Prison weld instructor unwinds with metal art
May 15, 2013
As the welding instructor at Albion Correctional Facility in Albion, N.Y., Jeffrey Benfer is constantly dealing with teaching new batches of inmate workers the ins and outs of production gas metal arc welding, keeping up with their mandatory vocational qualifications, and meeting project deadlines. But there’s one thing that has provided an unexpected yet relaxing outlet: metal art.
Jeffrey Benfer’s day job is, in his own words, hectic.
As the welding instructor at Albion Correctional Facility, a women’s medium-security prison in Albion, N.Y., Benfer is constantly dealing with teaching a new batch of inmate workers the ins and outs of production gas metal arc welding, keeping up with their mandatory vocational qualifications, and meeting project deadlines.
“It’s an ongoing battle lately,” Benfer explained. “We build garbage cans for the New York City Department of Sanitation. My inmate crew is all new and we’re building a brand-new basket, so there’s been a lot of retooling. It’s pretty hectic most days.”
Since last Thanksgiving, however, Benfer has found a way to clear his mind after a long day, work off some of that stress, and relax in a somewhat unexpected way: metal art.
Benfer started welding at age 16, tinkering with shielded metal arc welding (SMAW) on farm equipment. His father was a welder, so working with a weld torch just seemed natural. He was hired right out of high school by a manufacturing company that fabricated brake shoes for heavy equipment and tractor-trailers. After working his way through the ranks, Benfer was presented with an opportunity to teach welding at a women’s correctional facility, and that’s where he’s been for the last 12 years.
A lifelong enthusiast of drawing, painting, poetry, and nature, Benfer, dubbed the “bird nerd” by childhood friends, was introduced to metal art in a roundabout way by his fiancée, who makes jewelry. She discovered unique bracelets made out of spoon handles on the website Pinterest, and asked Benfer if he could make some kind of tool to bend the spoon handles into bracelets. After she made the bracelets, they ended up with a pile of spoons and forks without handles. And ever the tinkerer, Benfer went to work.
“I started playing around and welding them together. Some of them were silver-plated over brass, and I had never welded brass before, but I figured I could take it out in the shop and try it out with a TIG welder. It’s tricky, but I figured out how to use brazing rod as filler and it worked out great.”
From there he started building tools from scrap metal parts, like old lawn mower pulleys, to bend his creations. One of the first things he ever made was a bouquet of rusty flowers for his fiancée.
“It’s my favorite piece. The stems are welding rods and the petals are hand-cut 20-gauge material. It’s something I gave her when we first started dating.”
The feedback he’s received from friends and family has given him the confidence and that motivation to keep trying new things, like ornamental art. Oddly enough, this relatively new after-hours activity has become a soothing and relaxing hobby that has helped him unwind after a tough day at work.
“You’d think that welding and metal fabricating would burn me out, but it doesn’t. I come home and take it to a different dimension, and that lets me forget about everything for a little while and allows me to relax. It’s strange, in a way, because you’d think too much of one thing would be horrible, but it’s not. There are so many dimensions to welding, and I find peace of mind in that.”
Benfer doesn’t care if he never makes a dime from his creations. Just knowing that his work brings a smile to the faces of others is payment enough.
“I think it’s great that my welding and fabricating abilities allow me a way to do that.”