Iron Man: Peter Arguelles and All Ironworks NJ Weld Artistry and Functionality Together
Update Jan. 17, 2015: This business has closed.
If you’ve ever taken a stroll down Coles Street near Hamilton Park, you’ve probably noticed the gigantic spiders climbing up a building near the Sixth Street Embankment (above). There are bats and a huge scorpion, too. But don’t worry — they’re just metal sculptures on display at All Ironworks NJ, where owner Peter Arguelles and his crew have been real-life men of steel for over three decades.
It’s Saturday afternoon; Arguelles, his right-hand man Luis Rosales and others on the All Ironworks team are loading four heavy pillars onto the back of a pick-up truck to be taken to a home on Garden Street in Hoboken, where they will decorate their new owner’s steps. It’s one of the crew’s latest big projects and they take great pride in their work.
“Look at the detail!” gushes Arguelles. “This is all scrap metal and each little piece here is made by hand. It’s based off a design from the early 1800’s.” They still have the original antique post that each of the new ones are made of, and each post proves to be an exact replica minus the rust, wear and tear.
The whole shop is buzzing. In the back, one of their blacksmithing students, Jerome China, constructs an African mask with car-rotor eyes and a face formed from drill bits, part of an old fence and other found metal. Along with another pupil, Eric Terrell, China’s been learning the ins and outs of welding for about a month, an opportunity the shop informally offers to a couple students at a time.
Rosales is replicating a Venetian fence design for a client in Montclair using only a small travel picture. He painstakingly takes straight bits of iron and bends them into curves and elaborate curli-cues, then welds them on to a structure that will eventually be a stair railway. The crew took the dimensions of the customer’s front steps and have drawn an actual-size model on the wall of the main office so Rosales can take accurate measurements.
The shop is about to embark on a new project, too. Downtown Jersey City artist Julie Rogers discovered All Ironworks during the Artists Studio Tour earlier this month and one of Rosales’s creations, a mirror with a decorative flat steel frame, caught her eye. She swung by to speak with Arguelles, hoping he could help her with a series of paintings inspired by the New Jersey Intergenerational Orchestra, for which Rogers plays flute, and by Schubert’s so-called “Unfinished Symphony.”
She pulls out a picture of one of her paintings, a tree on a hill bursting and swirling with life, which has curves and lines that subtly spell out “HOME” in Russian, her conductor’s native language. “Schubert’s ‘Unfinished Symphony’ only has two movements — most have three or four — but he decided to stop because he had figuratively, musically arrived at ‘home.’ It’s so amazing and beautiful; the beginning’s flute part has this frolicking sound but also this storm effect. It’s intense.”
Arguelles was so moved by the vibrant colors, organic shapes and elaborate designs in Rogers’s work, he proposed taking their collaboration one step further by having steel incorporated into each of the pieces, superimposing the metal onto some of the key lines in each work. He says the project will be a challenge, but both he and Rogers are excited. They’ve already laid out designs for about half a dozen metal-and-canvas pieces.
“I never would’ve come up with this idea on my own,” says Rogers. “I never would’ve thought of incorporating it like Peter did.”
Many would guess that Arguelles was born a natural artist, though he only admits being a natural art lover. His mother, Cristina, is a trained artist who works in multiple media and the Peru native says he has always found art and beauty everywhere.
“I have always loved art. I had a passion, love and appreciation for it–even a stick in the ground is art to me because Mother Nature put it there,” he says, adding that he’s heavily influenced by his travels to places like Kuwait, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Scotland, England, France, Italy, Mexico and his home country. For example, a Nazca Lines geoglyph from Peru embellishes the side of his ergonomic wood and metal desk which was made right in the shop.
Arguelles fell into blacksmithing thanks to his wife Rachel. About thirty years ago, his godfather passed his ironworking shop in Hoboken on to Rachel and her brother. Arguelles, who was then working for a freight company, decided to chip in.
“I came down to help and I fell in love with it,” he says, adding that he quit his job soon after and has been working with metal ever since. With his love for art and background in architecture (he studied the subject for two years in college), Arguelles was a natural fit. Over the years, the 52-year-old Greenville resident has helped All Ironworks (which moved to JC not too long after he and his wife took the reins) create fences, railings, furniture and more for nightclubs, restaurants and houses all around Hudson County and beyond.
Some of his biggest projects include the Hoboken Historical Museum, the Whitney, Mickey Mantle’s Restaurant and the interior railings and backyard of actor Tony Goldwyn (best known as the villain in 1990’s Ghost and grandson of Samuel Goldwyn, the founder one of the motion picture studios that became MGM).
He’s humble about his accomplishments. “Everyone says, ‘Thank you, Peter,’ but it’s not me. I tell people it’s all about the team. I can’t do anything by myself.”
Arguelles credits Rosales, a Union City resident who’s worked at All Ironworks for 15 years, and Rosales’s hands for much of the shop’s success. Rosales is a metal magician who seems to be able to create almost anything that he–or Arguelles–can imagine.
“He sees what I see…he reads my mind,” says Arguelles, who admits that they’re a bit like an old married couple. “We work together. I’m open to ideas and we’re like a team.”
Rosales agrees, saying they’re so in tune, he once made a bench at Arguelles’s bidding with almost no instructions. “Peter said, ‘Let’s do this bench with wood and a metal frame,’ and there was no drawing or anything, but I just did it and knew he’d like it,” says Rosales.
Rosales is no doubt a master blacksmith, banging out rails, signs and other infrastructural and decorative items for commercial and residential use on a daily basis. He’s most satisfied, however, when he’s creating art. Many of the eye-catching pieces displayed on the outside of the shop–the aforementioned animal sculptures, the Tin Man (which was one of his first creations) and frames are his handiwork.
“At night, I go home and make drawings of sculptures I want to do and then I figure out how to do them in metal,” he says, adding that he keeps a stack of old sketches in the shop’s back room. “Art is a big field–I want to do more sculptures of animals but I’m also thinking of doing something abstract, a little different.”
Arguelles also relies on other people to get his materials. The stained glass in some of their decorative pieces are from Boston and he gets sheets of metal from private suppliers in Bronx and Jersey City. For scrap, he goes mostly to local construction sites and auto shops to raid their garbage. “I recycle my stuff,” he says proudly. “I don’t throw stuff out and I even reuse my wood.”
With all the restoration, replication, and art creation the shop does throughout the year, Arguelles says he gets to meet people from different walks of life every day, which is both the most challenging and most rewarding part of the job.
“People can be challenging. The most difficult part is not doing the job itself because the skill is in the hands,” he says. While he says he’s never had an unsatisfied customer (he tells them not to pay if they’re not happy, and so far everyone’s paid), he says some people can be tough to please. “You need patience and knowledge to please people, but with some people, no matter how hard you work, they’re not completely satisfied.”
“But you can sense that the human race is still good,” Arguelles says. “I’m a spiritual kind of person and there is good energy. I get good energy from the sun, wood and steel. Money, you can make that anywhere, but it’s really rewarding to meet people. I’m fortunate that I get to do this in our work. I meet a lot of people from different cultures, beliefs and religions and I consider it a privilege. It’s great.”
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Photos by Summer Dawn Hortillosa © Harmony Media, NJ; photo of Peter Arguelles above and Jerome China by Jennifer Weiss