Thursday, April 10, 2008

Man finds niche painting goalie helmets

Jeff “Pappy” Early of Hermantown started putting pinstripes on buddies’ cars on weekends in the 1970s, admittedly, he said, to earn a little beer money. At the time, disco was hip and vans with painted murals were the rage.

Early enjoyed the art, but he got into a different type of pinstripes when he went to work for JCPenney. Early worked his way from stock boy to department manager, but after the company downsized, Early took a severance package in 2001 after working there for 28 years.

“I was like, ‘Now what am I going to do?’ ” he said.

Early got back into painting, his true love, but he never dreamed where it would take him. Now, most of Early’s work isn’t done on hot rods, but on hockey goalie masks.

“That’s primarily because of geography,” said Early, who never played anything more than pond hockey growing up in Duluth. “You do work that lends itself to where you live, and, of course, this is hockey country.”

Early, 57, has painted masks for clients from Southern California to upstate New York, from Duluth, Minn., to Duluth, Ga. He has done work for the likes of former Minnesota Duluth goalies Isaac Reichmuth and Josh Johnson, and he is an authorized painter for a company out of Huron, Mich., that he hopes could lead to work for NHL goalies.

Early still does custom automotive painting and “garage art” — which he calls “art on steel canvas” — that lends itself to a garage, den or rec room. Early had mostly automotive-themed work on display at the World of Wheels car show this past weekend at the DECC. Tucked away amid the custom Camaros and 1934 Fords were Early’s hand-painted signs featuring pinup girls, dragons and flames, and custom gearshift knobs. However, Early has discovered that specializing in goalie masks is an easier way to turn a profit. He uses his Web site, , to display his work to prospective buyers.

“Somebody might send me a trunk or truck door or even motorcycle parts, but the cost is prohibitive,” Early said. “Whereas with a goalie mask, at best, it’s $12 or $14 to ship it from practically anywhere in the country.”

Early, who attended UMD in the early ’70s, did evening work for a sign painter who helped teach him the skills he uses today. At the time, signs and billboards were painted by hand and an apprentice gradually learned the skill from a master, before advances in technology made it a lost art.

Early, who was majoring in political science and history, found he had a knack for it.

“I thought I was going to be a lawyer,” said Early, whose oldest son, Brett, recently graduated from art school. “I never thought I’d be in the art world, but I think it’s in the genes. My father had the best handwriting I’ve ever seen.”

Craig and Kelly Smith of Minneapolis approached Early’s World of Wheels booth on Saturday at the DECC. They had purchased “nose art” from Early at a previous car show. Nose art is a painting on aluminum meant to resemble the nose or fuselage of a World War II-era plane.

“We framed it and hung it up in our bathroom, and I can’t tell you how many people have complimented us on it. It’s awesome,” Kelly Smith said to Early. “We could use some of your business cards to hand out.”

Early, who brought 300 business cards to the three-day event, had given them all away by 1 p.m. Saturday. Early, who adopted the phrase “The Devil’s in the Details” as his motto, went on to explain the technique he used to create depth perception in rivets and bullet holes in the side of an airplane.

“His work is amazing,” Kelly Smith said.

With old-school techniques learned years ago and airbrush technology that allows him to paint colors fading in and out, Early said he can paint just about anything. He said goalies are generally looking for three types of masks:

* A full face mask that features an intimidating look, with the cage of the mask serving as the open mouth of a team mascot.

* A pictorial that allows for more variety and generally features a theme. Early, for instance, did an Arabic mask for a Muslim player that featured various holy sites of the Islamic world such as Mecca.

* A memorial meant in remembrance of someone or something.

Former Hermantown goalie Nate Hardy, who helped lead the Hawks to an unbeaten season and the Class A boys hockey title in 2006-07, had Early paint a mask for him before his junior year that featured a ferocious, animated hawk. He said he probably will keep his mask for life.

“[Early] gave us his input, and that helped a lot because he knows what he’s doing,” Hardy said. “He knew what colors looked good and would stand out. He gave me a few options, and I kind of picked out the one that fit best. It turned out great. I got a lot of compliments on it. It’s starting to show some wear and tear, but it’s nothing that couldn’t be touched up.”

Early starts with a clean mask, and after stripping it of its hardware — the pads, bars and straps — he puts down the base color. He covers the base color with a clear coat so that if he makes a mistake, he doesn’t have to completely start over. After finishing the painstaking artwork one brush stroke at a time, he takes the mask to Arrowhead Auto Body for a professional clear coat that essentially seals in the design and protects it from slap shots and other rigors of the game. The clear coat, which is petroleum-based, amounts to about 60 percent of the cost of each mask.

It’s worth it. Early said he has had only one incident where the paint chipped, and that was because the helmet’s fiberglass was defective.

“I’ve never had one of my masks come back where the customer said, ‘Boy, that’s just wrong,’ ” Early said. “That tells me they like what I’m doing.”

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