Metalfab: All that glitters is metal

The FABRICATOR April 2006
April 11, 2006
By: Kate Bachman

Lights. Camera. Fabricate?! You get home from work after fabricating all day, kick back with a cool one, and turn on the tube just to see more metal fabrication, on-screen, as entertainment. If it's not "American Chopper" or "Monster Garage," it's "Biker Build-Off," "Monster House" or "American Hot Rod." What's the fascination with fabrication? Do shows like these put a new spin on the image of metal forming and fabricating? Have they inspired younger generations to consider metal fabricating as a profession? Why have TV producers zoned in on these types of shows?

Flying Car, "Monster Garage," Discovery Channel; Photo courtesy of DCI.
Race-car House, "Monster House," Discovery Channel;
Photo courtesy of DCI.
The Teutuls, "American Chopper," Discovery Channel; Photo courtesy of Orange County Choppers.
Jesse James, "Monster Garage", Discovery Channel; Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter, photo courtesy of DCI.
Jesse James, "Biker Build-Off," Discovery Channel;
Photo courtesy of DCI.
The Whatthehaye, "American Hot Rod," Discovery Channel; Photo courtesy of Boyd Coddington.
Indian Larry, "Biker Build-Off," Discovery Channel; Photo courtesy of The Deaner.
"Monster Garage," Discovery Channel; Photo courtesy of DCI.
Matt Hotch bike, "Biker Build-Off," Discovery Channel; Photo courtesy of HotMatch Custom Cycles.

Lights. Camera. Fabricate. You get home from work after a full day of fabricating, kick back with a cool one, and turn on the tube ... just to see more metal fabrication, on-screen, as entertainment.

As you watch, you see reality TV stars using some of the same welding equipment, waterjets, lasers, and other metal fab equipment you use, made by familiar shop brands such as Lincoln Electric, Flow International, Airgas, Calypso Waterjet Systems, KMT Waterjet Systems, Roper Whitney, ESAB, and Miller Electric.

If it's not "American Chopper" or "Monster Garage," it's "Biker Build-Off," "Monster House," "American Hot Rod," or any number of metal fabrication-as-entertainment shows that seem to proliferate faster than shop scrap.

To say these shows are popular would be an understatement. What's the fascination with fabrication? Does the interest go beyond on-screen drama and luminous metal flake paint? Several FABRICATOR readers offered reasons why they tune in to these shows and why they think the shows have become so popular.

"I think these shows are successful because they show the creative side of fabrication," said Mark Combs, president, Combs Welding Design Inc., Dundee, Fla. "I enjoy 'Monster Garage' mostly because of the challenge of solving all of the situations that surface when you have to fabricate something that hasn't been done before."

Greg Cornett, plant manager, Tennessee Stampings LLC, Portland, Tenn., concurred. "I enjoy seeing the creativity of an uninhibited metal fabricator. When I was younger, I had the idea of modifying a diamond plated toolbox as a dresser in my bedroom, but my folks wouldn't dream of letting me do something so outrageous. These shows are removing those barriers."

David Trefzger, general manager of Architectural Metal Specialties Inc., Douglasville, Ga., believes the shows' popularity stems from the fascination of taking things apart and putting them back together, along with the recent surge in motorcycle interest. "Couple the love of the machine with the love of taking apart and rebuilding, and you have every guy's dream right there on TV," said Trefzger, who said he dreams of building his own motorcycle.

Several fabricators said the shows have uncovered a widespread interest in the behind-the-scenes workings of the manufacturing industry.

"Because the camera goes into areas which are largely closed off from the general public, some people are getting a first-time look at the manufacturing/fabrication process," said James Ott, president, Century Manufacturing, Brookville, Pa. "Anytime I have guests in my facility, they're always curious about the metalworking process."

Image Transformation Cultivating New Fabricators?

All of the hoopla surrounding these shows raises questions: Do the shows affect how the general public perceives the metal forming and fabricating industry? Have the programs inspired younger generations to consider this industry as a profession?

Cornett said he thinks the programs have elevated metal fabrication's image because they showcase the skilled labor and high-tech equipment used in today's shops. He suspects that kids watching shows like "American Chopper" or "Monster House" become interested in the different techniques used to fabricate items and want to learn more about what they've just seen. "Kids watch a lot of TV. The fascinating choppers and home makeovers catch their attention." He added, "The wonderful part is that the kids are sitting right by our sides [adults], as fascinated by the shows as we are!"

Trefzger said that viewers who do not work in manufacturing environments may get an unrealistic perception of the industry. "They probably think most metal fabricators are tattooed psychotics." But he said the growth of custom motorcycle and car shops that have popped up throughout the country in recent years proves that the shows have drawn viewers to the fabrication aspects, as well as to the shows' characters.

Ott said that, as an employer, he is thankful that the programs present a positive image of his vocation, and he hopes they inspire serious-minded young people to consider working with machinery and with their hands. He added, "Hopefully, this will result in a shift from a young person seeing their only employment options as being in customer service at their local shopping mall."

Students Say 'Yeah, Dog!'

Happily, they do, if the students surveyed at Craig High School, Janesville, Wis., are any indication. More than 95 percent of the students in tech education teacher Terry Schindler's students have watched all or some of these shows, which they called "awesome," "sweet," "favorite," and "cool," and most said the shows have piqued their interest in fabrication classes and manufacturing careers.

One student, Christian Livick, said, "Almost the entire reason I signed up for these courses was because of watching these shows and taking an interest in learning how to make or build some of the vehicles that are shown in these series." He added that he wants to learn how to do many of the processes in hopes of being able to do something similar in a future career.

Another student, Kevin Culver said he admires the execution of an idea. "It's amazing how people have an idea and can transform it into a reality. It helps understand how much work and processes go into making a vehicle."

Sophomore Matt Wasilowski said the shows have influenced his interest in a manufacturing career, particularly in welding, "because they make it look fun!"

Junior Krystie Rasmussen, who said she watches the shows "religiously," said she was already interested in metal fabrication. "They are kind of just fuel for the fire." She added, "It's really nice to see other women on the shows. It inspires me to do what I do and take classes that you expect the boys to take."

Alex Prochazka just loves metal. "I love the smell of metal and having my hands on metal. I have known I've wanted to do metalworking ever since I first laid hands on a piece of metal."

Other students sounded off on why the shows have influenced them and interest them:

Senior Nate Swartz: "Because they show the good qualities of getting in a shop and fusing some metal."

Freshman David Cox: "Anything having to do with metalwork is awesome, like making art out of scrap metal."

Senior Nick Reese: "It shows a wide range of the job choices that are out there."

Sophomore Cody Hanson: "I think the machines are cool, and I like to see how much you can do, starting with so little."

Senior Taylor Wheeler: "I like seeing the final product."

Schindler, who is one of five "shop" teachers at the school, said he uses the shows to demonstrate what can be done, and that the shows inspire some of his instruction ideas.

"My welding and fabrication class this semester is working on restoring two football blocking sleds, building a hydraulic metal bending brake, a goat showing stand, and an adaptation [device] for a handicapped student to access his books easier," he said. "The students love to work on these projects!"

Freshman Nick Bower confirmed that enthusiasm. "I think it is cool that we can experience the things we see on these shows in our high school shop classes."

Terry Schindler's tech ed class loves metal fab/customization shows and say they have influenced their career decisions.

Schindler said the student enrollment for the tech ed classes has increased so much that they need another teacher. He added, "After surveying my students, I am starting to realize why the numbers for our tech ed department are climbing at the rate they are. These types of shows inspire them to try new things that most wouldn't even dream of."

Viewers tuning in may just now be finding out what metal formers and fabricators have always known. "Just like tattoos, piercings, and music, metal fab is another way to express one's own personal feelings and creativity," Cornett said. He said he believes the interest will continue as tools of the trade become more affordable and added, "Ultimately, as kids grow into adults, the skills they learn may play an important role in keeping more manufacturing in the USA."

Trick out My Fab Shop?

So what's next? Will future shows venture into job shops? Can we expect the next hot reality series to be entitled "American Job Shop?" "Metal Happens?" "Bridge Build-Off?" "Monster Appliance?" Producer Craig Piligian is interested and listening. "You've always got to keep refreshing," he said.

"There is something coming next that shows fabrication," Piligian said. "I can't talk about it. It's on the scale of a makeover-type series, but in a very different vein. There should be a lot of fabrication and cool stuff. It's a genre of television that is still developing. It's still strong. As long as there is an innovative American, they'll watch the shows."

Producer's Angle
"American Chopper" almost wasn't—as least, the "American Chopper" we know, featuring the Teutuls and company, said Craig Piligian, Pilgrim Films, producer of "American Chopper," "American Hot Rod," and "Southern Steel" for the Discovery Channel. "They [the Teutuls] weren't my first choice. There was another fabricator, but I had a gut feeling—you live and die by that—and 72 hours before production started, I changed my mind and went with Paul Sr. and Paul Jr."
Piligian, who revolutionized television with the original reality TV show "Survivor," likens "American Chopper" and other custom fabrication genre programs to it. "They are unlike 'Survivor,' and very much like 'Survivor.' What really came through on 'Survivor' were the characters. So it's about casting great characters, all diverse, and then throwing them into a melting pot."
When Discovery asked Piligian to produce a show like California-sited "Monster Garage," but on the East Coast, he first focused on the fabrication aspect of it—making cool bikes, he said. "But what we got with Paul Sr. and Paul Jr.—which was an incredible surprise at all levels—was the family dynamic and the great characters that they are. 'American Hot Rod' was a different story because Boyd Coddington was already such a well-known figure—he is the father of American hot rods. He has a great shop. There are good characters and a lot of fabrication.
"I really believe wholeheartedly that although they do great stuff and people love to watch fabrication, 50 percent is the characters involved and the family dynamic that is so relatable to everybody—mothers and daughters, sisters and brothers, and fathers and sons."
Piligian said Paul Sr.'s reaction to the pilot episode was horrible, because he didn't expect all the, um, ... voluminous dissension to be aired. "He thought I ruined his life. He wanted to come and kill me. He was really mad at me."
But when e-mails and letters came flooding in with praise and adulation, and the ratings flared, Paul Sr. relaxed. A little. "The response in the e-mails was so great—'You guys are so great'; 'That's what families are all about'; 'That's what we look for in freaking great bikes,'—Discovery Channel had to acknowledge it and they ordered more and more episodes.
"The only way you measure it quantitatively, is you look at the ratings—the consistency of the ratings, the kinds of people, they do those audience testings ... and the great thing about 'Chopper' is it crosses a lot of demographics. There're 8-year-old kids who love them, and 80-year-old grandmothers who love them. A cross section is attracted to these guys for many different reasons—some for the fabrication, some for the family dynamics, some just to see the yelling.
"When we developed the show, this 'docusoap' business was relatively young. 'Survivor' was more contrived. But this is more of a free-flow soap opera," Piligian said. "I said, look, we're going to do this like the 'I Love Lucy' show. We have a theme for an hour: 'Paul Sr.'s mad because the shop is dirty.' 'Vinnie builds his dream bike.' Our audience likes it simple. Not that they're simple, but we haven't become Hollywood with them."
How did Piligian know that people would enjoy watching fabrication? "I didn't. We got lucky. We showed what they were doing in the shop. It seemed cool to us. We hoped it was cool to other people."

News Editor Amanda Carlson can be reached at

Discovery Channel,

Kate Bachman

Kate Bachman

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-381-1302

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The FABRICATOR is North America's leading magazine for the metal forming and fabricating industry. The magazine delivers the news, technical articles, and case histories that enable fabricators to do their jobs more efficiently. The FABRICATOR has served the industry since 1971.

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