ELKHART — During the workday, David Huisman doesn’t eat much.
Donning knee pads, work boots, gloves, safety glasses, a welding jacket and hood, Huisman is a full-time welder at Elkhart’s Bennington Marine, one of five members of “The Transom Boys” in the company’s pontoon division. Huisman’s welds ensure motors — and boaters — stay safe.
When his 30-minute lunch arrives, the 24-year-old will often forgo breaks, and instead feed aluminum rods onto metal canvases with torch in hand, creating three-dimensional lines and braids resembling melted stacks of dimes.
Crafting clean, typically commercially recognizable imagery — “A lot of logos, a lot of man-cave stuff, some cutesy stuff” — Huisman’s aluminum work has garnered him more than 14,000 followers on his Aluminum Expressions Instagram page, his platform of choice for displaying pieces and receiving requests for commissions.
“This really just began as a way to make side money, but it’s made me a much better welder,” Huisman, of South Bend, said from Bennington’s manufacturing floor. “It pretty much got me this job, this position, in a high-end welding spot. I wouldn’t have been this good if I hadn’t been doing that every day for three years straight on lunch.”
Huisman has been burning metal since his junior year at Penn High School in 2011. Splitting days in half, Huisman would take core curriculum classes at Penn and then drive to the Elkhart Area Career Center for three hours of welding classes.
“I really just hated school, and I was terrible in my classes,” he admitted. “But my adviser told me, ‘You know, try welding. A lot of people like doing that.’ Once I picked it up, I was pretty good right from the start — pretty much just a natural. I love burning metal.”
Early in his career, Huisman said he entered a welding competition hosted by SkillsUSA, a national career and technical student organization. He won regionals, “then went to state and got 10th place or something. That’s just where I realized I loved it,” he said.
Around the time he started at Bennington, Huisman said he was asked by someone to create a bar sign, his first attempt at commercial artwork.
“I was like, ‘How am I going to do this? Oh, I’ll just weld the letters.’ That was how it started,” he explained.
Welding art created by techniques such as dabbing and weaving with filler metal, Huisman said, is a relatively new medium, with an engaged online fan base and growing number of welders.
“It’s gaining popularity, yes. When I started, there was maybe three or four other guys doing it on Instagram,” he said.
“Now, it’s just blown up to about 50 people trying to do it, and they get better as years go on. New people come up, and you got the next top guy, and the next top guy, and everyone’s trying to beat each other. So it’s kinda like a friendly competition.”
Of Huisman’s top welding contemporaries is 38-year-old Sean Flottmann of Washington, Missouri, a welder of 12 years.
Flottmann — known by his Instagram handle, dabswellington — has amassed nearly 66,000 followers on the platform and is regarded as a master of stainless-steel welds.
“Dabswellington is probably on the top of the game right now,” Huisman said. “He does it on stainless steel, and you get really pretty rainbow colors when you weld on that. He’s just at it every day, you know, posting video, posting pictures, every few hours working on stuff.”
Flottmann explained the pair first became acquainted a couple years ago during an online promotional giveaway campaign.
“He’s got quite a laundry list of projects that he’s done that are pretty incredible,” Flottmann said by phone. “… David is definitely on a whole 'nother level as far as aluminum goes.”
Through the ease of digital accessibility, platforms like Instagram are being used by increasingly more visual artists to broadcast work and attract fans.
“I’ve been doing it for quite some time,” Flottmann said, “and Instagram is by far the most helpful tool besides my hood and my torch.”
UNDER THE HOOD
At his Bennington Marine workstation, Huisman hovers over a metal table, his newest piece clamped down in multiple spots.
The buzz of active welding hums around the area, with suspended boat parts and bases surrounding the station. Scents of roasting metal intermittently waft throughout the manufacturing floor.
“I’ll draw it up on the plate first, and then I have an etching tool that I’ll go over all the Sharpie with, so it sticks on the metal,” he explained.
If welds are made over marks, “it gets real dirty and contaminated,” he said, so acetone is used to clear the ink. The canvas is then buffed down and clamped.
“I make sure everything’s clean, my torch is clean — everything’s gotta be as clean as possible. And then just start welding,” he said.
The order in which welds are made is crucial to a piece’s quality, Huisman said. The last weld in a series, the fisheye, ideally needs to be covered, such as those on the beard of a Santa Claus Huisman was working on last week. The piece is part of a social media competition by Welding Material Sales in Geneva, Illinois.
WMS owner Brian DePaul scouted Huisman online and extended an offer to be a part of his Blue Demon Blue Crew, a collective of about 12 skilled metal workers throughout the country.
DePaul sends Huisman, who he calls “a social media influencer,” products to test and review. For the competition, DePaul explained 30-50 welders will be whittled down to 10. The campaign’s planned hashtag is #BeLikeDavid, DePaul said, with Huisman’s Santa Claus as the benchmark piece.
“David’s probably one of the best aluminum guys out there that I know, which is why I snagged him up early and utilized him for this contest,” DePaul said by phone. “Everything he lays out there, in terms of his art stuff, is tough for anyone to duplicate and/or beat. He’s at the top.”
On many of his finished pieces and images, Huisman’s fiancée Amy Vu, of South Bend, will add final colorization, such as the classic orange and black of a Chicago Bears logo. As DePaul explained, Huisman’s metal work has a binding permanence different from most mediums.
“What people don’t understand, which is probably the biggest thing, is unlike paper or a pencil, which you can erase, he can get the very end of his artwork here and everything he does — every single dip or dab or weave or stroke of that filler metal — is liquid metal and is permanent. You cannot cover up an error. He has to be flawless all the way through or scrap it and start over again,” DePaul said.
Asked what it takes for a welder to achieve the level of output coming from Huisman and contemporaries, Flottmann was blunt.
“Meticulous patience,” he said.
For the 60th birthday of his uncle, who once constructed a Model T replica, Huisman said he crafted an outline of the classic car.
“I do gifts because that’s the cheapest way to give a gift — just do it yourself; it means a little more too,” he said. “I do like doing what I want to do more, obviously, even though there’s no commission on it. It’s just fun to me.
“… I really just love welding, and being able to see really good welds that I put down go into something that somebody wants and wants to buy from me is a good feeling, you know. Getting the ‘good job’ and the pat on the back is a nice feeling. It’s just fun, really.”