ROUGH AND READY, CALIF. — In European gardens, stylish gates are an important part of the landscape. They seem to say, "Beyond here is someplace special."
Garden gates in the US are more utilitarian. They're designed primarily to keep the neighbor's dog and kids out or put up a visual barrier for prying eyes.
David Burns is working to change that concept with custom-made copper gates that he crafts in his Copper Gardens shop in this former California gold-rush community.
"The frustrating thing about doing this," Mr. Burns says, "is that I'm constantly learning new techniques, and I want to keep expanding my skills. But then I'm slowed down in completing work I've already contracted for!"
Happily for his clients, it's a struggle between artist and businessman that he's managed to balance.
What are his goals with the gates?
"I want to introduce the next room," Burns explains. "The gate itself shouldn't be the whole picture, just the introduction."
Now in its fourth year, Copper Gardens got its start when Burns, a general contractor whose specialty was building custom homes, was working for a client in Woodside, Calif., who was a garden designer. Impressed with his work, she asked him to create an arbor for the garden, then do the fencing, and, ultimately, all of her landscape-construction projects.
"During that time, I saw that the really mundane thing about most gardens was the gates," he recalls, "Probably because nobody wanted to spend a lot of money on them. So I started really taking notice when I saw an unusual gate, and found that there were craftspeople doing a pretty good job with conventional materials like wood and iron. Then I asked myself what I could do that would be different from what I'd seen, and started working with copper."
An infatuation with building race cars gave Burns the necessary experience with cutting and welding tools, but he soon learned that there was a gap between what he wanted to do and what he could do to make something as simple as a leaf.
Burns sighs and shakes his head when recalling those early efforts: "I thought it would be easy to make realistic leaves, but you should have seen some of the first leaves I produced. They were unlike anything in nature."
And since he was treading on virgin territory, there were other obstacles to overcome.
What about hinges? You can't just run down to the hardware store and buy something to match a copper gate.
"Nothing flowed with what I wanted," Burns says, "and when I finally came up with a design that I thought would work, I found that machine shops which would tackle the project were going to charge $350 a set!
"Then I took the same concept to a man who has a sand-casting plant. He was able to create them for a fraction of that cost. Happily, bronze turns color the same as copper, matching the patina of that metal as it ages."
Another aspect of creating a custom gate is making a latch that works properly and is attractive. On one such fence, a copper hummingbird is the latch.
Burns's expertise in mimicking nature in copper has now extended to grasses, cattails, grapevines, willows, wisteria, and oak trees. And he's not likely to stop there.
"Another thing about copper," Burns adds, "is that it's ageless. There are copper rain gutters and downspouts on buildings in Europe that are still in use after 300 to 500 years. And that's the kind of longevity I want."
But he doesn't pretend for a moment that his copper creations are security gates.
"I have to tell my customers that if they have kids or grandchildren who are going to jump up and down on the gates, that they'd better consider using another material. Copper bends, and some of my gates would just fold up under that treatment."
An updated and detailed look at some of Burns's gates may be seen on his website, www.copper gardens.com. Price of the gates typically range about $2,000 and up.
Burns also offers an assortment of copper fountains, arches, and other accessories, including far less pricey distinctive house numbers.
Special machinery is required for such work, of course, and when Burns recently went in search of an English wheel used for shaping metals, he came across another gold-country artisan, Kent White in North San Juan, Calif.
Known locally as the Tinman, Mr. White heads a company known as TM Technologies. He advised Burns that his purposes would be better served with an air hammer, which Burns regards with wonder for its speed and versatility.
"I've taken his classes," Burns says, "and he's transported me four years ahead in about two months time. Now I'm working on larger-than-life flowers like a 3-foot pansy blossom."
Burns now has gates installed throughout California in communities such as Sacramento, Sausalito, Davis, Beverly Hills, Long Beach, and in the Los Angeles County Arboretum.
His work will be showcased at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show in Seattle next month and at the San Francisco Landscape Garden Show in March. Burns was also interviewed for a segment on television's "Rebecca's Garden."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society