Work is by definition practical, while art isn’t necessarily so. A local welding company has found a way to make the two coexist while embellishing metal objects from buoys to trucks to trash barrels.
Donnelle Scott, who described himself as a self-taught welder who learned “the book smarts” of the craft while in the U.S. Army, founded Soldotna’s RAW Welding four years ago.
“I was working as the welding foreman over at Snug Harbor,” Scott said. “I started doing little odd jobs on the boats, and the next thing I know, I had everybody in the boatyard wanting something done. I thought I might as well start my own business.”
Work for commercial fishermen remains the company’s bread and butter — Scott and his crew have built entire boats, in addition to building and fixing decks, railings, transoms and exhaust pipes. They’ve also done work for the Offshore Systems Kenai dock in Nikiski and Ocean Marine Services, Inc. But along with the jobs that pay the bills, Scott has a parallel set of artistic aspirations for the company.
“I am an artist first,” Scott said. “I grew up in California and New York, in bigger cities. I started doing painting. I’m a painter, a woodworker, a sculptor. Then I just got really tired of doing real small stuff, and I was like, ‘I want to build. I want to weld…’ I loved carving stuff, but it was so small and I was sitting down all day, 12 hours at a bench. I get really antsy sitting down for so long, so I wanted something where I could move and do things.”
Jewelry-making, oil painting, murals and stencil graffiti are also among the mediums Scott previously worked in. Some of his early metalwork was furniture.
“I loved to build steel and metal furniture,” Scott said. “But the thing is, when you have the time you don’t have the money. When you have the money, you don’t have the time.”
RAW Welding was, in part, Scott’s solution to the time-money problem.
During the summer peak of commercial fishing, the company concentrates on maritime work. When the boats are stored for the winter and the fishing jobs slow down, he and the other welders turn to personal projects and artistic commissions.
These include hot-rod cars and boats with decorative metal flames, carved metal plates made into wall hangings, custom-built tools — Scott, a climber, made himself an ice axe — and hood ornaments.
Of the company’s artistic work, Scott said the most popular so far have been burn barrel designs — stenciled images cut from the side of trash barrels which, when lit, project fire-lit shapes. The RAW welders have drawn and cut burn barrel designs ranging from Alaskan imagery of moose and fish to fantasy designs, flowers, mermaids, cartoon characters and pin-up girls.
Their first burn barrels were made in the yard of Soldotna’s Artzy Junkin craft market, after the group of shop owners there asked Scott to do a welding demonstration in November 2015 for an event called Small Business Saturday. Scott said that although welding itself — with the eye-burning glare of the arc — doesn’t make for good public demonstrations, he devised the burn barrel craft to demonstrate plasma-cutting instead, and because he “had a whole bunch of barrels laying around.”
The barrels proved popular.
“The next thing I knew I went through like 40 barrels in a month’s time,” Scott said.
“It kept the guys busy,” he said of the demand. “They got to draw some cool stuff and make designs, and I showed them how to lay it on the barrel and plaz it (plasma-cut the image). It gave the guys a little bit of time to get their hands steady, and they messed up a little, but that’s how it is. It’s all about the learning process.”
Scott said he was RAW Welding’s sole employee for the first three years of its existence. Now the number of people he hires for help ranges between about two to twelve, depending on the job. He said in many cases, he deliberately chooses to hire inexperienced welders.
“I like being able to take a guy and train him,” Scott said. “When they have questions I have no problems teaching… They want to make a sword, so I’m like, ‘OK.’ We grab a piece of steel and cut it out, and I show them how to temper it, strengthen it. Then I just let them run with it. The best way for somebody to learn is to let them do it themselves. If they run into a tough spot, you let them figure it out themselves. Trial and error — that’s how these guys have learned. I throw them in the deep end and let them go to town.”
The welder making the sword is Scott’s fellow Army veteran Laron Hagan, who is making a suit of armor and a decorative blade with a scrimshawed handle of moose bone for a friend who does live action roleplay (LARP) fantasy gaming. Scott said RAW has started doing projects recently with LARPers and members of the Society for Creative Anachronisms, a medieval historical re-enactment group.
Hagan said that although he had taken welding classes at a community college, his “knowledge (of welding) has exploded” since he started working at RAW.
“The most amazing thing I learned was welding aluminium,” Hagan said, referring to a skill he now uses in practical and artistic work. The later includes aluminum plates decorated with the insignia of Army units — his own and those of his uncle and brother — and a replica M16 assault rifle.
As for Scott, the artistic projects he has planned for the winter include furniture, home decorations and windchimes.
In the more immediate future, the RAW welding crew will be doing another plasma-cutting demonstration at Artzy Junkin on Thursday — this time cutting images into an old buoy, rather than a burn barrel. Sketching on the buoy Monday afternoon, Scott drew a landscape inspired by the “Nightmare Before Christmas” on one side of the steel sphere, wrapping it into a fantasy scene of fighting dragons on another.
The welders will also be finishing a stage they’ve built in the Artzy Junkin yard. Scott said he’d be cutting designs into the beam supporting the front of the stage.
“I don’t know exactly what,” Scott said. “Maybe some knots or some flowers. Art is always winging it.”