Sparks flew as welders worked at tables and knelt beside oil production skids. The raw steel bases will be shipped off to an oil field to secure equipment to the ground.
One welder stood by the plasma table as the machine’s arm lowered into a 4- by 8-foot steel plate last week. The tip glowed and sparked as it carved a bucking horse shape out of the metal plate.
That’s not what the machine was made for, Double D Welding and Fabrication manager Jason Dye said. Originally, the company bought it to make things like large hinges, gussets and custom parts for industrial equipment.
But hard economic times call for creative ways to make ends meet. So about three years ago, the crew started making wall hangings, signs, fire pits and home bars along with their usual oil field and natural gas supply work. Most feature Wyoming motifs carved at the plasma table.
“We’ve done a little bit of everything to this point,” Dye said. “I think that was the biggest help to us, was always keeping our mind open to new things.”
In August, Dye opened his 307 Metal Works storefront on Wolcott Street downtown to showcase and sell the industrial shop’s home, yard and decorative projects.
Crew members come up with ideas, draw them and and turn the concepts into finished pieces in the shop, Dye said.
“It kind of keeps the creative juices flowing,” he said. “We’ve got a number of guys with great ideas that are always coming up with something new.”
The walls at 307 Metal Works are decorated with the creative projects of the Double D Welding and Fabrication crew. There are steel cutouts of wildlife, crosses, mountain scenes and of course, plenty of bison, bucking broncs, “WYO” lettering and the number 307. There are signs for businesses, weddings and house addresses. Some items are decorative and functional, like a coat hook wall hanging. Some are mounted on old barn wood. Antique milk jugs, scrap metal and other repurposed materials also are incorporated into many of the projects.
The larger pieces include fire pits and home bars topped in shining steel with matching bar stools in the Wyoming motifs. A large fountain featuring a steel bucking bronc streamed water down corrugated metal sheet near the front window last week.
Welding had been Double D’s main source of income before the energy downtown in 2008, Dye said. But hard times forced creative changes.
“So the switch flipped to having no work. We didn’t know which direction to turn,” Dye said. “We weren’t diversified and hadn’t had the opportunity to really spread our wings and go out and do different things.”
The company survived, which Dye mostly attributes to luck. In the wake of the downturn, the shop diversified into projects like stairways, handrails and platforms for the city of Casper, government agencies and schools — including hand rails at Kelly Walsh High School, he said.
But the expansion into the arts and home decorations started when Dye built a fire pit for his backyard about two or three years ago. He started selling more of them on consignment through local businesses, and they took off, he said.
That side of the business hasn’t made a ton of money, Dye said, but it’s been enough to keep some crucial workers employed — which was the goal in the first place, Dye said.
The shop made all the bar tops and vanities at Gaslight Social, which brought in a lot of interest to the 307 Metal Works storefront.
“This whole store is kind of an idea for that,” Dye said. “People can get an idea for spaces they might have in their homes or business that we could customize, basically.”
Welder Rick Carper never thought he’d be making decorative cutouts with the plasma table. But two years ago the shop was so busy with sign orders for Christmas that he and Dye came in late on a December night to work on them, he said. He enjoys the variety of projects as a break from the usual.
“You get to be a little more creative and open your mind, instead of just sitting there welding the same skids and pipes,” Carper said.
After cutting out shapes on the plasma table, the workers grind the coating off the raw steel down to bright, shiny bare metal. The grinder leaves swirled patterns on the surface that give the finished product an interesting character. Other pieces are put in an acid bath to remove the coating for a different effect, Dye said. They can clear-coat the metal as is or paint it any other color with chemical stains.
Carper last week sprayed a copper-colored coating onto two bar stools with bucking bronc outlines carved into the tops. They’d just need a clear coat to be ready to put on top of antique milk jugs to complete a rustic bar.
“It transforms a generic bar stool into something cool,” Dye said.
Recent projects also include a custom “man cave” sign featuring a hunting theme with a deer, elk and gun. Crew members also work on their own projects occasionally, like the Florida Gators fire pit Carper made his girlfriend, because her brother plays for the team and she’s a fan.
Tyler Lynch is another shop hand who specializes in skids and also does drafting. He free-hand draws designs with a computer mouse from reference photos and plugs the artwork into the plasma machine. His images have included bears, elk in mountain scenes and log cabins surrounded by pines. He even created a metal image of a customer’s deceased dog that turned out looking just like the photo, even down to the matching color.
He also uses his creativity to choose where to cut out shapes to emphasize lines or create shadow and highlight effects as he plans the designs. Because they’re steel, the pieces can be displayed indoors or outdoors, he said.
For Lynch, the projects have been a way to reconnect with his artistic side. His great-grandmother painted, and he and enjoyed art as a kid but never pursued it later, he said.
“Once I figured out how to do do it on a computer, I kind of fell in love with it,” Lynch said. “It’s cool to bring a new brand of art into the world. The colors that we can do now with the metal, and the scenarios we can do with the metal, it brings a lot of other things to life, rather than just a regular painting.”
Oil field business has been coming back recently, but the promise of future busts is reason to keep the storefront and the projects that supply it, Dye said.
“We’re getting busy in our shop, so having this kind of forces us to continue with it,” he said. “I would be scared to have us continue to slip away and be caught with all our eggs in one basket again when the bottom falls out.”