Story by Alan Sorensen
Photos by Nikki Carlson
Its name - My Canvas Auto - says a lot about its owner.
“My Canvas - I paint cars, so that's my canvas,” Shane Christiansen said. “I do a lot of custom painting, so that's where I came up with it.”
Christiansen's is one of the few auto body shops around that is eager to do complete auto restoration. Some customers want their older cars restored with original parts so they look the way they did the day they came off the assembly line. These are the stock cars. Others want their cars to have a unique look.
“I do complete stocks all the way to full-blown customs,” Christiansen said. “I've done a ton of just stock vehicles. My older clientele wants to keep everything original.”
Christiansen has painted three cars for Dennis Reese of Havre: a 1968 Chevrolet Impala, '69 Impala and '34 Ford coupe. Reese said he used to do all the work himself, but became allergic to the chemicals involved used in painting and turned to Christiansen for help.
“I do part of the body work and then he paints them and I put them together,” Reese said. “The price was good and I'm happy with it.”
Another Havre customer trusted Christiansen with his 1967 Oldsmobile 442.
“It needed to be completely stripped and repainted, a lot of dents and things,” said Ron Jacobs, an AMX race car driver who competes at the racing complex at Lohman. “It came out really good. He did work with a pickup I had, too. Painted it, fixed it up to pull my race car.
“He does good work.”
Christiansen's “canvases” have included a D8 Caterpillar, muscle cars of the 1960s and '70s, vintage pre-World War II cars, motorcycles and snowmobiles. He said he does about 25 full car restorations a year. And they're not all for customers along the Hi-Line.
“My local area runs about Conrad to Billings and then down to about Missoula,” he said. “The farthest I've been away is probably Seattle. I'm working on a deal with a guy in Las Vegas. I've done some around Washington. And I have another guy out of Texas who's supposed to be coming up.” Every auto body worker has to own his own tools. Now that he has his own shop, Christiansen requires more than hammers, wrenches, ratchets and other hand tools.
“I have a strip joint (sand blasting and soda blasting), rotisseries, mini lifts, press roller brakes, shrinker/stretchers,” he said. “I'm just basically beginning getting my high-end stuff now, becoming more specialized.”
His business ranges from dings to complete vehicle restoration. And more people are requesting customization of two-wheeled and treaded vehicles.
“The motor bikes and snowmobiles, they want custom paint on most of those,” he said. “Everybody's got to be different.”
He has three employees: Gary Moore and two Montana State University-Northern students, Josh Obergfell and Jack Hughes.
The business name hints at Christiansen's artistic nature, too. Like many artists, he seems to be always on the go. Right now he can be a hard man to track down, bouncing between his current shop and the shop he's building west of NorthWestern Energy along Second Street West.
The new building assures his business a much higher profile than he's had to date.
Christiansen spent 13 years in relative obscurity managing Black Butte Auto Body tucked away across U.S. Highway 2 from the Beaver Creek Golf Course. He left Black Butte a couple of years ago to go out on his own. He opened a shop in the old Hill County Electric building in the 100 block of Second Avenue West briefly and then moved into the original Big Bud building in the industrial zone west of Havre.
“My sign's out there, but nobody notices it,” Christiansen said about the small sign on a chain-link fence set about 100 feet back from the highway. “It's like at Black Butte. People always said, ‘How the hell do you get any business?' My business is by word of mouth. I have my regular customers.”
He attracts customers through quality work and reasonable prices.
“A basic paint job anywhere (out of state) will run you $12,000 and up here a quality paint job will run you $5,000 and $6,000,” Christiansen said.
He doesn't have a Web site, but has taken his work to car shows and other events.
His most distant customer to date, an airline pilot from Seattle, contracted work with Christiansen after seeing one of his cars at a car show.
“They see the paint jobs,” Christiansen said. “I had a '70 Baracuda in Coeur d'Alene he liked and brought one over to us, a '66 Corvette.”
Christiansen said that particular customer left him to his work.
“I basically just saw him three times - when he dropped it off, when he checked on it and when he picked it up,” Christiansen said. “Some people are in three times a week checking on theirs.”
Christiansen doesn't restore any cars on speculation; all of his work is for customers, many of them local.
“I have never joined Havre's (car club), because I don't have a car; I don't have the time,” he said. “But everyone knows me - about half of them (restored cars) up here, I've painted.”
Christiansen's interest in auto body work arose when he began to restore a car of his own in high school. After graduating from Charlo High School, he went to work in an auto body shop.
“I had a '55 Chevy Belaire I had to work on,” Christiansen said. “That's when I went to work for Ronan Auto Body.”
In 1984, Christiansen came to Havre to attend Montana State University-Northern.
“I've got lots of degrees, but none in auto body. I learned from the old guys, the journeymen, the old body men.”
Christiansen does have auto body credentials, though, in the form of a DuPont certificate and a Pittsburgh Plate Glass silver certificate.
He said he's two classes shy of a business degree and has several one- and two-year certificates from Northern. His two-year certificates are in electronics, computers, auto cad, drafting and automotive. His one-year certificates are in metal technology and diesel engines.
His path to those certificates was not a straight line.
“I would have finished up the automotive and diesel in '86-87,” Christiansen said. “I took a quarter off, then got in a motorcycle accident and went back to school in '89.”
On Monday, he had six restoration jobs going at his shop: a 1974 Dodge Challenger, '68 Ford Mustang California Special, '72 Dodge Swinger, '77 Ford Mustang, '27 Canadian Roadster and '57 Ford convertible. He was just finishing up a nearly new Ski-Doo Bombardier with fewer than 500 miles that had had a run-in with a tree. The blue Swinger was picked up by its owner on Tuesday afternoon.
Christiansen said he has yet to do a job for a wealthy or prominent customer.
“I do the bottom-end guys,” he said, “the ones who can't afford the big name guys.
“The thing I'm proudest of is that they're driven. The guys take them all over the country.”
His investment of time and money in the new shop indicates his commitment to Havre and the surrounding communities.
“Business is pretty good, but I ended up taking a lot of my retirement out and the rest came from the bank” to erect the new building, Christiansen said. “I made a big commitment to Havre a long time ago.”
It's a commitment he shares with his wife, Jamie, and their sons, Austin, 10, and Avery, 12. He and Jamie will celebrate their 16th wedding anniversary