith said, “including a guard standing over us.”
For 16 years, Keith built aerospace parts for Eason & Waller before forming his own business where he and his partner built 4-wheel drive vehicles. They tricked-out jeeps to handle Sonoran desert tours by adding roll cages, seating, bumpers and heavy-duty axel shafts.
Keith met John Gurley, a building contractor, when they both worked on commercial office space for Big Fish Advertising agency in Scottsdale. Keith built steel shelving and stairs for the customer’s space. John appreciated Keith’s work and began bringing him onto construction projects.
Eventually, Keith became the go-to metal guy for R. J. Gurley Construction, MAS Framing and other contractors. He operates two companies: Stone & Steel makes mostly residential fireplaces, fences, gates, etc., and EnviroSmith works with mostly green building products.
On average, Keith works on five jobs simultaneously, though he might juggle up to ten jobs at a time. Smaller projects can take two weeks. Larger projects can take years. Keith spent two years building hand railing, fences, huge planters, stairs, fireplace features, gates, etc., for two homes in the Rancho de las Cabellbos Golf Community in Wickenberg (see photos of the two Wickenberg homes and another client’s home in Scottsdale below).
Some homes use steel I-beams in framing the roof and walls, and that’s all Keith. One of the Wickenberg homes used 100-year old oak beams salvaged from the Great Lakes and the homeowners asked Keith to incorporate 100-year-old oak barn wood into gates for the property. .
Currently, Keith is working on a Desert Mountain Golf Club home, developing its structural steel frame and handrails.
Self-taught, Keith has built his business through his artistry and his likability. Clients become friends and return again and again for another piece of functional art.
As for his own home, Keith and Deb both put in $75,000 toward the building of their super efficient, solar-powered, 2,500 square foot home which they broke ground on in 2001. With their budget of $150,000, Keith acted as contractor and did most of the work himself, or he bartered for supplies or services.
He studied green building and still has a library of books about constructing environmentally friendly homes.
Their hillside lot overlooks Black Canyon, so Keith optimized the views by designing the house to nestle into the hillside. The house has five levels; the kitchen sits five feet higher than the living room. Averse to 90-degree angles, he made the main part of the house round, and rounded off all edges inside and out.
Solar power means Keith and Deb pay the electric company, on average, $600 a year. And they draw off gray water to irrigate trees.
“We use a clothes detergent and soaps that won’t harm plants,” he said.
Both Keith and Deb are certified blacksmiths, so their home has custom fabricated railings, stair treads with sun and moon cutouts, and unique metal bridge flooring between the kitchen and bedrooms. Deb made the kitchen cabinet handles, light switch plates and a bathroom towel bar that resembles a tree branch.
“There’s something about heating metal until it’s so hot it becomes pliable,” Keith says.
In fact, metal and concrete are his favorite mediums. They poured their kitchen countertops out of concrete and inset a few polished stone pieces. Over the oven, Keith drilled half-inch holes in the concrete countertop in a spiral pattern. He then put brass pieces with rounded heads into the holes. The metal pieces act like a hot plate, conducting heat from the oven to any pot or pan placed on them.
The floor is poured concrete, finished with a texture and stained. The concrete guy charged Keith half of the true fee because Keith helped him do the job and learned the skill in the process.
The walls are finished off with a clay that absorbs moisture. Accent architectural features are painted a deep rust color. Deb made the organic paint using clay and other materials she cooked on the stove.
In the kitchen, a large boulder sits on the ledge overlooking the living room and seems right at home next to a metal grid fence filled with small stones. Overhead hang hand-forged lighting fixtures Keith made from metal scrap, and a metal high-top bar made from reclaimed steel clings to a curved wall.
“We try to re-use everything,” Keith says. “Instead of throwing metal pieces on the scrap heap, we built a desk out of them.” Deb salvaged old metal sheets and spent hours removing paint. Those are now desktops in the home office Keith and Deb share.
Everywhere you look, artistic touches and little surprises delight, especially in the guest bathroom which sports a hand-forged copper sink, metal-framed mirror, hand-made sconces and, the piece de resistance, a hand-tooled copper shower wall.
Keith has always been a non-conformist in his businesses, particularly in not cutting corners to ease the workload or reduce costs. He does the opposite, taking time to add eye-pleasing details and additional steps to ensure a piece is structurally sound and permanent.
In his younger days, Keith non-conformed as an adrenaline junky. His bucket list (to be completed by the time he was 23) included skydiving and flying. Learning to Powerchute allowed Keith to do both at one time. For a summer, he strapped himself into a chair and flew as high as 6,000 feet. Until the day a small plan flew under him.
“My face flushed,” Keith said “as I realized I’m 6,000 feet above the ground, higher than a plane, strapped into what is essentially a lawn chair. I panicked.” On landing, Keith was caught by a sidewind and he barely missed two cars before tumbling into the desert shrubs. That was Keith’s last Powerchute flight.
Part of that adrenaline junky still exists, though perhaps minimized. Why else would he bend steel heated to thousands of degrees while also bending the rules of design? Keith doesn’t consider himself an artist, but looking at the fine detail work he does with hard metals signifies otherwise.
Keith is a fine artisan to know if you need metal work; and he’s a fine man to know if you need a friend.
Keith crafted all the handrails, huge planters and fencing.
Keith crafted all the gates using 100-year-old recovered barn wood.
Scottsdale Home (Photos courtesy of J. Gurley)
Keith built the exterior metal work (he did not craft the garage-style door or the interior aluminum door.
Keith’s Home Workshop
Jason Hedgrick’s Workshop: Where Keith Creates