Patrick Ober of Ober Metalworks has worked with metals since 1992. But while most machinists use computerized pneumatic tools, Ober does everything manually, with old-fashioned lathes and milling machines.
“To me the items I make are tiny sculptures,” he says. They include fine silver jewelry, worry coins, marlin spikes for tying and untying sailor’s knots, and boldly elegant but lightweight titanium necklaces. He’s currently crafting a shirt of chainmail with 20,000 rings in it, and each ring is cut with 8-inch bolt cutters and wrapped by hand.
He focuses like a laser as he makes a gravitationally balanced spinning top from titanium. It’s basically a child’s toy for grownup collectors who value craftsmanship and are mesmerized by physics. Their Holy Grail is a hand-spun top that can keep on keeping on for 20 minutes straight. But this precision metalworker admits that his basement workshop is “a world in chaos.”
Once, while grinding titanium on a lathe with a high-speed carbide bit, some of the shavings ignited. “I have a 9-foot ceiling and the flames were hitting it,” he recalls. “My wife came down and was like ‘Hey, so, whatcha doin’ down here? And what is that smell?’”
Now the ceiling looks like burnt toast.
Then there are the daily annoyances. “Metal splinters stick in you and you can’t find them. Material goes down your shirt, hot stuff lands on your arms. I use tweezers, and strong magnets will pull out slivers of steel. Polar fleece is the worst. It melts and then you have the stuff sticking to you while you’re on fire.”
That’s why Ober has a closet full of cotton and wool. He also found some Kevlar, used to make bulletproof vests, that’s woven with Nomax, the fabric firefighters favor since it doesn’t decompose until it hits 800 degrees Fahrenheit. He’s going to use that to redecorate his man cave. “It’s a nice blue color,” Ober says, “and I’ll cover the ceiling in it.”
To relax and unwind, he enjoys archery — with arrows he makes. He also does weekly target practice throwing handmade knives, axes, and two-pound steel spikes. And he loves to teach others how to throw implements most people have only encountered on Game of Thrones.
As Ober explains, it’s the healthy thing to do.
“No matter your age,” he says, “you need to use your hands and body and do stuff you never did before. I mean, I never imagined that jewelry making would be this physical. And if you’re not having some kind of fun doing it, then you need to go do something else.”
Patrick Ober, West Asheville, obermetalworks.com. Ober Metalworks will exhibit at the second annual Xpand Fest arts-and-music festival on Saturday, June 9, noon-10pm, at the intersection of Coxe and Buxton Avenue on downtown Asheville’s South Slope. For more information, see xyvision.org.