Rail Yard Switchpoint Desk

The Park City Kimball Arts Festival is this weekend on Main Street, and we got a sneak peek (and interview) with one of the more than 200 established artists worth checking out, and the pieces he puts together will make sure you never look at a railroad cross tie the same way again.

Owner of his own railroad maintenance and construction company, Robert Hendrick told his team they were going to start making furniture pieces with used railroad pieces to help supplement income when the economy tanked. He got a lot of strange looks at first, but it ended up being just the idea he needed. The hobby soon turned into a business.

Now, he's known as the founder of Rail Yard Studios, based in Nashville, Tennessee. 

Many of his furniture pieces (everything from desks to wine racks) have appeared in art shows and galleries in Chicago, Atlanta and Nashville. The art is for the floor, no walls needed. And it's sustainable. All of the cross ties and rails used in the artwork are saved from being burned or melted.

Wedge Wine Rack

We caught up with Hendrick after his flight to Salt Lake City for a quick Q&A about his art and what attendees can look forward to from him at the arts festival this year.

What exactly do you use to make the art?

"We use century-old railroad rail. It's been taken out of service, and you can see how it's been worn out by the trains running across it. We also work with a tie supplier, and what we do is buy the ties that are ineffective because otherwise they'd just get rid of them. We try to get hard woods—oak, hickory, an occasional walnut or maple."

And all of this is made in Nashville?

"Yes, we make everything back where we're from in Nashville, Tennessee. But the rail we get comes from all over the place. Some of it's from Pennsylvania, some from Alabama, Tennessee, and we've even gotten some from Germany. Rail moves around quite a bit and we know where it comes from originally because of the branding on it. We got one recently that was labelled as being made in July 1902 in Germany."

Any rail from Utah?

"We don't really get a lot of rail from Utah. There's some made in Colorado, but all of the rail we use is about 90 years old, and I'm not aware of any from Utah in that time period we can get today."

Then why did you decide to come to Utah?

"We just started doing this two years ago, and we've done a handful of shows, and we asked some of the artists where the best places to go were and Kimball just kept coming up. People told us it's one of the best festivals. I'm still pretty new to this, and we've been embraced by the arts community so well."

At other festivals, what has the reaction been?

"Some will immediately recognize it as railroad rail and some don't. It's pretty gratifying when people stop and stare and tell me they like the design and five minutes into the conversation, they find out it's railroad rail."

Any particular pieces you're very proud of?

"I get excited about individual pieces of wood. We get these gnarled pieces of wood sometimes that have huge knots in them, and we integrate that imperfection into the piece. I also get excited when we see one of those cross ties that's ugly and can't be used in the railroad. To me, it's gorgeous because it has so much unique character to it."

Anything else?

"This is one of my favorite places. I've come out before and gone to Antelope Island, and we've gone to Park City before and I love the outdoors. Skiing, rock climbing, cycling—I love this part of the country and I love Salt Lake, so it's an added treat for me that I can come out here for the show."

If you can't make it to the Kimball Arts Fest, you can still check out Rail Yard Studios at railyardstudios.com, and you can reach Robert directly at robert@railyardstudios.com. The festival is $10 for a weekend pass for adults and $5 for children six to 18. Children five and under are free.

Here are some pics of what the art can look like in a home: