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Rick Dale: American Restorer

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Rick Dale epitomizes the modern craftsman. As owner of Rick’s Restoration and star of the History Channel’s American Restoration, Dale spends his days finding new life in beat up pieces of junk. Every day, people bring antiques to his Las Vegas shop, where he and his crew restore them to perfect condition. In today’s throwaway culture, Dale proves time and again that every piece has the potential for both beauty and function. He spoke to us via phone about coffee makers, motorized surfboards, and a family in the spotlight.

TheManual: How did you get into this line of work?

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Rick Dale: In 1983 I needed to make a house payment. I was in a construction business that was failing, and I had an old coke machine in the backyard. Someone told me that people overseas might buy them. So I fixed it up and sold it to a guy in Japan. He wanted to know if I had more, and I knew a guy that was selling them, so that’s how business started. Prior to that I had worked on everything from construction to painting cars and restoring old parts.

It took off very fast. I had two guys working for me in my backyard. Three months later I ended up buying a shop downtown and was able to hire three more guys. It definitely filled a niche; there was just no one else doing this kind of work.

 TM: You’ve got a great group of guys working for you. How did you find them?

RD: I’ve been hiring the same way for thirty years. I hire people who are less fortunate, who have an incredible will to work, but don’t have a job. I teach them one to two specialties within the restoration process.

TM: What kinds of specialties?

There are about ten areas: taking the entire piece apart and writing a manual for the restoration, removing all of the original paint, metal working, wood working, wet sanding, painting, polishing all of the nuts and bolts, fabrication, putting all of the pieces back together, and then testing out the finished product. There is so much that goes into every piece, it’s ridiculous!

Some of my guys might know how to do all of these jobs, but they really strive to be the best at one particular thing. No one else can do what they do. So each time I hire a guy, I train them for one of those positions. And these people have stayed with me and shared in all of this success, the whole way.

TM: What do the pieces that people bring to you tell you about them?

RD: You learn a lot about people from this, bottom line. Every piece means something different. For example, this guy brought in an old Foreman grill. His parents used it when he was a kid, and he had so many memories tied up in it. I could tell that he loved this part of his childhood so much. People have…they have a lot of emotions invested in these pieces.  And then I’ll get other people who want something restored so that they can sell it and turn a quick profit, and I can tell when that’s all they’re interested in.

TM: What do you love most about restoring antiques?

RD: When you’re working with your hands, when you’re tearing something apart, you’re reliving it’s past. Every engineer that worked on it, every layer of paint, what happened to it here, what happened to it there. You enter into this time warp, and I love that.

You learn what each piece meant to someone or what it did to society as a new invention. Like the radios from Thomas Edison – you can feel the competition between him and Tesla! You get a sense of the huge battles that went on at that time. As my crew and I are rebuilding something, we feel such a sense of pride and love during that process. It’s good stuff.

Everybody that works for me is learning lessons about history and realizing that a lot of things don’t need to be thrown away. My guys will fix a piece of junk and then make do with that in their life, instead of going out and buying something. It’s a huge, huge lesson.

TM: Any favorite pieces?

RD: My favorite piece so far is an old Stoner coffee maker that was built in the 1940s. You would put money in and it would dispense a cup of coffee, with sugar and milk, or a cup of hot chocolate.

Tyler [my son] found it in the back of his school. It was totally destroyed. So he brought it home and found all the missing parts with my brother. The inside was so intricate that it blew me away. It really challenged me, this little coffee machine. It’s my favorite one because of Tyler, and how he found it and it became this innovative piece for us.

TM: Most frustrating project?

RD: A 1969 motor-jet surfboard, built by the owner of Bloomingdales. This guy was a surfer, but he didn’t like paddling (laughs). So he bought a motor for it. You would get on top of it and then pull the motor up just like a lawn mower, and it would motor through the water.

Well this motor…there were very few out there like it. We made the exterior all pretty, but the motor took me three months to do. I could not get it right. We went out to the lake and it didn’t run, so we took it back into the shop. Took it out again, it would run for about fifteen seconds and then die. I had to go out to the lake about fifteen times, it was so frustrating.

TM: What’s the most important thing your father taught you?

RD: Never quit. Especially when things are down…I’ve been down and up and down and up. I tell all these kids that come up to me and ask me for advice, “just don’t quit. Keep pounding it out.” My dad taught me how to work. My dad has taught me a lot, actually. I didn’t realize that until probably this show.

TM:  How has the History Channel show impacted your family?

RD: I think working with family can be good and bad. Kelly [my wife] has been running the business for about five years. And our kids all work for us. It has made each of us realize what’s important. At the end of the day, the family is the most important thing. The work will come, and it’s important for us to get along (laughs).

TM: How about a little shout out to your lovely wife.

RD: Kelly and I are together 24/7, so we when go home, we’re still talking business, we’ve had to learn to shut that off. Kelly’s a genius in marketing and running the shop. If she weren’t around, the business would die. A lot of people don’t know that. She makes everything happen. She makes the whole family – and I consider everyone that works for us as part of the family – she makes them understand what’s what. Everyday our family gets better. It gets stronger.

Catch Rick and his crew on American Restoration, Wednesdays at 9/8 central on the History Channel

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