By John Gunnell
A few months ago, a group of car enthusiasts who meet occasionally for breakfast paid a visit to Larry Fechter's shop in Iola, Wis. Larry ran into one of the gang at a swap meet last week. The man said, "Hey, I remember you — you're the guy with the clean shop. Larry, in fact, is sort of a clean shop specialist.
We were interested in learning how Larry keeps his shop so incredibly organized. How come the wall behind his grinder and wire wheel has no debris on it? How come there's no media on the floor under his two blast cabinets?
There's certainly no mess around Larry's blast cabinet.
Larry likes to talk as much as he likes a spotless working environment for his car projects, so we decided to shoot some questions at him to learn his secrets. What we discovered is that Larry's ability to run a "tight ship" in his car hobby building is related to the jobs he's had managing different kinds of facilities from city parks to a school maintenance program.
Q. How come you do this "neat garage" thing better than most folks?
A. I guess it has a lot to do with my working background and my belief that a restoration starts with the facility, rather than the car. A shop has to reflect what the car's going to be like when you're done with it. As I reassemble or restore a car, I need to work clean and spotless. It makes the restoration project go that much better. So, what drives the shop to look the way it does is the restoration. And, at the same time, the restoration drives the shop's appearance.
Q. How did your occupational background help you build this?
A. I was in building trades and facilities management for over 30 years. I've constructed commercial buildings; school buildings and residential buildings. I built four of my own homes. Being a school maintenance director made me become a jack of all trades. You learn how to do a little bit of everything.
Q. Did you spend a million dollars to build this place?
A. I'm not a millionaire. I'm a blue collar worker. I can do quite a bit myself.
Q. How big is your building?
A. The first section was 34 x 78 ft. and the second addition was 34 x 28 ft., so it's close to a total of 3,000 sq. ft.
Q. Did you build the building yourself?
A. Well, the rough-in part of it I farmed out. I used to build all that myself, but I have really good people who can do things. I let them do the rough-in part. But I probably did 95 percent of the finishing.
Q. Is the building a big rectangle?
A. Yes, it's basically a rectangle, but it's got two different height levels. The back room is what I call the "dirty room," although people laugh when I say it's dirty, since it's as clean as the front room. But, I do the grinding, the buffing, the painting of small parts and powder coating there. There's no chance of over spray. If I have to sandblast the part, I can also do that in the "dirty" room.
Q. How spotless is the clean room?
I just keep the front part of the building a clean environment, It's just the way I like to do that I tear cars apart. I tore two cars completely down to nothing. Then, when I start to reassemble a car, I put it in the bigger front room and I set up tables all around it. All the pieces are set on rosin paper. It's a clean environment. It looks like an operating room. But if I have to paint something, I want to do it in the dirty room, not in the front room.
Q. You built this place just to restore cars? It's not a garage?
A. This was built just for my passion, which is restoring cars. And that's what it is all about for; a passion for the restoration of automotive history.
Q. How long did it take you to get the building to this point?
A. It has been about a six-year off and on project in two stages. The first stage was done six years ago and last year the second stage was put on.
Q. Do you spend all your time working on this place?
A. As much time as my wife Rhonda allows me to. This is my passion, but not my job. I'd be lying if I tell you there might not be some frustration involved, but it's like someone else going golfing and shooting 18 holes. Some days they don't shoot a very good game, but they're still doing what they love.
A. If you spend time on a restoration that you might not get at regularly, you need to be organized. You might start a project, put it aside for awhile and then go back to it. My system is for that person who doesn't do this for a living. If you look, you'll see overhead cabinets marked: No. 6, No. 7, No. 8 and I create a document that tells me where parts are. I simply go to my list and there it is. Brake cylinder, Cabinet 6. I'm always trying to figure out a way of condensing time used and equating it to dollars. I've had to do that because, in my career as buildings and grounds director, I had a budget and had to be organized.
Lift and overhead storage cabinets are included in shop.
Q. The tag system you developed has four colors?
A. Right. My tag system uses cards that indicate: 1) Parts to be ordered; 2) Parts to be refinished; 3) Parts to be sent out. So, if I walk away from that job, I can go right back to it in a month. I'd like to develop some kind of a software package based on my system. If you're going to restore a car, you need to take the time to tag and bag it as you're taking it apart. Otherwise, you're going to have that mess and wind up losing interest. That's when you see "for sale" ads.
Q. What kinds of restoration tools and equipment do you have?
A. I don't do bodywork. I send that out, along with engine work. Those are two things I don't do here. I have my lifting equipment. I have powder coating equipment. I have sandblasting equipment. This year I set up two blasters so I can use glass beads or I can go to aluminum oxide for rust removal. I do not change material to do a particular job. I have a parts washer and two ovens for my powder coating. I use an electric kitchen wall oven; actually I found a double stacked one. I can do everything up to A arms. I can do all the bracketing.
PCV manifolds carry air and media between cabinets.
Larry uses a wall vac and a powder coating station he built.
Q. How come there's no "skid mark" on the wall behind your buffer?
A. When I worked for cities and took care of the park system I had to think about vandals or what happens when a thousand people use something. You think of a clean house for you wife and a couple of kids. I learned to think of the school as "my house," but with 1,000 kids dragging in mud. So, when I did my shop I kept that in mind. I used epoxy paint. I put an exhaust system in. My buffing wheel has a big fan behind it. When I buff, all that stuff, gets sucked into the fan and goes right out of the room. All my shop fixtures are "clean up-able."
Fan behind Larry's buffer adds to cleanliness of jobs.
Q. What makes your building unique?
A. The outside front has a '30s-'40s-'50s Chevy dealership look. Inside the two sections are divided by replica up of a '60s Chevy dealership. If you look close you'll see the steel fascia and soffet that was done by a commercial building builder. I made the walls look thick and they have built-in cupboards to put signs, mufflers and long stuff in. I didn't waste any room.
Q. What are you going to do with this?
A. I may have to decide that in the future. Maybe there will be somebody like me who wants to restore cars. It's built, so there's a lot of ways it can be used for a lot of things — the facility — but right now it's a car restoration shop. And it's not only a shop, it's a showroom. It's a party place. It's a gathering spot.