Day 481: MonsterTanks.

Delphine and I watched an episode of Tanked this evening on the Animal Planet channel. A couple of flamboyant guys sell customers with more dollars than sense huge acrylic fish tanks with plastic reefs and novelties like jukeboxes or treasure chests. They operate out of a giant factory in Las Vegas complete with forklifts, annealing ovens, and a staff who actually does the work.

It’s not the clowning around or the garish results that interested us. Turns out we took a shot at building custom acrylic aquariums ourselves from a little workshop on the third floor of a hundred year old mill building in Nashua. We called the venture MonsterTanks.

When we first found the 16 x 64 foot unit it was bare – no electric outlets, no plumbing, no heat, not even lighting. The floors were freshly sanded and varnished and when the morning sun poured in through the far window wall the rich chestnut wood showed in all its glory.

Footprint-sized indentations were worn here and there where shoemakers had stood for the better part of a century cutting and stitching Thom McAn shoes. It was a craftsmen’s holy place – a place where real work was done.

My initial reaction was that MonsterTanks hadn’t earned the right to anything this beautiful yet. I tried to rent a windowless unit in the basement of the same building but a scrap metal dealer beat me to it. I felt like I was inviting Anne Hathaway to a high school prom when I asked the landlord if he would rent the third floor space to a startup. But yes, he would. He had his own small venture and liked the idea that his space would be used to make things.

Janice-shopDelphine and I began by installing four overhead lights on the fourteen foot high ceiling. She held one end of conduit over her head while I teetered at the top of a ladder screwing things together at the other end. At one point I failed to slip a nut over some wire, assembled an entire fixture, and then had to disassemble it and do it again while Delphine spent the whole time with her arms stretched as far above her head as they would go. Painful. But still she smiled.

I built router tables, rolling racks for sheets of plastic, workbenches, a granite-topped flat-table for final assembly, a reservoir to test joints, and a couple of dozen other contraptions to hold, shape, and finish our tanks. Most of the time I had no idea what I was doing and took three or four tries to get my designs to work. I had never cut, welded, or finished acrylic before. It was an adventure.

crystal-tankI designed a tank called Crystal Falls. It took a week to fabricate. There was a central waterfall that fed a dozen connected chambers where fish could hide and feed and find a mate. The first time we filled it we turned the factory lights out and sat mesmerized by the reflecting planes that would turn each fish into a synchronized school.

The design captured the imagination of the editors at Freshwater And Marine Aquarium magazine. They asked for photos and ran a feature article. The tank was new, fresh, original. It was living art. Surely with exposure from a national magazine MonsterTanks was on its way.

monster-mall6Once again the battle between creating and selling raged with creating coming in second. Not a single inquiry came from the article. Not one.

We rolled the marketing dice and rented space at a regional mall to showcase our designs. I built the tanks and Delphine decorated them. In the course of a month thousands of shoppers stopped and gawked at my imagination frozen in acrylic.

At first we set the tanks up with no fish. People asked, “Where are the fish?” So we added fish. Then they pointed to the fish and asked, “Are they real?” Are they real??? The dozenth time I answered that question I said, “No. Animatronics. Spent millions getting them to look that way. Don’t they look like the real thing?” People brought back friends to see the lifelike little robots swimming in our tanks.

A fellow from the cart next to ours introduced himself and said he’d been doing this for twenty years. He said if we liked people, really liked people, manning a cart at a mall would cure us of that.

In thirty days not a single tank was sold. People were unwilling to spend more than the cost of mass-produced tanks from China. The measure was gallons not creativity. In the end our prices barely covered our cost of material. I was working 80 hour weeks for free – worse, losing money doing it.

monster-mall4After two years it was time to bring MonsterTanks to a graceful landing. I had tried everything I knew to get the venture off the ground but it seemed it just wasn’t meant to be.

I gave away as many of the benches and custom fixtures as I could, happy to find them appreciative homes. The table saw and drill press, routers and band saw all landed in our homestead. The very first tank I built still sits in our living room – six feet of happy fish watching us warm ourselves by a woodstove.

So we watched Tanked tonight – submersed slot machines and bowling pins. Clown tanks really. For us the heroes of the show are the back room guys who cut and rout and weld and polish the massive sheets of acrylic that make these water worlds. We watched and remembered the biting odor of solvent, the roar of the router, the chips that clung to arms and hair. We remembered holding our breath every time a tank was first filled. Will the seams hold? Will a panel crack and let loose a tsunami?

I watched and wondered what might have been. I’ve gotten very good at that.

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