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King of Clavos

Author: Monica Skrautvol
Issue: January, 2008, Page 74
Photos by Brandon Sullivan

At his Scottsdale workshop, metalworker Larry Virtue pauses at a table filled with the hardware he designs. Included are clavos and handles for cabinetry or doors. 
One notion in particular is the source of much laughter at the office of Scotts-dale-based metalwork company Those Gringos: “The French cook, Italians sing and Mexicans decorate,” says owner Larry Virtue with a chuckle. In 1990, he launched the firm to meet the Southwest’s growing interest in Mexican decor. The 65-year-old decided to supply the area’s homeowners with clavos of his own design. The large, decorative nailheads are often found on doors in Mexican-style houses. He also produces cabinet knobs, drawer pulls, handles and hinges.

Virtue says the firm’s name came about just as simply as the business itself: The Fountain Hills resident and his longtime colleague, Buel Wetmore, used to travel to Mexico to source products for a home-decor catalog, and upon their arrival in a town, the locals would call out, “Here comes those gringos!” During these trips, he noticed clavos-studded doors everywhere and became interested in the look of the hardware. When he started Those Gringos, he was able to offer re-creations of the metalwork he had seen in homes south of the border.

In the company’s 2,000-square-foot workshop, Virtue comes up with designs for the hardware and hand-finishes each piece. Using dental instruments and other improvised tools, he first makes carved wax or wood “masters” that are sent to a local foundry. The foundry creates molds based on Virtue’s carvings and then casts pieces in bronze, wrought iron or pewter. Back in the workshop, the metalworker and his two part-time employees give the hardware a rustic look.

A square bronze knob and an X-shape bronze clavo (left) A bronze clavo with a sunflower motif is surrounded by a variety of decorative nailheads. (right)
Often, Those Gringos receives requests for custom-made clavos. Of this group of customers, Virtue says: “They need a certain size, they want a certain design, or they have an old one they want to match.” Best-selling designs include rosettes, crosses, pyramids, and round shapes that feature hammered detailing, he notes.

Deborah Malone of JP Malone Construction Inc. in Scottsdale has collaborated with Virtue for almost half a decade and incorporates both his clavos and cabinet hardware into the houses her company builds. “He makes the most amazing things,” she comments. When it comes to nailheads, she remarks: “They add another dimension—a third dimension to a two-dimensional object.”

Crafting clavos and other hardware wasn’t such a stretch for Virtue, who served as a millworker after graduating from high school. This job didn’t last long, however. “I started losing digits, so I decided another line of work would be good,” Virtue—who now is missing a finger—says laughingly. Success as a vendor for the catalog industry followed, and when the popularity of catalogs decreased, he chose to experiment with metal. The self-taught artisan hasn’t looked back.

Virtue finds clavos to be unique and believes their origin is similar to that of many other Mexican items. “[They] probably came with the Moors to Spain and then over to Mexico,” he muses. Wetmore agrees, and adds that the nailheads used to be considered a status symbol: “The more that you had on your door, the higher your social position was.” When asked if this is still true today, Wetmore points to Virtue and jokes: “He’ll be the guy to know. He’s the king of clavos!”

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Nifty Nails
Larry Virtue’s customers find various ways of incorporating decorative clavos in their homes. Here are some options:
  • An entrance door or gate studded with nailheads makes for a classic Mexican entry.
  • A large clavo becomes a statement when used as an accent on a wooden carriage house-style garage door.
  • Headboards gain a Southwest feel when decorated with clavos.
  • Smaller nailheads lend a sturdy, masculine look to sofas, armchairs, ottomans and benches.
  • Clavos incorporated around the edges of a wooden coffee table provide an Old World touch.
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