KNAU and Arizona News
4:08 am
Thu March 21, 2013

Makers and Menders Part II: Mayorga's Welding

Unassuming shops and garages lie south of the tracks in Flagstaff. Inside, there's the clank of metal, the smell of wood and the beauty of raw fabric. People are using their hands to create useful goods. In the series Makers and Menders, Michael Collier and Rose Houk highlight this way of making a living and a life. Today, they introduce us to Frank Mayorga and the welding shop his father started 50 years ago.

Welder, Frank Mayorga
Welder, Frank Mayorga
Credit Michael Collier/Rose Houk

'I've got a picture on the wall over there with me about 9 years old, me in a little hard hat, my dad working on a lathe, and thinking this life is pretty cool, doing this.'

Frank Mayorga's welding shop fills a yellow building south of the tracks in Flagstaff. The snowy back lot is crammed with trailers and machinery. An air compressor jack hammers in the background. Three big dogs are underfoot in the tiny office.

'Take em with you. Penelope, go outside. Woody, you too. Come on, Big Girl.'

Frank wears a baseball cap and grease-stained coveralls - 6 pens in the pocket, a pair of pliers at holster level. His father Emilio was a welder.

'He worked at Southwest Forest Industries...I think he was 14 years old when he first started there as a laborer. My dad wanted a nickel raise and his foreman, just like that, 'We can't pay a Mexican more money than you can a white man, and so no, you can't have that.' The way my dad says it is, 'I don't know if you're doing me a favor or not, but I gotta go.''

So Emilio started Mayorga's Welding in 1963.

'The business has really gone through transition over the 50 years that we've been here. We started out in the garage, my dad as a one-man-shop. He pretty much worked alone and I'd go in and help him. He'd make anything and work on anything, fix wheelbarrows, fix rakes, work on trucks, work on heavy equipment.'

It took a couple of tries, but Frank eventually settled into the shop. The going was tough at first.

'Two or three times I tried coming back to work for my dad but we just butted heads big-time. Neither of us knew anything. And then in '76, he goes, 'Well, you wanna try it again?' So I said, 'Well, OK, let's do it.' For 18 years, he and I never fought once. We both had mutual respect for each other. I could pick his brain and he would pick mine. Most importantly that he taught me was that your honor is worth a whole lot more than any dollar you're gonna make.'

Frank learned about steel - how to fabricate, how to repair. He's not an engineer but he knows when a piece of equipment is built well. Sometimes his repairs are better than the original design.

'We were really tied into the timber industry for a while. And so a lot of repair, lot of specialized fabrication for them. So you end up making things when you're repairing because you go, 'Well, they obviously blew that on the engineering.' Broken pieces tell you where they make the mistakes. You look at something broken, there you go. It's telling you what it needs.'

Racks of cold steel line the shop walls. A backhoe is parked at center stage; sparks fly like the Fourth of July as a welder works on its broken bucket. Frank points out a Monarch lathe.

'Well how old is this machine? It's 60-some years old and it keeps going right along. Things do wear out. Sometimes we make parts for it because it's easier than trying to run 'em down.'

Frank thinks of himself as a tradesman, a craftsman.

'I kinda have a problem with people calling me artistic. I have an ability to see what I like. And so when we're building handrails, if people aren't real specific about what they want, then we can guide 'em, say, "Nah, you might think about this, you might think about that.' I don't know if that's being artistic, but I know when things have good symmetry. Sometimes I look at it and go, 'Ugh, that's just ugly.''

Whether you call him an artist or craftsman, at the end of the day Frank Mayorga knows that he's made things that were needed. Wheel chairs and walkers have become favorite projects.

'We helped a guy that had a special made...I wanna call it a bicycle, but it was on 3 wheels and he cranked with his arms. He was going to Kilimanjaro. What he had was these big beach tires. So he wanted to put those on the front because the top of Kilimanjaro is cinders.'

His shop has turned out wheelchair-accessible tables for Diablo Burger and the Weatherford Hotel's New Year's pinecone. River companies bring their broken frames in after rough-and-tumble Grand Canyon trips. Semi-trailers still get welded back to life here. No 2 days are the same. After half a century, Mayorga's Welding remains an integral part of the Flagstaff community. And Frank still repairs neighbor's rakes and shovels.