Antique Safes Double as Art Canvas for Craftsman

Updated July 27, 2016
Man's hand applying gold pinstriping on an antique safe from Hall's in Cincinnati, Ohio
Billy Jay Espich puts delicate touches on an antique safe from Hall's Safe & Lock Co. in Cincinnati. (Photo by Frank Espich)

Indiana custom painter restores and beautifies some of the heaviest antiques.

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Many folks enjoy collecting antiques. Few collect and restore old items that weigh as much as 9,000 pounds like Billy Jay Espich.

The lifelong New Palestine, Indiana, resident restores old safes, mostly from the 1860s to early 1900s. They’re nothing like the models made today, but more true works of art.

“You’d walk into a home or business back then, and these safes were a statement, like, ‘Look what I’ve got,’” says Espich, who operates his own Billy Jay Indy Custom workshop on his property southeast of Indianapolis. “You’d see the vibrant colors and ornate portraits. You had to be impressed.”

An antique safe from Hall's Safe & Lock Co. in Cincinnati
At one time, custom artwork adorned many safes manufactured in the U.S. (Photo by Frank Espich)

The golden age of safes

Made in industrial centers like New York City, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Cincinnati, safes became a major part of American manufacturing at the turn of the 20 century.

“Every business had one, so they pumped out millions of them,” Espich says. “These companies did everything in-house. They had their own steel mills, carpenters, portrait artists, others who did lettering.”

Remarkably precise metalwork and lock mechanisms, especially for the time, were only part of the process. In addition to custom wood shelves and carpet inside, exteriors often featured intricate hand-painted letters, artistic designs and framed landscapes.

Unique models included cannonball safes, some made from actual cannons left over from the Civil War, and 6-foot cabinet safes that weighed twice as much as today’s average car.

Heavy lifting and antique restoration

Safes eventually became merely functional, and most safemakers disappeared with the Great Depression (Diebold survives to this day). Usually forgotten in the corner of an old business or home, the vast majority either ended up in a scrapyard or deteriorated in the 100 years or so since their heyday.

Enter Espich, who rescues safes in a variety of ways. While classic car restoration and pinstriping dominate most of his time, people contact him through his website or word of mouth to donate safes if he’ll lug them out. Typically, though, he’ll offer $100 to $500, depending on the type and rarity.

Once Espich gets a safe back to his workshop, the true wonderment begins. Most are covered in decades of grime or layers of paint. Espich blasts them with coal slag, which eventually reveals the original surface.

Safes from Hall’s Safe & Lock Co. in Cincinnati often take Espich’s breath away.

Billy Jay Espich shows to Hall's Safe & Lock Co. safes that he restored, both with Asian-influenced floral designs
Billy Jay Espich points out the unique designs of two Hall's Safe & Lock Co. specimens that he brought back to life. (Photo by Frank Espich)

“They had the most ornate,” he says. “I like the challenge of duplicating what they did 140 years ago. It’s so complex, and some of their designs, I think there were mind-altering chemicals involved.”

Craftsman using coal slag gun to strip dirt of an antique safe
Each safe offers its own adventure, as Espich uncovers what lies beneath. (Photo by Frank Espich)

Collecting and selling

With Espich’s careful eye and delicate hand, returning a safe to its original splendor takes a minimum of 30 hours and costs anywhere from $3,000 to $6,000 for clients.

One customer, Fred Glaser of Carmel, Indiana, initially went to Espich for auto pinstriping. After seeing the safes in Espich's shop, Glaser came away with one of his own: a maroon beauty with his name emblazoned in exquisite gold lettering.

"I was really impressed with the number of safes he has and the quality of work he does," Glaser says. "It's just beautiful, a thing of art. I just fell in love with it and wanted it."

While Espich only restores about four safes a year, 40 or so await their own beautification in his warehouse — not for future sale, but for his own collection.

That number could grow at any time.

“I don’t need any more, but if I see one and it’s cheap, I’ll grab it,” he says.

There aren’t many antique safe restoration specialists, and even fewer at Espich’s level of expertise. His reputation spawns some unique visits, including one from a man who drove 30 hours from Maine unannounced with safe in tow.

“I asked if he found me online. He said no, that some guy he knew in Fort Wayne heard about me,” Espich says. “I told him I couldn’t believe he drove that far without calling. After I took him inside and showed him my safes, he said, ‘I would’ve driven from California.’”

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