January 2021

Bob and Mary Zimmerman

Websites: strandsofhistory.com

Instagram: strandsofhistory

  • Bob and Mary Zimmerman, Strands of History
  • Bob and Mary Zimmerman, Strands of History
  • Bob and Mary Zimmerman, Strands of History
  • Bob and Mary Zimmerman, Strands of History
  • Bob and Mary Zimmerman, Strands of History
  • Bob and Mary Zimmerman, Strands of History
  • Bob and Mary Zimmerman, Strands of History

Tell us a little about yourself.

We’re both native Californians and sailors, which may help explain our strong connection with the Golden Gate Bridge.  Mary has lived here her whole life, while Bob’s family moved to Ohio when he was five years old, where he grew up always knowing he’d live in California again. He’s lived here now over 35 years, 28 years around the Bay Area and seven in Tahoe City.  We’ve always been attracted by creativity, problem-solving and science, whether its coaxing 1930s suspender ropes to take on new roles, or working in biopharma drug development, which we both did for almost three decades around the Bay Area prior to taking over Strands of History a little over three years ago.

What is your favorite tool and why?

Bob’s favorite tool is the three-phase, 10 hp Kalamazoo Industries 14” chop saw we use to cut the suspender ropes.  We tried several other more “modern” technologies to cut the ropes, like laser or water, but those techniques didn’t work.  As one of these groups told us, imagine holding a handful of toothpicks and trying to cut it – the vibrations from each of the 229 individual wires in the ropes as they get cut just doesn’t allow for a clean cut.  We talked to a metal artist friend, who asked us if we had ever seen that big chop saw run.  When we said no, he just smiled and said, “Well, sh*t flies everywhere.”  And he was right.  We benefited from an excellent discussion with the Kalamazoo tech line who got us dialed in with the correct blades and provided us with several valuable insights.  Now, I can make a cut through a rope and a stainless steel band in about 40 – 50 seconds.  And it does put on an incredible show with every cut.

Mary’s favorite tool is the custom-built hydraulic crimper that puts the stainless steel bands on the ropes with 7000 pounds of pressure.  No matter what the project is, it always starts with the banding to maintain the lay of the wire, which is the unique fingerprint-like organization of the 229 wires of 10 different sizes that identifies these ropes as the original 1930’s suspender ropes from the Golden Gate Bridge.  No other suspension bridge in the world uses the same lay of the wire in their suspender ropes, including the replacement ropes on the Golden Gate.  It’s a big machine that immediately catches your eye when you enter the shop.  Everyone always asks, “What’s that big thing”?  So one day Mary painted its name on it: “The Big Thing.”  It’s been a workhorse from the day it was built and is the essential foundation to all we do.

Which materials do you create with most and what is your attraction to using them?

All of our custom furniture, art and mementos incorporate the original 1930s vertical suspender ropes from the Golden Gate Bridge.  They were replaced in the mid-1970s when problems were found with their connections to the bridge roadway during a routine inspection.  Unfortunately, it was impossible to repair that connection; the best solution was to replace the ropes and engineer new roadway connections.  A portion of the ropes were saved by the Bridge District in the event of emergency, most were scrapped, while the remainder were set aside for activities like what we do.  Strands of History holds all of the remaining stock of these original suspender ropes.

Who can’t remember the first time they saw the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time?  People come from all over the world to see San Francisco and walk the bridge.  Many people have a special link to the Golden Gate, including ourselves.  We sailed in the Bay for years and admired it from the water.  It was our adventure highway to explore the coast north of San Francisco, either for a vacation or a day trip.  And that rainbow tunnel into Marin!

We feel we are custodians of these historical ropes for all of the Bay Area, locals and visitors alike.  Our goals are to get these ropes incorporated  into public spaces, restaurants, bars, hotel and business lobbies for everyone to appreciate.  To provide people with the opportunity to pause in their day and reflect for a moment about that magnificent bridge, and what it took to build it; no computer modeling, no precedence to go by, just insights, imagination, slides rules and pencils.

Where do you draw your inspiration from?

We strive to capture the beauty and power of the ropes in each piece.  They weigh one pound per inch, have a breaking strength of over 600,000 pounds, yet they are simply a collection of small wires, organized in a precise way to manage the strong winds in the Golden Gate, the fluctuations in daily temperatures the make the roadway rise or fall multiple feet per day, not to mention the load of the traffic on it.

How long have you been working in metals and what brought you into this field?

Strands of History is our first experience working with metal.  We’ve built a barn, sheds, lived on a ranch with fences, water tanks, pumps, solar hot water and electricity, but never worked a lot in metal prior to the past few years.

A lifelong friend of Bob’s owned Strands of History for about a dozen years.  Initially we got involved to help expand the business into public spaces and public artwork.  Unfortunately, Bob’s friend passed unexpectedly about nine months into working together.  We were inspired by our mutual vision for the ropes and love for the Bridge, so we elected to take over the business and learn metalworking.

What piece of advice would you give to someone just starting out in metals?

Wear appropriate protective equipment, have a lot of patience, ask questions of more knowledgeable people, be precise.  Metal is not like wood, you can’t force something to fit with metal, it either fits or it doesn’t.  A 32nd of an inch actually matters in metal work.  Sometimes, at least with the ropes, they just seem to have a personality of their own and decide not to follow the rules on some days.  All of our collaborators have noticed the same thing.  No one can explain it, so we go with it, sometimes modifying a plan or a working strategy.

What has been the biggest challenge for you as a metal artist and have you overcome it, or how are you working to overcome it?

Aside from learning the technical and mechanical aspects of working with the ropes, our biggest challenge has been establishing ourselves as relatively new artists in the custom furniture and art field.  We collaborate with the highly respected wood craftsmen at Roundwood Furniture, and our blacksmith collaborators, Bushey Ironworks, are highly recognized metal artists.  Nonetheless, building that aspect of the business has been a challenge, even though we work with those established and award-winning groups, as probably many artists have experienced.

Favorite resource/vendor or website

We have learned the most about design and metal-working from speaking with our colleagues and collaborators.  There is a lot of knowledge available from experienced people who are willing to share.  For example, we spend a lot of time grinding and polishing to get the final finish on many of our works.  A simple tip about a product and technique from the Bushey’s has saved us hours and hours of time over the years.  The other way worked, it just wasn’t as efficient.  We’ve found that other metal artists are our best resources.