NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Servers at the Yorktown Pub know when Paul Cochrane rides up on his 2007 Super Glider Harley, he’s after two important things — a chilled beverage and all the beer bottle caps he can haul home.
Back at his garage workshop near the pub in Yorktown, Va. Paul and wife Pam transform those bottle caps into folk art — mermaids, starfish, fish of all types, crabs and sea turtles — that’s marketed under the name Beach House Bottlecap Art.
Their hobby started five years ago when they were sightseeing with a son visiting from California. Visiting an art gallery, they saw a primitive carving of a 6-foot fish with a body covered in bottle caps.
“The bottle caps looked like they were just thrown on,” Paul said.
“They were not flattened or in any kind of order. I still wanted it because I had never seen anything like it before — but I was not going to pay $700 dollars for the piece.”
While the weeks and months passed, Paul kept thinking about that fish carving. He still wanted one like it, so he decided to make one, drawing on his skills as a hobbyist woodworker.
“Since high school, I’ve been making anything from wooden signs to dining room tables and curios,” said Paul, now 50.
To get started, Paul had the wood and found the bottle caps. Three months and several power tool purchases later, his first 12-inch-long fish was finished.
“I decided to crush the caps totally flat to look more like scales rather than nail them on like I had seen in the gallery,” he said.
His next fish was better, he says, thanks to his wife’s suggestion that he hand paint it for better realism, not just spray paint it like he did the first one.
“Friends and family saw my work and started giving me orders for certain caps or fish,” he said.
Hooked on his new art form, Paul has put his six-year background as a graphic artist to good use, making more than 1,000 pieces since becoming a full-time artist in June. He retired from the Navy in 1999, and also worked as a mail carrier for the postal service for seven years.
The carvings are made from white pine and cut from templates that Pam finds online and then fine tunes.
“I do a lot of Internet research, looking at the colors and sizes of the fish, as well as the other creatures, so we can make them as realistic as possible,” she said.
In a garage covered in a fine coating of sawdust, Paul works 10- and 12-hour days, building up an inventory for venues that include farmers markets and folk art shows.
He uses 1-by-12 inch boards glued together because pieces like large turtles, fish and mermaids need thickness. He uses a bandsaw to cut out each pattern, then a mini grinder with a woodcutting blade to rough shape each piece. Using a Dremel, he fine carves each piece and then sands it. Once each piece is primed with paint, Pam adds details, using acrylic craft paints. Turtles are wood burned to give them even more character.
When that’s all done, Paul adds the bottle caps. One by one, he smashes each cap, using a large hammer and quarter-sized pewter door knob to slightly flatten it and then a smaller hammer to totally flatten it. He can do about 100 in an hour.
“Flattening a cap is a two-step process,” he said.
“If I just bang on it with a hammer, it crimps the cap and it’s no good.”
Caps are overlapped to look like scales and nailed on using ¼-inch nails and a pneumatic nail gun. The compressor is set so the nails don’t go all the way through the caps and into the wood; after the caps are on, he hammers each cap to ensure all the nails and sharp edges don’t protrude. Each piece is then branded, signed and dated on the back; a wire hanger is also placed on the back.
Choosing caps for a certain fish or sea turtle is a science all itself, especially when Paul wants to mimic its true colors.
For instance, a sea turtles takes on colors of the ocean when its back is covered in green caps like Sierra Nevada, Woodchuck, O’Doul’s and Bud Light Lime. Coors Lite caps with the mountain outline give him the dark stripes he needs to create the realistic look of an Atlantic striped bass, often called a striper.
The scales on a mermaid’s curvy body look perfect when they are created from Corona Extra’s silver and dark blue caps. Caps from Sam Adams, Miller Lite, Bud Light Platinum and Michelob Ultra make a blue marlin look like it’s painted when you see it from a distance.
Paul also does special orders, using whatever bottle caps a customer requests or supplies. He keeps 150,000 to 175,000 caps of about 120 types on hand; each cap is washed in hot soapy water, bleached and dried before going into storage bins. Bud Lite turtles and crabs are among his most popular items. Budweiser, Coors Lite, Corona Extra, Corona Lite, Michelob Ultra, Miller Lite, Miller, Blue Moon and Heineken are his most popular caps.
“People are drawn to our art because they get to personalize it, or pick their favorite cap because it’s the beer they drink or its a beer they found and liked on a favorite trip,” says Pam.
“They get to have a say in the finished piece.”
Beach House Bottlecap Art in southeastern Virginia at 804-832-0823 or beachhousebottlecapart.com. Prices include mermaids for $120, sea turtles $60-$185, crabs $60 and fish $100-$500, depending on size.
Kathy Van Mullekom is gardening and home columnist for the Daily Press, Newport News, Va.; email her at email@example.com; follow her at roomandyard.com/diggin, Facebook.com/kathyvanmullekom, Pinterest.com/digginin and Twitter.com/diggindirt.
©2012 Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)
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