Whether it’s a 1930s automobile in need of total restoration, an antique timepiece that won’t tick, a piece of fine furniture that’s lost its shine, or a vintage musical instrument that’s seen better days, chances are good the work can be done in Abilene.
Specialty craftsmen are scarce. Their craft and art takes an innate ability, plus skills development to make a career of it. And most of the time, they will be working alone because not many people want to do what they do or lack the ability.
Still, Abilene has its share of people who are dedicated to a niche career in various kinds of repair and restoration.
BLUE TWISTED STEEL
644 Clark Road • 325-669-0757 • bluetwistedsteel.us
Blue Twisted Steel may describe some of the vehicles that the Pritchett brothers get in their restoration shop, but that’s not the origin of the name. That came from Ken Pritchett, father of Mitch and Forrest Pritchett, owners of the business. Their dad, who died in 2010, called the boys Blue Twisted Steel when they were kids because of their toughness.
Since 2011, the Pritchetts have been applying skills learned from their dad, who built their first go-kart, plus job experience, to their business. These men don’t just take out dents and straighten bumpers. They fully restore vintage cars from the ground up at a price starting at $80,000, often going much higher, depending on the condition of the vehicle and difficulty in finding replacement parts. To the customers, it’s not about money, no matter how much money.
“There’s always an emotional attachment,” said Forrest Pritchett. “They’re not interested in cost – they just want it fixed.”
Mitch is retired from the business, but his son, Josh, has taken his place. The only other full-time employee is Thomas Hobbins. Josh, Thomas, and occasional part-time workers do the nasty work in the various bays at the shop.
Forrest takes care of the office work and tracks down parts, fabrics, paint, and other materials that go into restoring a vintage automobile.
Some paint, parts, and fabrics are harder to find than others, especially for vehicles built prior to World War II. A lot of records kept by Chrystler, General Motors, and Ford have been destroyed in fires or have disappeared.
“A lot of that stuff has been lost in time,” Pritchett said.
When exact materials can’t be found, Pritchett searches for almost-matches or designs and formulas to create replicas.
“I do a lot of research on the internet at night,” he said.
The first job the company did was a 1950 red and white custom Willys Wagon, which is featured in the brochure. Vintage muscle cars, a Morgan, and a 1937 Ford pickup also are featured.
Walking through the work area is a trip down memory lane. Cars and pickups, some that look like toys, muscle cars, even an old Jeep Wagoneer gleam in the light. Working on cars was Forrest Pritchett’s dream as a kid.
“Forty years later,” he said, “it’s come true.”
4201 N. First St. • 325-232-8735 • firstname.lastname@example.org
Juan Martinez knew he had arrived back in 2014 when blues rock guitarist Joe Bonamassa was in town and stopped by Encore Music, which Martinez had opened two years earlier. Wherever Bonamass performs, he shops for vintage instruments to add to his collection. In Abilene, he chose Encore Music, where he bought a 1960 s era Fender Precision Bass.
“That was a good day for Encore Music,” Martinez said. “He wanted to buy it on the spot.”
Not everything has come that easy to Martinez, who was born in Eagle Pass and moved to Abilene in 1977 with his mother and twin sisters. Martinez graduated from Abilene High School in 1986 but admits that he wasn’t a very good student. But what he was good at paid off in the long run.
After high school, Martinez worked mainly in pawn shops, re-stringing and repairing guitars. He also played guitar in a Tejano band. Some of the guitars Martinez worked on were vintage instruments.
“I just kind of had a fascination for them,” he said.
Martinez turned that fascination into a job, first with the former Caldwell Music Co., where he was in guitar sales. Martinez worked for a couple of other music stores in town but when the final one closed in 2012, he began to think about his own shop, using the skills he had learned from observation.
“I just kind of picked it up as I went along,” he said. “Now I have customers all over the place.”
Martinez mainly restores old guitars and sells new ones and accessories. He also gives private guitar lessons. Another part of the business is selling instruments on consignment. Sometimes a customer brings in a real treasure.
Before Martinez opened his own shop, he got to work on a 1951 Fender Nocaster owned by a local man. Today, Martinez said, that rare guitar sells for more than $100,000.
“That alone was the coolest thing I’ve come across,” Martinez said.
Martinez didn’t have it easy growing up with a single mom and two sisters. He thanks God for protecting him as a young boy in a neighborhood where a lot of kids turned to crime. He also credits God for sending him his wife.
“The grace of God and the support of my rock, my wife of 18 years,” Martinez said, “That’s what got me through.”
JEWELS OF TIME
718 S. Leggett Drive • 325-692-9327
Walking into Jewels of Time on Leggett Drive is literally stepping back in time. Vintage clocks line the walls, tick-tocking and chiming all day long. To maintain sanity, owner Kevin Hines doesn’t wind the cuckoo clocks.
Hines was hit especially hard last spring by the closures due to the coronavirus. He is the only one that does repairs and restorations in his long, narrow shop, filled with timepieces, jewelry and antiques waiting to be picked up, repaired, or sold.
When Hines reopened after two and a half months, his wife counted 113 clocks waiting to be repaired, taking two to three hours each. But, like most people with a niche vocation, Hines is passionate about his work and isn’t complaining. That passion was evident from the time he was 13 and repaired a clock that broke in his Tyler school.
“Well,” he told the teacher,”I’ll take that home and fix it.”
And he did, taking the clock apart, cleaning it, and putting it back together–with no pieces left over. Growing up on a farm, mom and two sisters. He thanks God for protecting him as a young boy in a neighborhood where a lot of kids turned to crime. He also credits God for sending him his wife. “The grace of God and the support of my rock, my wife of 18 years,” Martinez said, “That’s what got me through.” Hines learned to fix anything that broke, even if it meant creating new parts, a talent he still uses when repairing timepieces with parts that are hard to find.
After graduating from John Tyler High School, Hines earned two associate degrees from Tyler Junior College. He worked for the Curtis Mathes Corporation in Athens, Texas, for three years and then for Texas Instruments in Dallas and Lubbock before being transferred to the TI plant in Abilene. Not wanting to move anymore, he opened his own business in 1993. The work he does is intricate and not for everyone but it is work that Hines excels at.
“I enjoy all of it,” he said.
He especially loves working on vintage clocks and pocket watches, some dating to the mid-1800’s. As much as Hines loves what he has been doing since he was 13, he is looking to the future. He will be 70 in September and has battled cancer.
“If I could find somebody to buy it tomorrow,” Hines said, “I would probably retire.”
MARK SMITH, INSTRUMENT REFURBISHING, NTUNE MUSIC & SOUND
221 Grape Street • 325-677-2471 • ntunemusic.com
In a small, cluttered room on the second floor of NTune Music & Sound, Mark Smith tinkers with band instruments, large and small, some vintage, some just dented and worn from years of being played by school children of all ages and performance levels.
It’s a skill that Smith has honed ever since he began working at what was then Caldwell Music Company while a student at Hardin-Simmons University. Smith played sax, oboe, clarinet, “pretty much whatever they needed,” in the Cowboy Band.
Smith came to HSU after graduating from high school in San Diego, thanks to an uncle who had been in the Cowboy Band himself.
“I knew I wanted to be in music,” Smith said, envisioning a career as a choir director.
Instead, he got a part-time job repairing instruments in 1974. After earning a degree in music theory and composition in 1977, he stayed on and today is a master at what he does.
“God gifted me with this,” he said.
Smith’s workspace may be cluttered, but he knows exactly where everything is and what it’s for.That includes trays filled with pieces of cork, pads, seal rings, spare parts, tools and things that only Smith can identify. Adjacent rooms are for stripping old finishes and applying new ones.
Because of his skill level, Smith is the only person at the shop who works on woodwind instruments. Two full-time employees work on brass repairs.
The clarinet is the easiest instrument to work on, Smith said, and the piccolo is the hardest. A special treat is working on vintage instruments. Higher quality instruments are easier to work on than cheaper models.
“Any pro horn is a lot more fun,” Smith said.
A big part of NTune’s business comes from schools in the Abilene area. For two weeks after school lets out, employees pick up instruments in a 100-mile radius. They typically collect about 1,000 instruments and repair about 20 a day.
“We work on it all summer,” Smith said, “and hopefully get it all back before school starts.”
1234 N. Fifth St. • 325-676-2451
Just about all of Jim Barnard’s life has been spent between South Fourteenth and North Fifth streets, but he has refinished furniture that may have come from anywhere in the country. A gleaming black piano was built by a company that opened shortly after the Civil War.
“We figured out it was from that era,” Barnard said.
Even though time and light damages the coating and makes the original color hard to determine, simply lifting the cover over the keys exposes the natural color and gives a glimpse at the piano’s origins. From there, it’s Barnard’s job to make the piano look like new.
The work is hard and sometimes tedious, but Barnard is a master who draws customers from the Abilene area and farther out. Not many people are going into his line of work, which demands skill and can be demanding.
“It can turn into a lot of work,” Barnard said.
He is assisted by his son, Ben, and one full-time employee, Jerry McDonald. His wife, Louise, does the taxes from home. Born and raised in Abilene, Barnard graduated from Abilene High School in 1972, and earned a business degree from McMurry University in 1977.
His parents, Boyce and Veda Barnard, both deceased, owned Barnard’s Antiques in the same location. Jim did refinishing work in the back of the shop from 1975 to 1977, a profession that began as a hobby when, at age 12, he refinished the family dining table.
“I always liked working with wood,” he said.
Today, Barnard works his magic in his shop, while his daughter and son-in-law spend their days next door in their own business, The Fire Escape. Barnard added kitchen cabinet refinishing and painting to his business in 2008.
Those are the only jobs he does on-site. All other pieces, including pianos, have to be brought to his shop for refinishing. Barnard’s reputation and specialized skills add up to plenty of business. He has learned a lot over the years, but perhaps nothing as valuable as demanding the best from himself.
“You can’t cut corners,” he said.
By Loretta Fulton