SaltWorks Fab, Fuel Curve

SaltWorks Fab: Engineering top-quality rides

Thom Ophof operates SaltWorks Fab with the same planning that he developed during his years as a mechanical engineer to turn out top-quality rides.

SaltWorks Fab, Fuel Curve

Consider one of the Sarasota, FL, shop’s Instagram hashtags: #wedontstorecars. Thom schedules work and his staff’s time so that when a customer’s vehicle in the shop, it’s worked on continuously until it is finished. Nothing gathers dust sitting in the corner. That commitment to organization keeps the shop humming.

SaltWorks Fab, Fuel Curve

Thom’s journey is testament to his learning from every experience, both the right and wrong way to do things. After playing with mini-trucks in Upstate New York, Thom met Dave Tucci of Tucci Hot Rods and the rest, as they say, is history. “He got me into the hot rod world and taught me everything,” Thom says. “I owe getting started to him.” After a brief stint working at Tucci’s, Thom moved to Indiana with the long-term goal of opening his own shop.

SaltWorks Fab, Fuel Curve

SaltWorks Fab, Fuel Curve

“I worked at other shops to learn how to do things and how not to do things,” Thom says. He worked for Steve Moal in California for a while then returned to Indiana to open is own shop. After a few years there, Thom picked up and moved to Florida about four years ago. “I decided I didn’t want to shovel snow any longer,” he says.


SaltWorks Fab, Fuel Curve

The skills learned along the way keep SaltWorks busy and on schedule, turning out top-quality work, whether it’s upgrading a powertrain or scratch-building a customer’s dream car.

SaltWorks Fab, Fuel Curve

“When I talk with customers about the budgets, we talk about timeframe and costs,” Thom says. “If a customer says they can’t afford what they want done, we tell them to come back when they have the money because we don’t want a car sitting around waiting for the owner to give us more money.”

SaltWorks Fab, Fuel Curve

That fits with the dedication to meticulous scheduling. The customer knows that when the car is in the shop, it’s being worked on and not just sitting there while other cars get the staff’s attention. The scheduling and the commitment to continuous communication – in the shop and with the customer – works to everyone’s benefit.

SaltWorks Fab, Fuel Curve

When Tom meets with a customer, the discussion centers on what the customer wants, how much he has to spend to get there. Once that issue is resolved, the design process begins. Thom works with the customer and creates the end result in CAD. The goal is to have the customer more than satisfied with the finished car now and in the future.

“They come in with an idea and I try to steer them on a path where they are going to be happy with something forever, not just for the moment,” Thom says.

SaltWorks Fab, Fuel Curve

Customer deposits are only necessary when parts need to be ordered to get the project started. Otherwise, Thom bills the customer regularly, depending on the customer and his relationship with the shop. “It works smoothly that way and everybody’s happy,” he says. Thom assigns one staffer to each project. That employee owns the project from start to finish.

SaltWorks Fab, Fuel Curve

“You (the staffer) know how everything works and you don’t have to play catch up,” Thom says. “You have to re-educate yourself to a project (when you’ve been away from it) and I don’t want to bill the customer for that.”

SaltWorks Fab, Fuel Curve

SaltWorks operates on a time-and-materials billing process. “We give estimates,” Thom says, “But we’re never doing the same thing twice” so it’s hard to give a precise estimate.

SaltWorks Fab, Fuel Curve

“We document everything. Each guy has a clipboard and he lists everything he does today,” Thom says. “On the back he lists the supplies and consumables that he used.” Those documents support the billing process and at the end of a project the stack of paperwork details everything that went into the build.

SaltWorks currently has a staff of six, but Thom is looking to hire a couple of more people. But finding candidates with the skills and passion is proving difficult, as it is for many shops across the country.

SaltWorks Fab, Fuel Curve

“I offer benefits – good pay, medical, vacation, 401k – and have every piece of equipment that you’d need, even for a shop this size,” Thom says. And, “we’re three miles from the beach,” he adds.

SaltWorks Fab, Fuel Curve

Current and recent projects illustrate the variety of jobs:

-A 1968 Caddilac convertible receiving a new powertrain, suspension and air conditioning.
-An early ’50 Chevy custom having the floorpan and firewall replaced.
-A Plymouth Road Runner.
-An older custom Zephyr needing an engine upgrade.
-A ’41 Ford woody getting a full build, including a Ford Cayote engine.
-And, a ground-up, scratch-build project loosely patterned after a vintage Divco van. This build features all hand-formed steel, resting on a custom Roadster Shop frame.

Staying connected to the local car scene is part of SaltWorks marketing strategy. Monthly cruise nights (except for a couple of months during the hot Florida summer) bring local enthusiasts to the shop on a Saturday. No trophies, just hanging out, perhaps with a little food and drink provided.

SaltWorks Fab, Fuel Curve

Once a year, though, Thom continues a special event that he started in Indiana. That event was a yearly Blanket Cruise in early December. Rodders met at his shop, drove to other locations in the area and finished back at the shop.

SaltWorks Fab, Fuel Curve

Cost to participate: A new or lightly used blanket that could be donated to local shelters. “The last year of the event in Indiana drew 400 cars on a cold December Saturday,” Thom says. The tradition continues now that SaltWorks is in Florida, but instead of blankets (not much need in Florida) rodders bring new men’s or women’s underwear that can be donated to shelters. Hence, the new name: The Skivvy Run.

Attention to detail, high-quality builds and hobby involvement are the three ingredients to the SaltWorks story.

Photography by John Jackson

Dave Doucette is a long-time Goodguys member with a career in newspaper, magazine and website journalism. He was one of the founding editors of USA TODAY, editor of two daily newspapers and co-owner of a magazine publishing and trade show company. He owns and operates Real Auto Media. His first car was a 1947 Ford; he has owned Camaros, Firebirds, El Caminos and a 1956 Chevy that was entered in shows from California to Florida before being sold last year. He was one of the original Goodguys Rodders Reps and served as president of two classic Chevy clubs. Doucette grew up in South Florida, avidly following the racing exploits of local hero Ollie Olsen and, of course, Don Garlits. He remembers riding his bicycle to Briggs Cunningham’s West Palm Beach factory to peak through the fence at his Sebring and LeMans racers.

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