EL CENTRO, Calif.–From a typical viewpoint, it’s hard to see the field of welding and fabrication as an art, because the conventional idea focuses on the production of industrial parts.
“Most people see it as an industry, and it is,” says Scott Baker, a welder and fabrication foreman for EW Corp. in El Centro. “Even for me it’s hard to see it as a craft sometimes.”
The industrial side of the welding and fabrication business has long overshadowed any notion of welding as an art. When a typical bystander walks into a fab shop, there isn’t much in the way of traditional art—drab pieces of metal, drills, and complicated machinery take up most of the space. Those in the fabrication world are usually not the type that are into the arts. In fact, West Coast Choppers CEO Jesse James, one of welding’s most famous faces, is known as a tough-talking bad boy.
But the guys wielding those fiery torches on sheet metal
at shipyards and auto body shops are not just a bunch of gearheads–they are artists with a passion and creativity as ancient as metal working itself.
“I might see it as just a job sometimes,” says Baker, “but the craftsmanship is what keeps me coming back.”
The wide world of welding and fabrication is a constantly evolving one that includes areas such as industrial parts, sculpture, infrastructure, and custom vehicles. There is work available for a fabricator in a geothermal plant or at a metal design shop. A fabricator can rapidly advance his career and increase his pay in a short period of time.
Yet, some welders and fabricators prefer to focus on the creative nature of their trade. While Jesse James enjoys the fame welding has brought him, he points out in a Maxim interview that he “could make $10 million and it wouldn’t be as fulfilling to me as making a perfect weld. Nothing replaces that feeling. I mean, when the weld is perfect, it’s an awesome and beautiful thing. It’s soulful.”
A perfectly executed weld, with its overlapping circles and metallic rainbow colors, is easy to admire—fluid, seamless, attractive. The process itself is exciting—a fireworks display of multicolored sparks or flashes of light from the variety of gases used to heat the metal. Silvery metal shavings surround the work area, glittering in the bright light of the shop.
“To me, it’s art,” said Lucas Ray. “Every car I restore and build is a different work of art.” Ray is the owner of Asphalt Ripper Rods & Kustoms, a fab shop in El Centro that specializes in restoring classic cars and other custom projects.
“I really, really like cars,” he said with a wide grin. “Cars are like girls, they’re all pretty in their own way. I love restoring old cars into mint condition.”
The creative process, Ray said, is a driving force in just about every fabrication project. The satisfaction of creating a new, sometimes totally unique project is what attracts many to the trade in the first place.
“You’re creating something out of pieces of metal, sometimes scraps,” said Gerald Baker, a former welder and fabricator, “and creating it from the ground up.” He recalls a
memorable project, dubbed a “Jeep/trophy truck/dune buggy” that he and his brother, Scott Baker, custom-designed and finished in 2009.
“It took about six months to complete, and it was such a pain because it was so unique,” Baker said. “It was a one-of-a- kind custom production. I would consider that the best and the worst [project I have worked on].”
Some fabricators specifically name certain projects as their best or worst. But others find they can’t pick and choose as evenly because they love them all the same.
“I don’t pick favorites among any of my projects. They’re all the best to me,” Ray said.
Joey Dollente, a welder, fabricator, and machinist said mastering the art of welding and fabrication takes certain skill and plenty of practice, yet there is nothing like the satisfaction of creating something out of nothing.
“I enjoy all the work I do,” he said. “It doesn’t even seem like work to me most of the time. It’s like I get to come and play with all my toys and make new creations.”
Dollente has explored just about every area of the trade during his 17 years as a fabricator—working on everything from basic industrial parts to building exotic race cars. His latest venture—Axis Metal Design—is an expansion of fabrication as an art. With a brand new $60,000 plasma cutter he is making custom metal plates illustrating classic cars, flames and logs, even Christmas decorations.
“You not only need to have the skills, but the vision to be able to visualize a project, see how it will end up, and put it all together, like a puzzle,” Dolente explained. “Some of the pieces [that create the puzzle] are art, some of it is skill, but there’s always something different coming up, something unique. I dig it.”
Watch video of a plasma cutter creating art: