Cutting His Own Paths

Cutting His Own Paths
Self-Made Maker: Engineer Eddie Paul builds everything from Hollywood custom cars and special effects to submarines and wind turbines in his formidably equipped Southern California shop.

At first impression, Eddie Paul’s machine shop in El Segundo, Calif., takes me back to my grandpa’s auto body shop: cars on lifts, racks of sheet metal, rollaway toolboxes, a Pacific breeze scented with Bondo and grease.

But Paul is making ultra-complex things Grandpa couldn’t dream of, with a phalanx of CAM/CAD workstations and computerized mills, lathes, and plasma cutters. After 40 years creating custom cars and stunts for Hollywood movies, this self-taught engineer, inventor, and DIY author has assembled a high-tech shop that can prototype and build just about anything.

His clients include not just film studios but also fire departments, energy companies, NASA, and the Department of Defense.

Not bad for a high school dropout who got his big break stunt driving on The Dukes of Hazzard. A voracious reader with no formal engineering schooling, Paul has developed unique designs for pumps and engines, optics, and hydraulics. He’s invented and built new camera rigs, animatronics, autonomous vehicles, even a shark-shaped submarine.

What’s his secret? “Just do it, don’t let anyone stop you,” Paul advises. “You’ve got to learn every skill you need to get things done, and it’s not that hard. You learn as you go and develop your skills.” (His assistant Dave pops in with a ruined O-ring. Paul tells him, “I’ll show you how to make an O-ring when we get done.”)

“I go to the bookstore and buy every book I can on the subject, and I buy the tools. Since I dropped out of high school, I’ve just read technical books. It’s all I read, technical books.

In fact I just read my first novel, The Road [by Cormac McCarthy].”

That may explain why the next book he’s writing is a DIY “urban survival guide.”

Son of an Inventor

Growing up in California, Paul apprenticed with his father before setting out on his own. “My dad was an inventor,” he says. “He invented all-threaded rod, rotisserie chicken machines in supermarkets, a new kind of domed navigational chart. He taught me to find a need and invent a solution — and make it as simple as possible. I worked in his shops; he taught me how to weld, grind, drill, all that stuff.”

“I was on my own at 13, making a living working on motorcycles in L.A. and San Francisco, and living off my ’45 meter maid trike. This was in the late 1960s.” Soon Paul got into building and flying hang gliders, which got him a movie stunt job, which led him to The Dukes and a storied career in stunts, special effects, and custom cars.

E.T., Shark Week, AND Pixar

Since the 1970s his auto division, Customs by Eddie Paul, has built vehicles and effects for movies ranging from E.T. and Back to the Future (yes, the time-traveling DeLoreans) to The Fast and the Furious. His shop has earned a reputation for completing huge jobs on improbably tight deadlines — for Grease they built 48 cars in two weeks, and for 2 Fast 2 Furious they did 200 in a month. Along the way, Paul evolved into much more than a hot-rodder. Today he’s relied upon for industrial design and prototyping, marine engineering, and complex movie imagineering. Pixar hired him to build full-sized, running replicas of Sally, Mater, and Lightning McQueen from Cars. He built life-sized animatronic horses for The Mask of Zorro, and decades’ worth of aquatic camera gear for the Cousteau clan.

More than once, Paul has been the Discovery Channel’s secret weapon for Shark Week. An experienced deep sea diver and underwater photographer, Paul designed plastic body armor and a scuba muffler to help divers get closer to the predators, and rigged a “gut-checker” camera to peer into their stomachs. But his sharky masterpiece was built for Fabian Cousteau: a 17-foot, swimming, shark-shaped submarine piloted by a diver inside, to get right up in a great white’s grill.

“I’m basically an inventor,” Paul says. “I do the rest for money. Ninety percent of what we do is invention.”

Fed up with balky pumps and compressors, Paul invented his own. His high-efficiency Cylindrical Energy Module (CEM) is one-sixth the size of comparable pumps. It’s used by fire departments to blast firefighting foam and by Navy Seals to spray decontamination chemicals.

Run it in reverse, and it’s an engine — six pistons, 12 cylinders, no valves, and only seven moving parts — that’s achieved 98% volumetric efficiency and 3hp per pound of engine weight. “No one’s ever done that,” Paul says. Now he’s building one that’s only 12 by 13 inches, and eyeing the X Prize for the world’s first 100mpg passenger car.

Paul also invented Circlescan 4D, a 3D camera technology based on the psycho-optical Pulfrich effect, unlike the anaglyph and lenticular 3D technologies currently in use. And he’s produced dozens of how-to books and videos ranging from basic welding and plasma cutting to advanced customizations.

Shop OF ALL Shops

If you’re any kind of tool-user, a tour of Paul’s shop is mouth-watering: ten CNC metal lathes and mills, two CNC 3D routers, a 4-by-8-foot vacuum former, and a 5-by-10-foot PlasmaCAM table that will cut steel up to 1¼ inches thick.

“I love that machine,” Paul declares. “Everything in here’s cut on that — motorcycle parts, turbine blades, you name it.”

There’s a Ford Model T hot rod he’s building for his new how-to book, and a badass midnight blue ’67 Pontiac GTO from Vin Diesel’s movie xXx. (For stunt scenes, Paul says, “We bought LeManses and turned them into GTOs. It’s a lot cheaper — and you don’t ruin GTOs.”)

Out back are mini fire trucks — Polaris ATVs fitted with Paul’s CEM pumps — next to electric motorcycles for George Clooney’s Leatherheads. And you can’t miss Paul’s custom Chopper 1, a crazy-overpowered motorcycle with a 502 big block Chevy engine, dual Weiand blowers, and nitrous oxide.

As cool as all this stuff is, I’m more awed by Paul’s library. Shelves sag under a lifetime of learning: CNC robotics, mathematical physics, blacksmithing, electronics, fluid mechanics, and thermodynamics. Ancient inventions, nuclear weapons, lasers, and computer animation. The American Boy’s Handy Book, shipbuilding, and of course sharks. A collection of massive brass diving helmets looks on, as though we’re in Jules Verne’s own chart room.

Then there are the Eddie Paul stories that rival Chuck Norris or the Dos Equis Guy. He invented a pulsejet hang glider and buzzed LAX. He once fell 360 feet and lived. He’s been attacked by sharks, on purpose. He taught Twisted Sister how to ride motorcycles. He got a secret clearance from DoD, and then redesigned their lasers. He once rode a Harley-Davidson from L.A. to Vegas — with no hands.

But I think I’m most impressed by the enjoyable, almost incredible variety of work that Paul is doing. Just during our brief interview on a Saturday morning, he explains his process for replicating Pixar’s Cars characters at life size (a huge CNC router carves 3D forms out of stacked plywood, then ABS plastic is vacuum-formed over these). He greets a customer from WePower who’s there to inspect Paul’s beautifully machined prototype wind turbines.

He demonstrates his patented pump/engine, then pulls up his CAD design for a steam-powered motorbike that would be at home at Burning Man. He shows me the insane 20-foot chainsaw he’s made out of a motorcycle — and the big red fire engine he’ll bisect with it — for a National Geographic pilot called Cut in Half.

By cutting his own paths, Paul has not only become highly skilled and knowledgeable. He’s also carved out a wide, satisfying creative space in which to make a living.

You can’t meet Eddie Paul without wanting, at least a little bit, to have Eddie Paul’s job. But it’s not the kind of job someone can give you. It’s the kind you make for yourself.

His advice to aspiring makers today? Read those technical books. “And learn to use two tools: AutoCAD and the CNC plasma table. And write how-to articles for magazines – that’s howI got the job for Grease, the guy saw my article.”

I ask, would he have had the same opportunities if he weren’t in L.A. and the movie business?

“It got me started,” Paul admits. “But I could have done this anywhere. People will find you if you do good work.”

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