Shaun & Leanne Bird // Birdman the Welder
On a sunny Saturday morning I took a little drive to Delta, BC to meet the duo behind Birdman The Welder.
I first met Shaun and Leanne Bird at Kate Duncan’s Address Assembly. I was surprised to learn that their cozy outdoor lounge set everyone had been hanging out on was actually made of metal. Typically I think of metal as cold and masculine, but the sofa set felt warm and welcoming. Wanting to learn more about metal fabrication and Birdman’s process, I reached out to see if I could stop by the studio. Outfitted with a dartboard, custom low-rider, and a very friendly assistant named Peanut, I quickly realized that I wasn’t the first one to come hang.
What does Birdman The Welder do?
Shaun: Our main focus is custom metal work. We actually have examples of the range of work that we do in the shop today – there's a set of tables that were on display at Address Assembly and bike racks that we’re making for a residential strata building.
Leanne: People come to us with an idea, wondering if it’s possible and we usually say yes. We love to be part of the creative process and help clients figure out how to meet their project goals.
How did you get started doing metalwork?
Shaun: I’ve been welding for more than 15 years. I started out in a custom automotive shop fresh out of high school. I’ve always loved low-riders, hot rods and choppers, so I got my welding tickets with big aspirations of having a hot rod shop. Then we bought a house, obligations pushed me into industrial work and I worked union and various manufacturers. In the past four years, we’ve been able to slowly transition out of that.
Leanne: Shaun’s original job had a bit of an off-season – this allowed him to do some side work. During the time when he was off, we rented a super small space so he could enjoy welding outside of work. Eventually, the time ratio started going the other way.
Shaun: I always wanted to have my own business and do something creative. Welding on a massive boiler was not achieving either of those goals.
Welding on a massive boiler? What was that like?
Shaun: Being a boilermaker is one of those jobs that is really hard to describe to somebody. I remember my first boilermaker job. I walked into this massive building that only contained a boiler. There were tubes and piping for floors and floors.
They were like, “OK, you’ve gotta go inside of this,” and I was like, “What?!”
I had to crawl through this tiny hole to get in and there’s nothing inside so they build scaffolding to allow us to get around. Some jobs even required HAZMAT suits. Basically your job as a boilermaker is to go into a confined space that isn’t meant for human occupancy and has no airflow, and weld. I did that for years, but there was always a goal to get out.
Well, that would explain the studio with high ceilings and plenty of fresh air. How long have you been here and how is this space different than your original small shop?
Shaun: Yeah, it’s definitely a step up from a boiler house! We just purchased this shop last year. My first shop was a single car garage shared with one other guy, so this is drastically different. We’ve got 4 stations set up: metal shop, wood shop, assembly/inventory, and office.
The big table is where I do all of the metalwork. I use these bars and cross beams to create a level work surface. It’s also nice because I can write on it with chalk – it’s handy having a 5’ x 10’ notepad at your fingertips.
Upstairs is the woodshop. I still do some woodwork, but we’ve been trying to focus more on metal. Experimenting with new materials or techniques keeps things interesting though and it gives me more opportunities to be creative. For example, I’m working on a massive dining table which will incorporate concrete, walnut, and steel.
Leanne: I’ve always had an administrative background, so I’m usually in the office. My dad was a business owner and because of that, I wanted nothing to do with being an entrepreneur. I saw how stressed my dad was about his business, so it was never a big dream of mine. It was definitely Shaun’s dream, but eventually I decided to get involved. I still have a day job where I work a few days a week, but it’s become really enjoyable for me here at Birdman. I’ve become a lot more involved in the design, a part of the process that I find particularly interesting, and in the end, being your own boss is pretty rewarding.
Shaun: Yeah, she does a lot of the design work. She’s also been known to enter the wood shop to do some sanding and finishing. The other day she was even working on the bar bender. I love seeing her try something new and succeed!
Tell me about this table set that you had at Address Assembly.
Leanne: When Shaun first wanted to build furniture, I told him, “You’ve gotta have wood. It’s too hard and cold and sharp with just metal”. Over time I realized how much more can be done with metal. The idea for Address was to allow other people to come to the same realization that I came to about metal – to display the softer side.
Shaun: Especially showing at Address, where there are so many great woodworkers, we wanted to showcase something different. Leanne said, “Why don’t you just focus on your roots?”
Leanne: So this design was a collaboration between the two of us. It started out by asking, “How can you make something entirely out of metal, that doesn’t look like metal?” That’s where Shaun came in to figure out how my ideas could actually be made and which materials should be used.
Shaun: All of the joints are hand-blended.
Leanne: Which means grinding, blending and polishing.
So, grinding is basically sanding in the metal world?
Shaun: Yeah, kind of. All of the discs I use are different grits, sort of like different levels of sandpaper.
Are you particular about the brands of tools that you use?
Shaun: I’m pretty brand loyal. I find something that I like and I don’t change it. I’ve seen some pretty serious injuries so the way a tool performs is crucial, not just for the quality of my work but for my well-being, too.
Walk me through your process.
Leanne: After a client hires us, Shaun typically sketches a 3D model of the piece.
Shaun: Once the design is approved, I get materials from local suppliers. We usually prefer to order on a per-job basis so we don’t have too much inventory filling up our space.
Leanne: The materials are cut and then fabricated using tack-welds. These are connections that hold them in place but can be easily adjusted. Once everything is in place, he’ll go through and lay the proper welds. After that, he cleans it up and blends it. The final finish depends on what the client wants. If the client is after more of a raw metal look, it might get a clear coat. If it’s to be a colour, then we take it out to get powder coated.
Is tack-welding similar to soldering?
Shaun: Sort of… It’s the melting of two parent materials and typically adding a filler material. If I’m welding two pieces of tube together, I’m heating it up hot enough that they both melt. Then I add a little more metal in there to zap it together. Once the whole structure is built, then I go through and do the final welds.
I see more clamps here than I’ve seen in wood shops. Why do you have so many?
Shaun: Say I’m making a coffee table base. Before I weld it or anything, there’s a lot of prep work that has to be done. I miter all of the corners and make angles. Then I lay it down on the table and clamp it in place. After that, I start tacking it. As I’m tacking and welding, I’m putting heat in various places. This makes the metal want to pull in different directions. Even when it’s clamped, it still wants to pull – I have to anticipate for that. There are never enough clamps.
Do you find it challenging to run a business with your spouse?
Leanne: We’ve started a thing in recent months where we consciously think about wearing two different hats: our business partner hat and our husband or wife hat. When you vent to your business partner about your bad day at work, they’re going to want to come up with solutions. If you vent to your relationship partner, they might say, “I’m so sorry you had such a shitty day.” We’re working on communicating which hat we’re wearing and which one we want the other person to be wearing.
Shaun: This company has been all encompassing. Aside from our vacations, this is pretty much all we do. It really is a family venture and I love that my job allows me to hang out with my wife and my dog all day. Believe it or not, we don’t always agree on everything.
Leanne: Some of the best projects or processes actually come out of us not agreeing on things. A couple of weeks ago we were working on a job. I thought we were building it on site. He thought we were building it off-site. After a bit of back and forth, we figured out the best way to do it and it ended up better than the original plan either of us had. We excel in different areas so it makes for a good balance.
Who are your ideal clients?
Leanne: We tend to attract some pretty great clients. Our favourites are people that appreciate the process and something that’s hand crafted. When they have an appreciation for what we do, the entire project goes so much smoother.
How do your clients find you nowadays?
Leanne: We don’t spend any money on marketing, but social media has been a huge platform for us. Probably 85% of our clients are people that have seen us on Instagram.
Shaun: Nine times out of ten the conversation with a new client at the shop starts out with, “Oh, I love your dog!” Obviously I take pride in doing great quality work, but I also feel like we’re building a brand. People come to us for the whole package that we provide – the experience. They can bring us crazy ideas or just come hang.
Leanne: I think it’s helpful that Shaun is personable in his posts. You know, we’ve got Peanut and we do some cool projects but to have that personal connection has been huge. Everything has energy. We’re a family operation and we put a lot of love and positive energy into our work. I think people like that they can see that in our process.
Shaun: YellowPages is always calling me and asking why I’m not spending money on SEO or have my name registered with them. They offer me something for $500 a month. I’m like, “For $500 you better send over someone that can weld.”
Who are you following on Instagram or admiring?
Shaun: Kate Duncan is obviously awesome. She’s a great person and she does beautiful woodwork. Ravi at Cloth Studio does beautiful things with linen. We’re doing projects with him now that we’re excited about. Brendan at Blend Fabrication is a big inspiration. His work is on another level. I also follow Jesse James. Personal choices aside, his craftsmanship and grind are impressive and I always like to see people that are evolving.
What would you say your specialty is as a metal worker?
Shaun: The finishing and the details. It takes a lot of skill to make something look like it was never welded at all.
Leanne: We don’t do a lot of ornate looking pieces and typically stick to clean line designs.
Shaun: Custom work is our strong suit. I like to have my hands on everything and not really repeat things. After I’ve done it once, maybe twice, then I prefer to move on to new challenges.
What’s next for Birdman The Welder?
Leanne: Hiring employees. Our growth has been slow, steady and organic. We like that, but ideally we’d like to have all areas of the shop running at once.
Shaun: Growth. I think that’s the one thing that’s always been loyal to us. I don’t know how big we want to grow, or if there’s a limit at all.
Ultimately I want to be the person that people come to for fine metalworking.
We’d also like to do more with the shop space – it’s coming together, but I’d like this to be a showroom that people can visit to see our work and hang out. I have dreams of a huge mural on the shop wall. I’ve always been a fan of street art and graffiti. It’d be great to get a local artist in here to do some work.
Leanne: Project-wise we’ve got some exciting things coming up, too. We did some work for Love It or List It a while back, and are now doing work for members of the crew in their own homes. It’s great to work with influential people of course, but also these are really creative, stunning spaces we’re working in. I love any sort of collaborative work. It’s great to see what happens when people put their heads together.
What are some things you’ve learned that you’d pass on to your younger selves or other makers just getting started?
Shaun: If you truly want to do this, you just have to keep hustling and grinding away. Don’t be discouraged.
Leanne: As long as there’s growth. From my perspective, yes the grind is necessary and you have to keep that up, but I would not suggest grinding if there’s no growth.
Shaun: Some days I come in to this beautiful space and I think to myself, “How lucky am I to be here?” My wife is here with me; my dog is here. We continue to set goals, but we feel like we’ve accomplished so much already.
Leanne: Remembering to take time to appreciate where you’re at and how you got there is really important.