Getting a grip on the history of Aurora’s big red wrench

Aug 25, 2023, 8:39 AM | Updated: 9:10 am

A giant red wrench sits atop a motorcycle repair shop on Aurora Avenue just north of the Aurora Bridge. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio) Rooftop view of the giant red wrench at Vallantine Motor Works along Aurora Avenue. (Courtesy Dana Marshall) Dana Marshall, co-owner of Vallantine Motor Works, fabricated the giant wrench from styrofoam sheets about a decade ago. (Courtesy Dana Marshall) Dana Marshall's "assistant" - his young daughter - sticks her head through the wrench when it was under construction a decade ago. (Courtesy Dana Marshall) Vintage map shows approximate location of the giant red wrench along Aurora Avenue just north of the Aurora Bridge at North 39th Street. (Feliks Banel)

Driving south on Highway 99 just north of the Aurora Bridge, many motorists can’t help but notice a giant, red wrench on top of a motorcycle repair shop.

But what are the origins of this iconic piece of Seattle roadside art?

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Seattle has other recognizable jumbo advertising objects along its streets, including the hand saw on Limback Lumber in Ballard or the giant push mower, which until recently sat atop Aurora Mower by Green Lake. Larger-than-life objects are just naturally attractive and have made perfect sense for advertising roadside businesses since the first great decade of the age of the automobile in the 1920s.

For many, it’s hard to pinpoint when they first became aware of Seattle’s giant wrench. Some assumed it was a cool vintage piece of metal signage, perhaps first welded together back in the 1930s. It’s been relied upon for years as a waypoint or marker to know where to make the turn off of southbound Aurora at North 39th to cut down to Fremont or over and under the bridge to get to Wallingford.

The business the jumbo wrench advertises is called Vallantine Motor Works, which is a motorcycle repair shop that specializes in BMWs. When KIRO Newsradio called earlier this week, Dana Marshall – a co-owner of the shop – answered the phone.

And Dana Marshall was the right guy for this history job. He told KIRO Newsradio exactly what he was thinking when he made that wrench himself, not in the 1930s, but only about 10 or 11 years ago.

“I want to make something that will stand out on top of the building,” was what Marshall said was his plan around a decade ago. “And I chose [to paint it] red, thinking that that was the color that would grab your attention. But it’s almost invisible against the sky, is what I’ve noticed.”

“You’re one of the few people who’s ever noticed it,” Marshall told this historian.

Many who know and love the jumbo wrench would argue he’s being modest with that last remark. Either way, one of the most impressive facts Dana Marshall revealed about the backstory is that he had no scale models or blueprints when he made the giant wrench.

And that makes a lot of sense because, for this project, Dana Marshall is uniquely qualified.

“I went to art school, and I own a lot of wrenches,” Marshall said. “So I had plenty of things to look at. I knew what a wrench looked like pretty well.”

And how did he actually construct the beloved jumbo mechanic’s friend?

“I just glued three sheets of Styrofoam from The Home Depot together and then got the Sawzall out,” Marshall explained. “I drew a little bit of a picture on it first, but I just kind of freewheeled it.”

So much for this roadside historian being able to estimate the age and materials of roadside signage accurately. A decade ago? Styrofoam? STYROFOAM?!?

Marshall shared photos of the wrench he took while it was under construction, which reveal its simple fabrication but also the fact that it possesses incredible detail, most of which is not quite visible from the street or sidewalk.

The wrench is about ten feet long and two feet wide. Technically, it’s a model of what’s called a “combination wrench,” which means it has a u-shaped open end on one side and a closed or “boxed end” on the other, and an area in between called “the beam” (the place where your fingers wrap around to hold the wrench). On Dana’s wrench, the beam even has that raised area where the manufacturer’s name and wrench size would be engraved on a regular-sized wrench. The detail is downright amazing.

The detail Marshall put into the design is also visible in the “boxed end,” which even has the little teeth lining the inside, which are officially called “points.” Dana’s wrench has 12 points, which means it would be used on either a hexagonal or a square nut.

One can’t help but think that it would be pretty cool to borrow Dana’s wrench sometime and see if it would fit on the nuts and bolts at the base of the Space Needle.

Marshall told KIRO Newsradio that the giant wrench has been mostly trouble-free throughout its 10+ years of existence. He did say that there was a windstorm not long after he first installed the giant wrench 10 or 11 years ago. Marshall was concerned and drove from home to the shop that evening to see how it was fairing, but it was just fine, only wiggling slightly back and forth in the gusting winds.

KIRO Newsradio inquired if there’s any special care required for the iconic object. For instance, does Dana Marshall have to go up to the roof to inspect the jumbo wrench sometimes?

“No,” Marshall said, then reconsidered. “Well, I go up on the roof because the roof leaks, and then I go over and take a look at [the wrench], but it doesn’t need any maintenance.”

“Although it is, I noticed, covered in seagull feces,” Marshall said. “But it just adds to the charm.”

Is there a giant advertising object in your Puget Sound or Pacific Northwest neighborhood or along your route to work or school? KIRO Newsradio would sure like to know about it for a possible future story. Please contact me via the information below.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here

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Getting a grip on the history of Aurora’s big red wrench