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Soldotna welder has puttering penchant

Posted: Sunday, November 30, 2003

When Darrell Aleckson goes into his shop off of Gaswell Road, there's no telling what he might come out with. It could be something as simple as a new bookcase for his home or as complicated as a boat that plows through the water without producing a wake. With Darrell, only one thing's for certain: if it can be built, he'll build it.

A retired high school history and metal shop teacher, Darrell's been working with his hands for as long as he can remember. Now a self-employed welder, he spends the majority of his free time hanging out in his shop, coming up with new inventions or improvements to existing machines.

"He does all kinds of wonderful tinkering," said his wife of 37 years, Shirley, last week from the log home Darrell built when the couple moved to Alaska in 1978.

Darrell, a tall, friendly man who is quicker to offer coffee and a joke than praise for himself, did not hesitate to point out he's made his share of mistakes in his quest to build the perfect home.

"More like one-time wonders," he said, shrugging off Shirley's compliment with a laugh.

A quick stroll through the Alecksons' home provides ample evidence that Darrell's had far more successes than failures over the years. From the custom-made metal planters and bookshelves that spruce up the living room to the swiveling television stand that allows the couple to view the tube from the kitchen, just about everything in the home was built by Darrell.

"It's all custom made," Shirley said. "Whatever we needed, he just made it."

"That's just what you're supposed to do when you come to Alaska build your own log cabin," he said.

The home is heated by a combination stove-water heater that Darrell built even before he built the house but only out of necessity.

"I knew I wasn't getting that (stove) through the door, so I built the house around it," he said.

Building the home around the stove was the practical thing to do. That's just Darrell's style: When presented with a problem, find the most logical way to solve it.

It's a way of thinking that's led him to create some pretty ingenious things over the years. Take his halibut sling, for example.

 

Darrell Aleckson talks about a fence post hole driver he fashioned from an assortment of parts.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Darrell, who also is an avid hunter and fisher, said several years back he noticed people fishing out of small boats in Cook Inlet often found themselves with more fish than they could handle.

"People in small boats would catch a big halibut, then couldn't get it into the boat," he said. "They'd tie it off or whatever and maybe drag it in, maybe let the seals get it, you know."

Darrell figured there had to be an easier way to bring the barn doors aboard, so he set about solving the problem. It didn't take long before he came up with a simple idea to solve what had been a rather difficult problem for anyone who's had to drag a 300-plus pound fish back to Deep Creek behind a boat.

"I invented this cable hook," he said.

One end of the cable went around the fish's tail and the other end attached to a gaff. When the cable was pulled tight, the fish was rendered motionless and became easy to haul on board.

"It just sucks the fish into a 'U' and you set him into the boat," he said.

The invention worked great, and anyone lucky enough to have tried the gadget gave it great reviews.

"Everybody said, 'This is real slick,'" he said.

The enthusiastic response he got to his new product was so inspiring that Darrell said he figured he'd try to make a little money off it. Big mistake.

"I went ahead and patented the thing," he said. "Ha."

"Two thousand bucks I had to pay the lawyer. Well, you've got to make a lot of hooks just to get even."

 

Darrell Aleckson talks about his passion for welding in his Soldotna shop.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

The problem with his halibut hook was ironically in its simplicity. Darrell said anyone who saw his invention sitting in a tackle shop wouldn't bother to take a second glance at something that looked to be so basic.

"When you see 'em on the rack, you're going to just move right on to the next thing," he said.

The lesson he learned with the hook was that coming up with a new, better solution doesn't always translate into monetary gain.

In fact, in all the years he's been building things, Darrell said he's yet to find a fortune. Most of the things he builds end up as losing propositions. Even building most of his house and its contents on his own has been less than financially fulfilling.

"How much money do you save when you buy a $5,000 welder and build a $50 book case?" he asks.

Still, he keeps at it, more for the fun of it than anything else. He operates a welding business out of his shop and does a fair amount of business fixing aluminum boats. But Shirley says the business is really just a front for Darrell's constant need to be out working in his shop.

"It's a hobby that became a business," she said.

Shirley said that as long as she's known her husband, he's had a penchant for puttering. When they first got married, she said, it was evident that Darrell wouldn't be happy unless he stayed busy. But the young couple was just getting started out in Oregon at the time, and that wasn't always easy.

"The first few years we lived in an apartment, and he was a little frustrated," she said.

When they finally moved to Alaska, Darrell found what he was looking for: a place where he could build whatever he wanted, whenever he needed. His first big project, besides the house, was his shop a large, roomy building with just the right amount of nooks and crannies to fit the man who built it.

"Nobody does anything right the first time when it comes to a shop," he said.

Still, the shop has served him well for more than 20 years now, and it looks like Darrell plans to stick with it. After all, according to his son, Scott, the shop is the place where Darrell feels like he's at home.

"You can't get him out of here, except for hunting season," Scott said.

That might not be entirely true. After all, Darrell likes to fish, too.

In fact, it was his love of the Kenai River that caused Darrell to turn to one of his more intriguing projects, a boat that runs through the water without putting out a noticeable wake.

Although he didn't invent the boat's design, Darrell built a prototype from scratch based on plans Scott found on the Internet.

It's an unusual craft, with an inverted-V hull design that gives it a catamaran look. Get it on the water though, and Darrell said the boat might just be the solution to the Kenai's ongoing bank erosion problems if he can ever get anyone to take a look at the thing.

"This was my entry into the solution of the wake problem on the Kenai," Darrell said, showing off the hull's lightweight yet sturdy design.

However, he said he showed State Parks officials the boat, and they weren't so hot on it. He said they felt the boat didn't turn quickly enough, even though it puts out a wake that's so small it's virtually undetectable once it reaches shore.

He doesn't mind the fact that nobody seems to want to use his boat on the Kenai. He figures that's just the way government's supposed to work.

"They're still having the meetings on reducing the wakes," he said. "I guess they have to have some place to sit and drink their coffee."

Still, Darrell said he never intended to get rich by building boats. There's just no money in coming up with a quality product when it's easier for people to buy something cheaper from a manufacturer.

"People put (boats) together to try to make money," he said. "I lose a little on each one and try to make it up in volume."

"Unless you find some Daddy Warbucks who says cost is no object, there's not a lot of money in it."

According to Scott, though, if someone wants a boat built to take the pounding seas of Cook Inlet, they might try one of his dad's custom designs.

"You could drive one of his boats into a cliff and not even dent it," he said. "That's just the way he builds boats."

That's not just how he builds boats, it's how he builds everything.

More often than not, when Aleckson puts something together in his shop, it's because he wants to solve a problem, not make a buck.

Take his one-of-a-kind fence post driver, for example. Darrell used an old hydraulic ram from the oil field to build a contraption that drives posts without any effort from the operator. And like everything else he builds, he made it because he had a common problem.

"I didn't want to drive any fence posts," he said.

The machine is so slick, he said just about anyone can operate it and save themselves a heck of a lot of effort in the process.

"You could have coffee and make a fence," he said.

It's just one more invention he's come up with over the years to make life a little easier.

It didn't come about because of any particular desire on his part to become rich and famous. He built it that's just how Darrell Aleckson looks at the world.

"You can have the idea of what problem you want to solve, but to get the nuts and bolts done, that's a little harder," he said.

"Sometimes you just have to do it a little different."



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