No matter their location, what projects they’ve worked on or how long they’ve been in the trade, many architectural sheet metal workers have one thing in common: pride.

It’s a trait held by plenty of sheet metal workers; however, in this specialty field, it takes on a different meaning.

It doesn’t stop at the end of the day or with a job well done. It comes from having a tangible, visual result of all that hard work. The results of working on a copper cupola, a sports stadium, memorial or museum are more easily seen and understood by friends, family and the public. Unlike many elements of the trade, which are hidden from view, architectural sheet metal works can be pointed at and workers can say, “I did that.”

Officials with the Sheet Metal Workers union, now known as the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, point out that its members have been involved in architectural work for almost 130 years. The union started as the Tin, Sheet Iron and Cornice Workers’ International Association in 1888.

 “It is a large part of the work we want to do, and we need to pursue it,” said Frank Tamboles, an architectural sheet metal works instructor at Local 28 in New York City.

Tamboles has worked as a professional architectural sheet metal journeyman for 19 years.

“That’s how Manhattan started,” he added. “There wasn’t any ductwork back in the day. All the finishing (work) was copper.”

But the looming worker shortage in HVAC construction and sheet metal forming has many architectural workers afraid their craftsmanship and knowledge will retire when they do.

“If you lose it and you don’t train it, all that’s left is the book, and you can’t learn it all from a book. You have to see it, feel it,” Tamboles said. “You can’t teach that in one class. It takes experience, but if you don’t get people to do it, it’s going to be gone.” 

Need for training

The International Training Institute, the education arm of the Sheet Metal Workers union, which includes architectural and ornamental fabrication, hosts curriculum training for instructors and coordinators hoping that sheet metal schools without architectural programs will consider adding them and those with programs will boost interest in the craft.

Tamboles recently began teaching his architectural class. It’s all a part of the push by the union to remind sheet metal workers of their roots and a specialty that is small in numbers and high in contractor demand.

At a time when some contracting companies are still struggling, “we have more work than we can handle,” Tamboles said. “Right now, the carpenters are getting a lot of it. There’s an extreme demand and not enough companies and skilled people available.”

Chris Caricato, training coordinator at Local 206 in San Diego, said education programs remain focused on the HVAC market.

“Almost 90 percent of what we do as sheet metal workers is HVAC related,” Caricato said. “It’s the bread and butter of our industry, but there’s always a deficiency. They can’t find enough good architectural sheet metal workers. It’s hard to find the people with the experience.”

In southeastern Michigan, officials estimate only 10 to 12 percent of union sheet metal workers specialize or can perform architectural sheet metal.

“They’re a special breed,” said Glenn Parvin, president and owner of Custom Architectural Sheetmetal Specialists Inc., better known as CASS Sheet Metal in Detroit. “Your guys in the field have a way of knowing what can and can’t be done and what should be done. Architectural sheet metal workers like their trade. They want to be outside. They don’t want to be inside hanging ductwork.”

Succeeding in a niche market

CASS Sheet Metal (See “A reputation built on restoration,” November 2013 Snips, page 12) has worked on everything from historical restoration projects to modern structures, including upcoming work on the new arena for the Detroit Red Wings. When a church steeple nearly toppled during a recent wind storm, CASS Sheet Metal was the company called. Not only did they have to figure out how to fix it, but they also had to secure it safely in the meantime. 

“Every job is so uniquely different, and we involve ourselves in such a variety of installations, and they’ve only gotten more challenging,” Parvin said. “I think the creative side comes in as problem solving in how you implement the project.”

Restoration work on the Michigan State Capitol required more than 2,300 custom cut and stamped ornament balls created using the same techniques as when the originals were fabricated in the 1870s.

The challenge, Parvin said, was determining how to match the vintage workmanship on a modern schedule and budget.

“You have to figure out how to do it. Then, you have to figure out how to do it competitively,” Parvin said. “And we did it.”

Like many industries, sheet metal forming has its specialties, and architectural sheet metal is suited for certain interests and skill levels. It’s seen as a more creative side of the trade, but where those skills are most useful is in the creation and installation of other people’s work.

“Every building has its unique feature the architect is trying to incorporate, and that’s usually done by sheet metal workers,” Caricato said. “A lot of times, the architects know how to draw it, but they don’t know how to build it. There’s a first time for everything usually with an architectural project. You have to take the vision and create it.” 

Experience needed

Lack of experience and knowledge separate today’s apprentices from the current journeymen on the job. While the true architectural sheet metal education comes from hands-on experience, interest is piqued in the classroom. 

“The way to get hooked is the pride of when you’re done,” Tamboles said. “You have to get them young when they first come in, and you have to catch their attention. Once you bring them outside and you assemble something — when they see it come together — they take photos and show it to their friends.”

During a recent class, Tamboles demonstrated detailed work by teaching his class how to hand-cut and create copper flowers. Students started to understand the creativity, detail and craftsmanship it takes to do the work, he said.

“I’ve taught them miters. I’ve taught them siding. They want to know how to make flowers to take home and show off,” he added with a laugh. “Once they see it come together, they get serious about it and focus on it. All of a sudden, these tough guys from rough neighborhoods are making roses and lilies. They lost their minds.”

The flower exercise wasn’t too far off from the actual type of projects students are likely to encounter. While working on his current project — the restoration of the Dakota, an 1880s apartment building in Manhattan’s Upper West Side that has been home to celebrities such as Lauren Bacall, John Lennon and Jack Palance —  Tamboles will hand-craft 250 copper-clad dormers over a three-and-a-half-year period.

Visual appeal

“It’s nice to look at something you’ve built,” said Jason Bowers, who is nearing his fourth year of apprenticeship at Local 206 in San Diego. “There’s a college downtown, and I’ve put my hands on every panel on the outside of that building. I can show people and say, ‘I built that.’” 

The sense of accomplishment architectural sheet metal workers have always felt when pointing out their work to friends and family has been updated with the advent of social media. In San Diego, Caricato has seen his apprentices gravitate to the work because of the instant gratification — not only for themselves, but also what they can share instantly with their circle.

“You have immediate recognition of what you did that day. You’re going to see it,” Caricato said. “At that point, it’s not about the paycheck. It’s about passion.”

Tamboles agreed.

“You feel that sense of accomplishment every day when you’re done,” he said. “We all work on different jobs, but we know everyone in our specialty. We’re sending photos back and forth.”

Jesse Spencer, field superintendent with A. Zahner Co., has moved 40 times in 18 years with the Kansas City, Missouri-based company, overseeing projects from Alaska to the Bahamas. The company has worked on the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum in New York, the NASCAR Hall of Fame and other notable buildings. Recently, Spencer finished up work on the Petersen Auto Museum in Los Angeles, where the outside metal skin of the building was renovated with 318 stainless steel ribbons,  which wrap the facade.

In architectural sheet metal, the work is an integral part of the architect’s vision. When people walk into a building, they often don’t think about ductwork fabrication or how the HVAC system is designed, unless the temperature is uncomfortable. In architectural sheet metal, the work is the finished product.

“Zahner is very driven with the visual aspects of architecture, where other facets of the trade may not so much,” Spencer said. “We make these monumental projects, but not everything we do is necessarily at such a large scale. It doesn’t have to be for a building that is a big monument. It can be something on somebody’s house. It’s creative and rewarding to look and see what you built.”

To succeed, you have to be detail oriented, Caricato added.

“It’s a meticulous trade,” he said. “You have to pay attention to detail because everyone else sees it, too. It’s like a billboard every time you finish something. You’re advertising what you do every time you install something.”

For a growing specialty, the craftsmen of today are seeking the journeymen of tomorrow.

“That’s the beauty in architectural sheet metal — when someone can notice the beauty in it,” Parvin said. “It’s a growing industry. It’s growing in Detroit again. Finally.”

This article and its images were supplied by the International Training Institute.