Life isn't going to just hand you a flame-throwing metal robot with a giant tool that looks like a chain saw mounted on it -- you will have to make your own.

Just ask artist, inventor and welder-run-amok Justin Gray, whose ferocious mechanical creations will be at work at the Maker Faire in San Mateo this weekend for the celebration of all things Do it Yourself.

Gray applies the DIY concept to the menacing machines that flow from his mind into reality at his 4,000 square feet of warehouse space in Oakland. He also employs it in a career that has had him set fires for Facebook events and work with one of the guys behind the TV show "MythBusters."

"Have some chutzpah. Get out there and do something," he advised would-be creators while standing among his machines. "Don't sit around and wait for something to happen."

Why, though, would someone want to build a flame-throwing robot? For Gray, a 36-year-old Albany resident, it appears to spring from an elemental impulse to create.

He has been a welder since age 16, when his grandparents realized it would be cheaper to have him repair a metal fence at their home in Orinda than to hire a professional welder. The drive to improvise and create can also be traced to the moment his father confronted him, also at 16, about his poor school performance and lack of focus.


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"I said, 'I want to be an artist. I want to be sculptor,' " Gray said. "(My father) said, 'All right, but you better do it. You better do it for real.' "

In the years since, he has followed through on that expectation. After a few years apprenticing with a master welder, he landed a gig teaching metalworking in the late 1990s at The Crucible, an industrial arts school in Oakland. At the time, his lifelong interest in fire led to him making sculptures that spewed flames. His first fire-breathing robot show was at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Annual Festival in 2002.

Since then, he has been landing artist commissions, like the one in 2010 for the music and arts gathering Smukfest in Skanderborg, Denmark. For that event, he built Boris, a flame-throwing robot that can toss a stream of burning alcohol about 60 feet. It's also equipped with a trenching tool, which looks like a giant chain saw blade and can be set ablaze with the spray from the flamethrower.

"There won't be much fire at the Maker Faire," he said. "We'll mostly be smashing stuff."

The event's focus of using practical skills like computer programming to creative ends drew more than 100,000 people in 2011. With exhibits ranging from a brainstorming session with author Dave Eggers to making the perfect paper airplane, organizers expect 120,000 this year.

For Gray, doing it himself -- and paying the bills -- has meant a diverse working life. One day he's building menacing robots, the next he's fabricating porch railings, or even unleashing flaming sculptures for the rich and famous.

About three weeks ago he set up fire pits, which are flaming metal caldrons, for a Facebook event at Fort Mason in San Francisco. The flames look cool, but you can also cook marshmallows on them.

"You know, I pull the permits, set them up," he said. "And I make sure nobody sets themselves on fire."

He always has ideas in the works, but Gray said there's no singular project he dreams of doing. Mostly he just wants to be able to keep making the things that interest him.

Maker Faire runs Saturday and Sunday at the San Mateo County Event Center, 1346 Saratoga Drive, San Mateo. For tickets and details, go to http://makerfaire.com.

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