Jake Shelton: Furniture Designer and Painter

TEMPE—It’s the first three-digit temperature day in Phoenix and things are in a frenzy at Jake’s Chop Shop. In the stagnant heat of Jake Shelton’s garage and studio, a photo shoot is taking place. A makeup artist is putting the finishing touches on model Jenna DeVaux’s face, getting her ready for a shoot with renowned pin up photographer Roy Varga, who was invited to the shop for shoots this weekend.

Here among the vintage car parts that will in time become furniture, it’s an appropriate setting for the retro shoot. Shelton has been known to incorporate pin ups into his furniture as evidenced by a coffee table with model Dayna Delux on it. “I use a lot of pin ups on the furniture just because it has the retro feel but I like to mix it with a little bit of rock and roll and punk rock,” Shelton says above the sounds of surf rock permeating the space.

“The atmosphere at Jake’s Chop Shop, it’s extremely eclectic,” Shelton says. “I usually have a full set up of guitars, amps, drums and then just all the mess that I make stuff out of—tons of supplies, sets of tools. You can look in here for days. The rafters are full of parts and bicycles and everything you could ever imagine. If you’re looking for it, it’s probably in here somewhere.”

Aside from the car parts and old license plates adorning the walls, there are also original tiki-inspired paintings and completed pieces of furniture, including a headboard and footboard made from a ’49 vehicle and a boxy armchair made from old car parts. “It’s all recycled art except for the paintings, and I just pull things in for shape and form and then build stuff from the shape and form. Everything starts with a sketch and then gets built,” Shelton says as he pulls out his sketch book.

To get from design to reality, Shelton spends time searching for various items. “The alleys are always good. In Tempe, we put out free stuff on the edge of the street and, every once in a while, I’ll see a good shape and I’ll stop and grab it, put it in the shop and build something out of it,” he says. “Stuff just comes to the shop. I’ve been here for long enough. People just bring stuff constantly…People know I look for quirky, odd stuff.”

Shelton’s clientele is diverse and includes musicians, athletes and professionals who are looking for something unique. But making ends meet wasn’t always so easy for Shelton. Six years ago, when he first moved into the shop to start the business, he was down to his last few dollars. “I had $1.56. I went and bought a cup of coffee so I had 56 cents left. I had rent for the shop due in like five days, so I started putting this chair together out of the scraps I had in the shop.” Someone stopped in, bought the chair and saved the day for Jake’s Chop Shop. That man has been a top customer ever since, Shelton says.

The inspiration for the furniture creations began back East when Shelton owned a restaurant in Richmond, Virginia. He made car-inspired furniture for the restaurant and the bar was constructed out of a ’59 vehicle. “I had gas pumps that put out beer and soda. It was definitely a punk rock venue,” he says. Eventually, Shelton closed the restaurant headed west. “I had a camper, lived on the railroad tracks and started building stuff, selling stuff. Seven months later, I rented this space and kept building and selling. From there, it’s turned into building a lot of stuff.”

Despite the East Coast roots, Shelton thrives on desert heat and loves living in Tempe. “I could never move back to the East. You hear about the laidback West Coast attitude. I love the people here,” he says. “I love the desert heat. The hotter it gets, the better for me. I work with a lot of catalyzed products that kick in and I don’t have to wait.”

With sparks flying off metal parts, it’s back to work for Shelton on this steamy afternoon. It’s clear that he remains a perfectionist about his work. “I don’t know that I have a masterpiece. I like every piece I’ve done for a certain amount of time and then I just pick it apart. I see every little thing I didn’t like about it.”