His weekly, hour-long reality show is a hit and it's made the tattooed 6-foot-2 host the darling of the cable channel, previously known for bug and beast documentaries.
Each week, a new project begins in a warehouse where cameras roll as James guides a new team of mechanics on the latest mission to create something weird - something driveably weird - in five days with a budget of $3,000.
The team's goal: "Transform it into a monster," James says.
A Porsche 944 morphed into a driving range golf ball retriever, a Ford Explorer became a garbage truck, a Chevrolet Caprice was transformed into an ice rink resurfacer, a Mini Cooper evolved into a snowmobile, a Mustang became a lawnmower, a NASCAR racer became a street sweeper and a PT Cruiser is now a wood chipper.
"Producers always want to do agricultural stuff," James laments, adding he wants speed out of the steroid-packed creations. "No speed, no reward."
A Chevy Suburban was made into a portable wedding chapel, complete with a complicated pipe organ, stained glass atrium and ramps for the bride and groom to reach the altar. A machine hurled rice through the SUV's roof.
Upcoming shows feature a mobile home morphed into a skating park and a police car turned into a doughnut shop. (The series airs Mondays at 8 p.m. EST.)
James, who has "Pay up, sucker" tattooed on the palm of his hand, snickers with a menacing grin as he grabs a hissing plasma cutter and lets the sparks fly on another strange-change project: transforming a Mazda RX-7 into a three-wheel dune buggy.
"I like putting my helmet on and going to work," the 33-year-old father of two says amid the clatter of hammers, falling debris and pounding rock music. "It's good to relentlessly cut at something - just hack it up."
James and his crew - there's a new bunch each week - agonize over obstacles that crop up. The only failure so far was transforming a hearse into a car crusher.
"The curse of the hearse we called it," James says, glumly recalling what he views as an embarrassment. "It was maybe overly ambitious. At the end of the show, we took it to a car-shredding machine on Terminal Island. It was gone in seven seconds."
Series producer Tom McMahon says "Monster Garage" is a reality show that creates heroes out of the build team.
"We're showcasing the skills that these guys and girls have. They're artists," McMahon said.
The "Monster Garage" creations evolve on a platform inside a 60-by-60-foot structure with interior walls painted in flames. There are power drills, air-hammers, grinders and James' beloved plasma cutter. In a corner are video games and drink machines for occasional break periods.
A $100,000-plus custom motorcycle built down the street at West Coast Choppers, where James and his crew make muscle bikes for people like Shaquille O'Neal, Kid Rock and Keanu Reeves, is usually parked conspicuously in the middle of the shop.
The year-old "Monster Garage" show has already developed quite a following.
Hundreds of shade-tree mechanics log onto the Web site each week in a bid to become a member of the build team, says Clark Bunting, executive vice president and general manager of the Discovery Channel in Bethesda, Md.
"They are everybody from designers to engineers to people who are working in their garage and are extraordinarily skilled," Bunting said. "They cross all social and economic barriers. We're seeing more and more celebrities who want to be a part of it, but they have to have a talent and have to have a passion."
It was executive producer Thom Beers who signed up James after Beers featured James in the documentary "Motorcycle Mania." Beers felt James was "the perfect Gen-X anti-hero."
"He said Discovery needed to open up a little bit, that the network shouldn't be so earnest. Discovery needed to laugh a little bit," Bunting said. "Males 2 to 55 are watching this in droves. People are incredibly passionate about it."
And it's quite different from others in the reality-show genre.
"It is one of the few shows on television that is both optimistic and fun," Bunting said. "No one is pointing a finger. In other reality shows, they are aiming for the bottom."
As for his new television fame, James seems embarrassed.
"I'm just a metal worker," he says.
By Jeff Wilson