Interview 3: Lily, a Metal Fabricator
Lily is a metal fabricator with GANAS in Detroit, MI
Women Who Weld, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that teaches women how to weld and find employment in the welding industry, has launched a new program - Arclight - in which we showcase women who create, ideate, and collaborate across specializations and trades.
Lily Kline completed Women Who Weld’s Intensive Welding Training Program in October 2018, and has since worked as a welder and fabricator at multiple custom fabrication companies and is currently a metal fabricator with GANAS in Detroit, MI. Below is an edited and condensed interview between Samantha Farrugia, the founder of Women Who Weld, and Lily, a former Women Who Weld participant, in February 2021.
You’re originally from North Carolina, when did you move to Detroit and what brought you here?
I moved to Detroit in 2014. I came here with 12 friends from Los Angeles, mostly artists coming to establish themselves and work their way through the industry. A lot of them are great muralists and fabricators and are doing all sorts of things here.
What city in North Carolina are you from?
I'm from a really small town called Morehead City; it's on the coast, near the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
Do you ever miss North Carolina?
Oh, yeah, I definitely miss the climate, mountains, and ocean. And culturally, it’s just totally different.
What keeps you in Detroit?
Detroit feels like a small town and it’s really easy to make connections with people, it’s really easy to be resourceful here.
Do you see yourself staying in Detroit long-term?
I never saw myself living in Detroit for this long. I've talked about leaving basically every year. Though sometime in the past two years is when I thought, “Okay, I have a longer running relationship with the city than I expected,” and I should just unpack my suitcase and accept that I live here. Not that there's anything wrong with it, but I have always had one foot out the door. There's a part of me that really misses my family in North Carolina. I'm very much a coastal creature and I miss having direct access to nature. But there's something very strange about Detroit. I'm not sure what it is, but it has a really strong gravitational pull and I do see myself here in the long-term.
Where were you working before you went through Women Who Weld’s intensive welding training program in 2018? What was that job like and what did you do there?
I was mostly doing freelance work in film and video production. I was working on a lot of commercials and short films all over Michigan. It was very fun and always different, and I was often working with or for friends, but the work was sporadic and there was no guarantee of when I would get the next job. The instability became more and more daunting, and I was not sure what was going to happen next.
Currently, you work as a metal fabricator at GANAS, a Detroit-based company that builds a wide range of custom furniture and architectural millwork for residential and commercial spaces across the country. How long have you worked at GANAS and what projects have you been a part of?
I’ve been with GANAS for about a year and a half. Working on projects for Ford – building credenzas, reception desks, and wall build-outs for their headquarters – has been really cool. I’ve been a part of some incredible restaurant build-outs, like a really amazing project for a chophouse in New York City. We also do the CAMP stores and Bond Vet clinics all over New York. And we’ve worked on a lot of residential spaces. We cover a lot of ground and we move through projects very quickly.
Do you have any big projects coming up? If so, what type of metal fabrication work do they entail?
I'm pretty excited about the project I'm working on right now. I'm doing the metalwork for a massive, private barn, which we’re calling a sports barn, on the west side of Michigan. It's like an adult sports playhouse filled with motorcycles, snowmobiles, equipment, and gear. It’s very sleek based on the renderings.
It's a big project; I’m building 10-foot doors that roll up into a 24-foot ceiling, and several lockers that are 3 feet wide and 10 feet tall that will hold sports gear – in all sizes for guests – for every winter and summer activity. It's a unique project for me. I've never done anything with moving components like this before. And I have only recently started working more closely with the CAD team, or the person who does the design or drawings for each project, so I get to work with them more intimately and do the metalwork myself for this project. There is also a whole woodworking side – we’re building lofts and cabinets, though I’m not involved in that aspect. And I’ll be spending a few days on the west side of Michigan soon to install what we’ve built.
I know you primarily TIG weld, but you also weld using MIG and oxy-acetylene processes. What's your favorite welding process and why?
TIG because it's clean, precise, and not very loud. I like the level of control I feel I have, and you have a lot less cleanup when you do it. And for the stuff that we're doing, it makes sense as it's a delicate process. I feel more like a ballerina than a lumberjack when TIG welding.
For those who don’t know, TIG, which stands for Tungsten Inert Gas, also known as GTAW, which stands for Gas Tungsten Arc Welding, is an arc welding process that differs considerably from other arc welding processes like stick and MIG. With TIG, a welder holds a torch that 1) contains a tungsten electrode and 2) releases an inert shielding gas like argon. The welder uses their other hand to manually feed a long rod of filler metal into the molten weld puddle, and a foot pedal to control the amount of heat conducted through the tungsten electrode.
TIG welding can be performed on a range of metals in various thicknesses, and offers a high degree of precision as the welder controls the application of heat and filler metal, which is especially helpful when intricate welds are necessary. TIG welding does not produce sparks or spatter, only a bright glow from the arc. And, unlike stick welding, it is generally performed indoors as TIG, similar to MIG, requires still air to not affect the gas that is shielding the weld.
You emailed me a year and a half ago, and told me you liked elements of your welding fabrication job at the time, but that you were interested in pursuing fabrication work “involving furniture and the design process with metal and other materials.” I then attended an open house for GANAS and asked if they were hiring in the metal shop; I told them about you and that I thought you would be a great fit. Soon after, you joined the company!
How big is the metal fabrication team at GANAS?
It's a very compact team, just me and my co-worker Stephen who’s the lead fabricator. The metal fabrication department is a smaller part of the shop, but we're growing.
You went to Minneapolis last year for an installation. What was that for and what was it like?
That was super exciting and I love being on-site. We built a table for the boardroom of a finance company in Minneapolis. The table had a massive 3/8” steel base with a huge slab of live edge walnut on top.
We flew there around 7 a.m. and flew back around 7 p.m. It was just myself and Stephen who traveled for the installation. We had to prepare to not have all of our tools to put together a 2,000-pound table. Conquering the task in its new home, and doing it pretty easily, was really exciting.
What is your day-to-day like as a metal fabricator?
We’ve taken on a ton of projects since we’ve come back from quarantine. I've been working on the sports barn project for about a month and other projects in between. I’m mostly working independently, going through the CAD drawings and methodically planning out how to organize the project. I’m generally doing a lot of cutting, filing, grinding, drilling, and tapping.
How long were you off work during quarantine?
It was about 3 months, from mid-March to early June. It felt like a really long time.
Do you feel safe at work given the ongoing pandemic?
It’s a huge space, so I feel pretty comfortable and I pretty much work alone. We are all wearing masks and we stagger lunches. I would say we’re making a pretty good effort.
I've been encouraging people in the welding industry to wear respirators for years due to the fumes, metal dust, and other particulate matter in the air. And now it is recommended, often required, to wear masks in the workplace to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
I feel I should have been wearing a mask way more than I did. There's so much wood dust and so much metal dust, and I'm like, “Holy shit, we’re just consuming all of this?” And now that we all have to wear a mask, I feel pretty good about that.
You mentioned you work autonomously most days. How did you learn to fulfill different parts of your role? How did you learn to read and interpret CAD drawings, for instance? Did you receive guidance or formal training on-the-job?
To me, the coolest part right now is that I'm realizing I'm working alone. When I first started at GANAS, I had my co-workers walk me through everything. I asked a million questions. I didn't know how to use half the woodworking or even the metalworking tools; I had to learn how they wanted me to use them and how they expect things to be finished, because their level of refinement is very different than other places I’ve worked. It was kind of nerve-racking at first because I thought, “Am I going to need help this whole time?” But everybody is so generous in offering thorough guidance. Stephen, my co-worker, is – at his core – a teacher. He teaches at Penland and College for Creative Studies, so he's really good at getting the point across and showing you the ins and outs of everything. So, while I was not working independently at first, I’ve realized just recently what I can do alone. But if I come across something that I don't feel 100% about, my co-workers are always there to figure out new ideas or the way to go about it.
The way to learn custom fabrication is through asking questions – it’s how everyone learns. It’s part of the culture in the trades, it’s tacitly encouraged. So it’s not strange if someone asks questions while they are learning, it’s expected of them.
Totally. I had never been in this environment before – it was so completely new to me – I didn't know you could enter this kind of job knowing so little. And then to have people teach you different things while we're making things at the scale that we are – it’s kind of shocking to me, but so cool.
What’s your schedule like, including start and end time, each day?
I work Monday through Friday and occasionally on Saturdays. I arrive a little bit before 8 a.m. and we get an hour for lunch, but I usually don’t take the full hour. I leave anywhere between 4:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. An 8-hour day is what we aim for. We're going to be super busy in the coming months, so overtime is totally welcome.
Do you ever work on Sundays?
Yeah, when I first started. They brought me on for a project involving Macy's stores all over the country. We were staying very late and through the weekends, but it was also kind of fun.
Before joining GANAS, you worked as a custom fabricator welding in both MIG and TIG on mild steel, stainless steel, and aluminum. You built a range of objects from stairway railings and restaurant tables to hospital windows and prison doors. How does your current job as a metal fabricator at GANAS differ from your former job?
I think the biggest difference is just how tight knit the crew is at GANAS. At my former job, we had in-house engineers and designers but my relationship with them was virtually nonexistent. So, when I was working on something and caught an error in the drawings that I was trying to build from, it was difficult for me to get to the people who designed it. And it was a huge pause in my process. Whereas now I can walk across the building and into the office and be like, “Hey, does this make sense?” or “Is this what this is supposed to be?”
And also having another medium in the shop; the way we work with wood and other materials. I have to understand the way metal is paired with a slab of wood, how that wood is going to want to move in the future in its new environment – in different climates – and how to build according to that. That's something I never knew about or even considered at my former job.
What are the things you like most about being a metal fabricator?
Knowing how to build stuff. Knowing how things around you are made is empowering. Knowing you can move in so many different directions with this skill; that what I’m doing now might not have anything to do with what I’m doing 10 years from now as a fabricator.
“There's something very strange about Detroit. It has a really strong gravitational pull and I see myself here in the long-term.”
What are some challenges you’ve encountered as a metal fabricator, if any?
There are a lot of challenges. Being the only female in a building crew or on a fabrication team, like, you totally feel it. That's a very obvious part of my job and I’m sensitive to it, but I feel I'm in a safe environment. I'm not made as uncomfortable as I have been in other places. In other shops, the treatment is significantly different, you just stand out so much more.
And there is a physical toll – I feel things I would never feel if I had an office job. And I consider that in the long term. I want to know, “Is this something that is sustainable for me?”
And the sphere of thought is totally different. I went to a liberal arts school – I studied anthropology, social sciences, and political science. And now to work with a group of people who went to art school and devoted a part of their life to this line of work for so much longer than I have, it is really challenging for me to speak the same language and think about it in the same way that they're thinking about it. That’s probably my biggest hurdle.
What are your hobbies outside of fabrication?
Weather permitting, gardening and motorcycling. I used to do a lot of photography and I want to do more. I’m gearing up to build a darkroom right now, to do more analog photography – it’s a good winter sport for me. I'm trying to figure out my own artistic endeavor. Learning how to build stuff for other people is a really good education, but I need to apply that to myself and my dreams and ideas of what I want to make.
Your income has gone up since you have become a fabricator. How has that changed your financial standing?
I definitely have a greater sense of stability. I can have more of the life that's comfortable to me. I want to buy a home and have space for my own shop in my home. It’s a huge undertaking, but I know it's achievable because this is a solid thing in my life that I can keep building on. So yeah, I have dreams of accelerating my future with this skill.
Do you have advice for women who may be interested in pursuing a path in welding or metal fabrication?
Just do it. I was so intimidated by it for so long. And that's the thing with Women Who Weld, you were like, “go and do it.” To have received a skill and a resume, and be told you can walk into an office and present yourself confidently, it just didn't seem possible to me before Women Who Weld. I had never been encouraged to do that. I didn't feel like I would ever be taken seriously. But if you really want to do it, don't be afraid. Because that's what built the wall for me, the fear of not being accepted, or included, or taken seriously.
You’re only 28 years old, what are your future career aspirations?
I want to stick it out with GANAS. I'm really curious to see what direction the company is going to move in. I don't know how many years that'll be, but I'm excited to be a part of that process for a while. And then, at some point, it would be a dream to have my own space to take my own commissions and collaborate with other people, making other people's artistic dreams come true.
Do you think GANAS would expand to other cities?
I think there's a lot of Detroit pride in that we do this here; it feels unique to this city. I mean, I know there are other companies that engage in similar work, but it feels like a gem.
Detroit is known for its contributions to industrial design and manufacturing due in part to Albert Kahn and Henry Ford, but it’s also known for its contributions to modern design and architecture through Minoru Yamasaki and former students and faculty of The Cranbrook Academy of Art, including Ray and Charles Eames, Harry Bertoia, Florence Knoll, and Eliel and Eero Saarinen. GANAS, in a way, is a continuation of this rich history of design and fabrication in Detroit.
If you were not a fabricator, which career path may you have chosen?
If I weren't a fabricator, I might probably still pursue work in the film industry. I'm really interested in it, and it's really fun. It's way more competitive and very cutthroat, so the level of stress is much higher, but I think it's a worthwhile thing to do; you get to be artistic and make different things in different places all the time.
Welding looks so great on film, perhaps one day you might specialize in filming welders? I find filmmakers and photographers often focus on the wrong aspects of welding; they often want to capture a lot of sparks, but welders know that if you’re producing a lot of sparks, you’re not exactly welding properly. So as a welder, you would know what to look for and how to capture it appropriately.
“I have dreams of accelerating my future with this skill.”
If you could travel anywhere, where would you go and why?
I've been wanting to go to Italy really bad, it seems amazing. Over the last two years I started talking to a metal fabricator in Sicily who I got hooked up with through some friends I have over there. He barely speaks English and I certainly don't speak Italian, but we were somehow communicating. And I really want to go to Italy to learn fabrication in these older and traditional places.
Italy is my favorite place! I haven't been to Sicily yet, but it's the first place I'm going as soon as I feel it’s safe to get on a plane and travel again. If you get the opportunity to go, do it!