Workshopshed: Alan Ross is a metal artist in Herefordshire based artist who specialises in garden sculptures. He makes items to his own ideas as well as being commissioned for specific projects. In September 2008 he upgraded his workshop after years trapped in a domestic garage.
Workshopshed: Welcome Alan, can you tell us about your workshop?
Alan Ross: The new workshop thing was a liberating experience. I spent several years hobbying in my garage, and two years full time working in there. It is on a public car park shared with the council. They turned a blind eye which was a huge help. There were days when I was sanding wood outside for four or five hours, with snow drifts of sawdust, obviously not a hobbyist. All it would have taken was one snotty nosed busybody and it would have finished me off. I was often welding or grinding outside as well. Amazing that nobody ever made trouble for me.
Workshopshed: Did you build it yourself?
Alan Ross: I did not build it myself, but I did kind of design it. I had been knocking of farmers doors for a year or so asking about workshop space to rent. I cycle a lot, every where I was seeing perfect workshops just rotting away. I would ask farmer Palmer and get the classic ‘Sucking through the teeth’ response. It drove me mad. lots of them were tenant farmers, scratching a living and not being allowed to sublet, the owners could not care less.
Then I turned up at Caplor Farm. And luckily met Gareth, the owner. I asked about workshop space, ‘what for’ he says. I explain I am a sculptor. ‘A sculptor, we have not got one of those we can build you a workshop come back tomorrow’.
My response was ‘bugger my face off farmers don’t act like this’. I came back the next day, we agreed a location, and a size. I moved in three weeks later. Bonkers. Turns out he is a farmer who likes to support initiatives and people, as well as turning a profit. I also have great neighbours, a lot of them are ex blacksmith students from Holme Lacy College so I have a good base for advice and discussion..
Workshopshed: Did you have an input to the design and layout?
Alan Ross: Design and layout? I gave them a dodgy floor plan, a main space for metal work and a smaller space for woodwork, and my interfering wife insisted that I have a tiny office (saved my life) I was ok at a pinch with this seeing it as a waste of space, 2m square, pokey but comfy. Stupidly I did not draw the door on the plan. So far not a problem but I do have to keep aware of it. the building is 22x28ft, the bottom 2m is walled and ceilinged off to make the office and woodwork space. I built a crap folding door out of shuttering ply to separate the wood space from the metal space. The office was a life saver in the Siberian winter. I moved in in September 2008, And loved it straight off. The the first winter was damn cold. One day I got in and the squash concentrate had frozen solid, luckily there is an oil filled radiator in the office. Last year we insulated the roof, the weather was colder and my drinks never froze.
Workshopshed: What does the larger size workshop allow you to do that you could not do in your old shop?
Alan Ross: What can I do now that could not manage before? Love my music. working by myself music is a huge part of staying sanish, I play the lot, LOUD. The Cult in the afternoon is a great motivator, and Defunkt, ferocious jazz funk can speed the work rate up by about 50%. My CD player died last year, I tried the radio for 5 minutes and had to go home, I was going
to shoot Jeremy Vine. Having my own music is vital.
What else? I can walk around talking to myself, i can step back and look at things, I can sit on top of the step ladder and look down on things. I get hurt a lot less. In my garage I was always getting burned, stabbed and sliced, now it is still apart of the job but a lot less.
I can have several projects on the go, which is great. Some jobs are fulfilling but tedious, being able to go and do something else is a great help.
Workshopshed: It’s a bit of a tradition for welders to make their own tables and welding carts as a starter project. Did you make your own? What tips do you have for people wanting to build these as a project?
Alan Ross: I built my original workstation as a home project, I think this is a great project as it is a thing for YOU. Take time and think what do I want. I went to town on my first one and spent several years modifying it. It used to house a Mig welder, Plasma cutter, brazing hearth, metal plate welding top, all sorts of lugs and bits welded on to hold jigs etc, tubes of welding rods on the sides, gas bottle on the side, wheels and handle/arm rest sponsored by Somerfield. Shopping trolley wheels are fantastic things.
Alan Ross: Then I moved into the new place and made a larger table, legs of 25mm box, top of 30m marine ply with a skin of 2mm sheet steel, and racks at the ends. since then it has tool racks on each end. Top tip if you have the space have a separate vice stand see right of last pic. It used to drive me bonkers every time I bashed the vice everything would jump off the table. .
Workshopshed: What is your favourite tool or piece of kit?
Alan Ross: Favourite tool?
I love them all. Almost all of my work was made using a MetalCraft Strip Metal worker, a truly fantastic piece of kit. It will roll, punch, bend and rivet 30x5mm strip and roll and bend 10mm bar. awesome kit, simple, reliable and easy to use. I love seeing cocky black smiths go ‘Oh. is that your bender’ so dismissive at the little orange thing. Then their face falls off as you roll a piece of 30x5mm into a 30cm ring in about 30 seconds. I confess when I bought it I was ‘like what am I doing buying this for that much’. British engineering at it’s best. made by proper Chaps in Hull.
Another favourite, My Mig welder? I had a Clarke 130amp model, used it to death, when it croaked I was devastated. It was a ‘Hobby’ welder and exceeded all it’s duties. It croaked just before I got married, so Jennifer had a lovely bright orange Butters welder as a wedding present.
Workshopshed: Have you adapted or made any tools to help with your projects?
Alan Ross: Adapted and made loads. Especially jigs and holding thingys, my favourite is two pairs of mole grips, one with two nuts on the handle, one with a length of threaded bar and lock nut on it. Clamp one onto a support and other onto the part being held.
Another is the jig I use for making the frames for shelving units. I make Cd and DVD shelves under the ‘Coolshelving‘ name. Regards making your own tools, I think it is a great process, and using your own tools is intensely satisfying.
Workshopshed: For your ‘Coolshelving’ you have chosen the braze the parts using a Oxy-Acetylene torch. Why did you select that rather than welding?
Alan Ross: Brazed joints not welded? I wanted a shelving unit that would look good by itself. I used brazing because a brazed joint needs almost no finishing off and looks attractive by itself. A welded joint would need grinding and finishing. I think making a feature of constructional techniques can only be a good thing.
Workshopshed: You have a wide mixture of different designs, from the simple lines of your shelving, to the animals for the garden and figurative designs. Which is your favourite?
Alan Ross: My favourite piece of work? Good question. When I finish a piece I am usually sick of the sight of it, all I can see are the flaws. My favourite? Probably the Saddle Diatom. Sometimes an idea gets into my had and will not go away, they can float around for years and suddenly it is time to get on with it. This one was odd, I looked again at the picture and realised it is a simple shape, the main ring is for ‘S’ shapes joined into a ring. I then worked like a lunatic for a week and there it was. A great process.
Workshopshed: Your microscopic series has a very organic feeling to it, do you use specialist tools to form the curves an shapes?
Alan Ross: Tools for making the curves, almost all of it is made using the metalcraft tools, I did find a mad bloke in South Wales making an amazing rolling machine using bits of car gear boxes that will roll 30x3mm sheet into rings, a wonderfully bodged piece of tooling. Ugly as hell but it works. I have a horror for straight lines, curves are much nicer, also more forgiving. If something is ‘straight’ it must be completely ‘straight’ if something is curved it can be a lot less accurate and can lose that static look imposed by straightess.
Workshopshed: Any other horrors?
Alan Ross: Grinding and cut surfaces on sculpture. I hate to leave mechanically cut or ground surfaces visible on my sculpture. To me it shows bad planning and the material loses it’s natural look.
Example, all my work is welded, I almost never grind out my welds, they are a part of how the piece is made so they should be feature of it. Cutting, the same a plasma cut looks almost organic, a sheared cut is ugly. I will go over edges to remove burrs etc and try to leave a ‘natural edge’. This matters a lot to me. It also saves hours of grinding.
Also, badly mounted sculpture. A piece of sculpture is a thing by it self, the mount is part of it, indeed can ‘make’ it. So much art is made alone the stuck on a pole/plinth or whatever often with nuts and bolts all over the place. This pisses me off massively I want to dig out the angle grinder an chop them off.
Workshopshed: How did you get into this?
Alan Ross: I was in between hobbies, I had got bored of kites and boomerangs and needed something to do. Jennifer heard me say ‘I wish I could weld’ I cant remember why, found a night class and sent me along. I almost did not bother but I was being sent, a man without a hobby is a pain in the arse I suppose. So I went. I lit the torch and felt a weird ‘This Is It’ moment, ‘This is what I want to Do.’ Very odd. I have never done ‘art’ but new I wanted to make sculpture. That was 11 years ago. Four years back I packed in my stressful job and now it is what I ‘Do’.
Workshopshed: Alan I gather you also run workshops for metal sculptors.
Alan Ross: I have done three of these now with great success. I have covered basic mig welding in sculpture and some complex fabrication techniques. I am able to tailor the workshop to suit the needs and interests of the individual. We have also looked at using the Metalcraft tools, plasma cutting, design and use of materials. If people are interested in this I am usually available.
Workshopshed: Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed, any parting words?
Alan Ross: Go and buy The Thames and Hudson Manual of Direct Metal Sculpture by Trevor Faulkner. It changed my life, (corny statement) I had just dabbled with a bit of welding, some mad old hippy metal worker at a festival wrote the name of the book on my arm with a marker pen so I would not forget it. Eternally grateful.
Workshopshed: Alan can be contacted via his websites. And is a frequent visitor to the Mig Welding Forum.