It’s not until I’m standing in front of the massive conglomeration of studios that make up Yosemite Place that I realize how nervous I am about my welding lesson. Hidden on a small side street in Bayview’s industrial neighborhood, the building has a somewhat Soviet feel to it that instantly lets you know serious work happens here. Although tempted to turn around, I decide to ignore the pounding in my chest, climb up the loading dock, and head straight for the lion’s den.
As I walk through the giant concrete hallways in search of Brian Martin Metals, I can feel how special this hidden group of studios really is. Through doorways I see woodworkers, sculptors, custom bike shops, glass blowers, and others all tucked away in their own private worlds.
I reach Brian’s shop and find him chatting with Dave from David Patchen’s Hand Blown Glass Studio right down the hall. Dave is dropping off a pair of handblown lamp shades that he traded Brian for some metal work. Their interaction sums up much of what happens in this building: Everyone works together. Not only can artists critique and improve each other’s work, they can also combine crafts and collaborate on pieces that would otherwise not be possible.
Brian admits that as rough and tumble a neighborhood as Bayview can be, there is nowhere he’d rather have his shop. He started his business here in 2001 and has been cranking out designs of his own ever since. He builds everything from huge architectural pieces to handcrafted gold lockets. As one might guess, these divergent creations represent Brian well. He is tall, thin, covered in tattoos, and definitely comes off as intimidating at first. It’s not until you chat with him about film or watch him with Siah, his canine companion, that you see what a sweetheart he really is. In fact, his calm and patient nature was what persuaded me to tackle welding in the first place.
My ex-boyfriend worked with Brian for a number of years and during that time I became fascinated with the work. One evening, I expressed to Brian how I could never fathom how they took gigantic rough materials and turned out some of the most refined and beautiful items I’d ever seen. Brian suggested I come to the shop and experience the process firsthand. I wasn’t so sure – the work seemed so challenging to me, like something I wasn’t capable of doing. Brian simply laughed at this thought and asked when I had a free afternoon.
The next thing I know, I’m standing amidst the endless scrap metal and imposing machinery ready to see if I have what it takes. I pull my hair back; put on safety goggles, a face shield earplugs, gloves, and after being scolded for forgetting to take off my earrings (whoops), I’m ready to roll.
Brian begins the lesson by reaching for what is obviously his favorite tool in the shop: a piece of chalk. We start crouched on the floor while he draws out all of the options we have for my project, a towel hook for my kitchen. We draw circles, triangles, rectangles, and odd nameless shapes while contemplating both form and function in designing the piece. We discuss how great design incorporates elements that aren’t noticed at all because they simply work so well. Per our discussion, we opt for functional simplicity: a circular back plate with an ornate hand-curved hook. Perfect.
Next we head to the drill press to make holes, both for where the hook will attach to the back plate, and for where screws can fasten the piece to my wall. What continually impresses me about the shop is how these big, brutal-looking machines turn out work of perfect precision. For those of you who have never seen a drill press it looks somewhat like an oversized hand drill (or screw gun if you will) mounted on a crank arm, which in turn is secured to a heavy platform. This construction gives it the leverage and accuracy that we feeble humans lack. In mere moments, my holes are perfectly placed and we’re ready to start melting metal.
The forge is without a doubt the coolest tool in the metal shop. Technically, a forge is the hearth or heat source of any blacksmith’s shop. Brian has a gas forge that he built himself. It runs on natural gas and ends up looking like a flaming torpedo in the middle of the room. Before starting the inferno, Brian ceremonially walks to his iPod and without hesitation winks at me and puts on Slayer. Awesome – the metal work has begun.
When the forge is hot, our steel dowel is inserted into the blazing flames. I’m trying to keep up my end of the conversation but I’m completely entranced by the fire. We watch to see the metal’s color change to know when it is hot enough to work with. We’re looking for the black metal to be orange, not red or white, which would be, respectively, too hot or too cold. The tricky part is that once the metal reaches temp you only have between 30–45 seconds to work the piece before it’s too cold to manipulate.
With cautious gloved hands I pull the piece out, grab my hammer, head to the anvil, and go at it. Our first goal is simply to thin the rod so that it is workable. Now, I’m no body builder but I’m definitely a strong little lady and I’ll tell you, this was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. With quickly weakening arms, I swung the metal hammer at the rod’s burning embers hoping for precision. With sweat pouring down my back I see how archaic this process really is. Besides the gas that we are using to fuel the fire, nothing about what we were doing is any different from what blacksmiths did a thousand years ago. I mention this to Brian, and he simply smiles and says this fact is precisely why he loves the work: “Fire, hammer…that’s it.”
After four or five times back into the fire I’m finally starting to see some results on my dowel. The tip which was about 3/4 inches thick is down to 1/4 inch and Brian says we’re ready to start shaping! He shows me a series of hammering techniques to bend the rod into a hook on the anvil. This demonstration is the first time I can see the reasoning behind the anvil’s design. I watch Brian use corners, holes, and varying rounded edges on the anvil to turn out an impeccably curved piece. As cheesy as it is to say, he really does perform a sort of dance with the hammer, metal, and anvil. I mimic his motions and am stunned to see the tip of my piece start to curl up into something that is definitely recognizable as a hook. I am totally thrilled and am able to mark my satisfaction by dunking it into the shop’s water bucket to get that cinematic sizzle of hot metal meeting cold water.
We are now ready for the last stage in the building process: the welding itself. Brian instructs me on how to use a band saw to cut the hook from the dowel after which I take a moment to find a nice angle for the hook. I prep the piece using an angle grinder that will bevel the edges and make sure we have a clean surface onto which to weld. The angle grinder is pretty spectacular – while using it, sparks shoot out in perfectly arched sprays. The drama of the action is so iconic, I couldn’t help but ask Brian to take a picture of me using it.
The MIG (metal inert gas) welder looks like something out of a ‘70s sci-fi film. The design is intended to look futuristic yet the Euro airline stripe that lines the side of the contraption is unquestionably dated. Essentially it is a giant rectangular box that plugs into both the wall and a gas source and has a large metal-tipped hose called the gun. It works in such a way that gas and wire are fed through the gun to carry an electric current. These elements then create a reaction upon engagement with another metal. Both melt and thus welding occurs. Brian jokes that it is basically a heavy-duty glue gun and I can’t say I disagree. I only have about 1/4 inch square of welding to do, so after 20 glorious seconds the ride is over. I flip my face shield up to see my completed hook and know that the smile on my soot-smudged mug says everything.
Brian pulls out a giant vat of wax with which I seal the hook. The goopy substance is satisfying to apply and will prevent the metal from rusting. While the wax dries I recall Brian mentioning that his excitement about this work comes from turning a concept into reality, from figuring out the puzzle of design and construction. Looking over at the remains of our chalk drawings and then back at my rad new towel hook, I can see exactly what he means.