What lies beneath

Artist Cynthia McGrath repurposes automobile paint and resin waste from surfboards.


Cynthia McGrath is always searching for new, unique materials from which to craft her Original Cyn line of jewelry. In the past she’s worked with everything from seaglass to old watch guts to Legos. McGrath’s latest discovery is something not so easily recognizable. She has started using two very unusual types of material, both similarly reclaimed. Fordite and Surfite are byproducts of, respectively, car paint and surfboard glazing.

Fordite (also called Detroit Agate or Motor Agate) is the colorful, marblelike remains of old car paint from automobile plants. As McGrath says in her Etsy shop write-up, “During the mid-1900s, cars were painted in paint booths with sprayers. Over time, overspray would build up on the walls and drains in these facilities. After a while, this overspray would need to be cut and removed. There can be thousands of layers of paint that make up a single Fordite stone.”

Last year McGrath read an article about Fordite in an art magazine, and was immediately intrigued. She contacted a number of car dealerships until she found one that was able to supply the material — a Corvette dealership in Kentucky. For the past year or so she has been ordering assorted chunks and crafting cutoffs into pendants, earrings, and rings. Each piece is one-of-a-kind, featuring swirls of color with the look of an abstract painting.

Surfite is, similarly, a repurposed material made from the resin waste left over during the surfboard glassing process. McGrath explains the sourcing of Surfite: “After a surfboard is shaped, it gets ‘glassed,’ meaning it gets a super-thick, even coat of resin poured over it to seal it. The extra resin spills off the board and pools on the ground. This builds up, layer by layer, into enormous slabs that cover the glassing floors.” McGrath purchases her Surfite chunks from a surfboard company in San Diego.

The process from raw material to finished jewelry is an arduous one, and it took a lot of experimentation on McGrath’s part to perfect her technique. It involves many steps, starting with breaking up the layers, then cutting, shaping, sanding, and polishing, sometimes multiple times. McGrath uses variously a jeweler’s saw, a Dremel (a small jewelry and crafting drill) and a couple of different sanding files. She sometimes completes the look by using a finish of, appropriately, Turtle Wax. Some pieces she polishes and gives a shiny finish to, others are left in a rougher, more natural state.

“I really enjoy working with Fordite,” she says. “When you’re sanding, all these different colors show up.” McGrath says that her favorite pieces of Fordite are from the 1950s to 1970s, when cars (Corvettes in particular) were being painted in vibrant colors. She adds, “Since cars are not painted in the same way, these pieces will not be around forever.”

Car aficionados and surfers make up some of McGrath’s clientele, but she notes that anyone interested in unique jewelry can appreciate these conversation starters, and she loves talking about the unusual materials.

Other items that the artist has recently started upcycling include discarded license plates, which she carves up to use for key rings, pendants, bookends, and pencil holders; salvaged car headlights; and old records. She also offers a wide selection of sea glass, quahog shell, shark tooth, and fossil jewelry.

“It’s fun to get a piece and then figure out what it’s going to be,” says McGrath. “That’s what keeps it interesting for me — always searching for new materials.”

Original Cyn jewelry and gift items can be found at Vineyard Artisans Holiday Fair at the Grange Hall on Dec. 18 and online at the jeweler’s Etsy store, OriginalCynMV, bit.ly/OrigCyn.