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A Quest to Create: Pete Watkins and Dexterous Engineering

Look up the word “dexterous” in the dictionary, and you’ll see that it means nimble and skillful with the hands and the mind. It’s an apt description for Pete Watkins’s work—and a fitting name for his shop, Dexterous Engineering.

From Watkins’s perspective, “metal is metal.” Which means he tackles all kinds of projects without allowing any particular specialty to limit what he does. If you cast an eye around his shop, “you have everything from modern day stuff to vintage to motorcycles. I don’t really discriminate, if you will, against certain eras of vehicles or anything like that or bikes.”

Watkins is driven by a broad enthusiasm for his craft. “I just love the art of metal shaping and the art of hot rodding and car building in general,” he says.

For this Baileigh Biography video, Watkins gave us a tour of his Salt Lake City headquarters. He displayed the first bike he ever created, a Yamaha SR250 that he built “from scratch… with pretty much just what I had. I originally built this bike to kind of show what my skills were and what I was capable of doing.” 

When he took the bike to Bonneville last year “just to cruise around,” his friends encouraged him to race it in the future. “The plan is now to do a full rebuild on it, make it so it can actually pass tech inspection,” then try to beat a record.

Growing up as a fan of shows like Overhaulin’ and Monster Garage, Watkins realized that he could make a career out of building cars. “I always liked cars as a kid and everything, but once I was introduced to those shows, it opened up this whole other world for me of, ‘You can do this kind of stuff and make a living and have fun and make really cool stuff?’ Like, that was a total eye-opener for me.”

Equipped with some fabricating and welding skills, Watkins resolved to break into the world of automotive fabrication. “I went on a quest and I hit up every single hot rod shop that I knew of at the time to try and get a job.” Watkins first landed a job at Hollywood Hot Rods, then moved to Ironworks Speed & Kustom in Bakersfield, California. “That’s kind of more the shop that I cut my teeth on,” he recalls.

In 2014, a trip to SEMA connected Watkins with Dave Kindig. “We got to talking. I got invited out for an interview, landed a job at Kindig-it Design,” remembers Watkins. “I worked there for three and a half years. I learned a ton while I was there from those guys. That’s where I really started to kind of push myself and excel with metal shaping. I’m not just a fabricator anymore. I am now a metal shaper.

Walking among his machines, Watkins describes the area as “my home away from home, my metal shaping sanctuary.” He points to a heavily modified Harbor Freight English wheel that’s perfect for “motorcycle gas tanks, because they’re nice and skinny.” He can also depend on some legacy tools, like Pexto equipment from the 40s and 50s. 

Watkins ran across Baileigh machines as he honed his craft in different places. “70 to 80 percent of the shops that I was traveling to always had some sort of Baileigh equipment in it.”

So when the time came to launch his own shop, “it was kind of a no-brainer that I was going to go to Baileigh for what I needed, because I knew that the quality was there. The time and efficiency part of it comes into play when you’re doing stuff at this level, because time is money.”

Here’s what Watkins shared about some of the Baileigh machines at Dexterous Engineering.

  • Power Hammer PH-28HD-VS – “It’s a heavy hit,” Watkins declares. So heavy that he’s nicknamed it “Big Bertha.
  • Reciprocating Hammer PH-19VS – “It’s pretty much Baileigh’s version of a Pullmax reciprocating machine… meaning that the dies don’t actually come together and create an impact like it does on the power hammer. This machine is used for forming,” Watkins notes. “A majority of the time, this is my shrinking machine. It does quick work and it’s all foot pedal work, so you can still walk with a pedal and move around and walk with your panel if you’ve got a big one.”
  • Power Bead Roller Machine BR-18E-36 – Watkins describes this machine as “badass”: “I got a bunch of extra dies for it. I use this thing quite a bit, just for forming different things, doing different bead profiles, tipping edges. Now I find myself using it more often than not, so this thing’s awesome.”
  • Throatless Shear MPS-1 – “This is used for cutting straight lines, curved lines in large panels or just even small panels. [You] can stomp something out on the stomp shear, and then, instead of going in with your snips, you can just come in and clean something up nice and quick and even.”
  • Shrinker Stretcher MSS-16F – Watkins has a pair of these, so that one can serve as a dedicated shrinker, the other a stretcher. “[We] learned the hard way over the years of only having one. It’s so much easier… especially if you’re doing, like, quick flange work. You can do all your shrinking real fast over here. If you go a little bit too far just walk right over, tap, tap, tap, [and] move on.”
  • H-Frame Shop Press HSP-50A – “This thing is a beast,” says Watkins. “You can adjust the height and everything…. it’s air over hydraulic, but there’s also a manual option as well on top of that. You have your standard dies. If you’re working on stuff that’s not necessarily centered you can move this thing around. I’ve done stuff with these in the past with sheet metal stamps”

Each year at SEMA, Watkins hosts the Hammers and Hops meet-and-greet party for fabricators. And Baileigh has been, in his estimate, “a huge, huge supporter of Hammers and Hops, and so we’ve always had that really good relationship with working with each other.”

Baileigh’s social media presence has made an impact at just about every level of the metalworking world: “They’ve helped small guys become big guys. They’ve helped big guys become even bigger guys.” Watkins has observed the power of the Baileigh Radar to promote businesses like his. “You’ve now gotten their attention and so they’re gonna help put you on blast. To have a company of that caliber backing you up, that’s a huge deal. I mean, I know it is for me.

As Watkins showed us around his shop, he pointed out a very special and poignant Ford truck project in partnership with the Jessi Combs Foundation. “This… was a truck that Jessi and her fiance Terry Madden were going to build together as their shop truck and she never had the opportunity to,” Watkins explains. “So now we’re taking this truck and we’re going to be teaching classes throughout the entirety of it.”

The classes will help students gain experience while networking within the industry. “What we’re trying to do is help… fill in that skills gap by giving people a leg up with coming in, building that personal relationship with myself [and] often other industry pros,” says Watkins. “That gives them just a little bit of a leg up and a little bit of an advantage… and they get to work on a really cool truck.” 

Watkins and Dave Kindig came up with the plan of putting the original styleside bed back on and then converting it into a utility bed.

Once the project is complete, the truck will go to auction and the proceeds will support the Jessi Combs Foundation, All Kids Bike, the Peterson Museum, and the SEMA Memorial Scholarship Fund. “We’ve got great partners and sponsors who are part of this build—including Bailey industrial,” Watkins notes.

The truck is all about education and giving back, values close to Watkins’s heart. By sharing his knowledge with up-and-coming fabricators, he continues the cycle that brought him where he is today. “Other industry people that have come into my life that have taught me other things that my dad couldn’t necessarily teach me, and I’d like to do that for others.”

When asked about his legacy, it starts with family: “I want to be able to pass things down to my kid and have that respect from my kid that I have for my dad.”

Overall, Watkins appreciates how rewarding his work is: “This is super important to me. I’ve done a lot of different things over the years and nothing that I’ve done in the past has brought me the amount of joy and passion that I have for what it is that I do.”

Follow Dexterous Engineering on Instagram.

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