Utah veteran crafts American flags out of steel

Posted at 10:08 PM, May 26, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-27 00:08:42-04

SALT LAKE CITY - You may have an American flag, but you probably don't have one like this.

"We make them out of steel," said Josh Vandenbrink, owner of Iron Mountain Designs. "Each one takes about 30 hours to make, start to finish."

The flags Vandenbrink speaks of are cut from steel sheets in his workshop in Salt Lake City. His team of workers bend, weld, and sand down the steel in a process that takes roughly 10 hours to complete. But that's not even the best part.

Once the steel piece is shaped, the blank, steely, silver canvas is brought to Vandenbrink's office where he carefully lays out an American flag print.

Instead of using paint brushes, Vandenbrink uses a special combination of oxidized solutions that he pours on the steel. The solution turns to rust, and the rust turns to color. It took Vandenbrink months to figure out the perfect combination to turns rust to red, black, and about eight other colors.

It's a process called blackening. He says it's nearly impossible to perfect.

"We have about ten percent failure rate when chemicals just act weird," Vandenbrink said. "Sometimes, we'll be 30 hours into a project and have to scrap it."

Vandenbrink loves the little imperfections in each piece, but if the imperfections are big, he'll toss it in the trash and start again. It's a respect for the flag that came after serving 21 tours of duty for the U.S. Air Force over 14 years. Vandenbrink was a Pararescueman.

“We were off on a helicopter, and we would go down and get fallen soldiers," Vandenbrink said of his time in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Before we would land, if the soldier had passed away, we would put a flag over them. That's why you'll never see a flag on the ground in my shop, or upside down. It's important we don't forget."

Ironically, Vandenbrink did forget. Just after starting his business, he forgot how to make his special oxidized chemical blend.

"I had sold about seven flags in one week; then, I had a seizure," he said.

It took him about a week to come-to, but when he did, he said he didn't remember how to make the flags. Vandenbrink dedicated the next three months, spending time on trial and error until he found the right combination again.

"My brother said my company should be called 'Too Stupid to Quit LLC,'” Vandenbrink jokes.

Now, his company has taken off. He says back-orders for flags extend about a month and a half, with prices ranging from $550 to $1,500 on flags, depending on the size.

Next up, Vandenbrink plans to unveil wooden flag options for a lesser price. Additionally, he says the city of Farmington and the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. have commissioned him to create bigger pieces for display.

Vandenbrink's work can be found here.