Williamsburg Steeler

John Laidman (metal fabricator)
Income: $35,000 (last year)
Health Insurance: none
Rent: $550/mo.
Utilities: $40/mo.
Phone: $100/mo.
Food: $600/mo.
Transportation: $0, rides a bike

He makes his money by keeping people from falling into space—welding metal railings for stairs and balconies. Standing among a cruel-looking cold saw, 20-foot lengths of steel, and bottles of selenious acid, John Laidman, 32, licked away at his soft-cream vanilla cone covered with pink and blue sprinkles and talked about when he first fell in love with steel.

“I was at Hunter College studying English and taking sculpture, and my friend dragged me to the basement and said wood is good, metal’s better, but under no circumstances can you make pottery. He turned on the torch, cut a big I-beam and welded it back together, and I was hooked. Just the power of it. You could take this massive piece of metal, bend it, shape it. As I got a little older, it became more about the flexibility. You really are without limits doing metal. You can just transform it to however you want it to be.”

He went to work for a locksmith in Harlem for a few years. “He was paying me 10 bucks an hour. We made this huge steel and concrete fortress for these guys…well, I’m not really sure what was going on. We did build it with a little sliding door.”

Now Laidman has his own shop in Williamsburg. He shares space with another metalworker, a few blocks from the Lorimer train stop, where he estimated 15 to 20 other welders have shops. He averages about $50 an hour working on commissions for design firms “who hire me to upper-class money people,” making railings and architectural pieces and, most recently, lamps that now belong to Bette Midler.

“I’m really picky about who I work for. I’m real high-end and snooty.” He said he used to work “for the general public when I started, but I realized I can’t deal with people’s indecisiveness and neuroses and I would rather have the firms do that for me.” At the moment he welds for Snook Studios in Soho and Marlin in Red Bank. If he took on more jobs, working four weeks a month instead of one or two and earning over $100,000 a year instead of $35,000, “it would cut into my playtime,” which includes watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and going to Finland to look at the sky with his Finnish girlfriend who works at a bar near his apartment in Soho. The child of art and music teachers on the Upper West Side, he said he is “basically trying to live out the last years of my freedom before I start having a family.”

Laidman described his railings for private homes and restaurants—Isabella’s, Blue Water Grill—”as, well, as much as I hate to use the word, whimsical—from ‘Dr. Seuss Goes to Candy Land on Crack’ to semiclassical with twisted vines.”

Why does so much decorative metalwork take on the shape of vegetation? “People love metal imitating life. Because metal’s just so far removed from life. There’s some kind of demonstration of power there.” Transforming a thick, heavy piece of metal into a thin, soft leaf, “there’s a certain amount of permanence. Almost like a big, heavy metal snapshot.”

Laidman said he has taken to leaving photos of himself and a colleague when he completes a job. “After doing our last railing, we decided we’d always take a Polaroid of ourselves in underwear and leave it in the house.”

Making a railing is no easy job. Though it may not compare to making warships and boilers during the Civil War—7770 metalworkers reportedly worked in New York in the 1860s, a high point in the trade—it does involve lifting sometimes 500 pounds of steel off a truck; putting it into the shop; cutting hundreds of bases and posts; shaping leaves and vines with hammers, chisels, and blowtorches; grinding all the metal for texture; cut-brushing it down for a shiny metal look; lacquering the surface; getting it to the job site; welding the panels together; and bolting it down.

Do his railings always fit? “Yes—well, except once. Let’s not get into that.”