I first “met” Debra on MySpace. Her MySpace handle is SteelWitch, which is a bit of a misnomer. She should be called Copper Witch. Not because she is a witch, but rather because she has an affinity for copper.
She and her husband have a custom fab shop up in the Sierras not too far from Sequoia National Park. The Metal Shoppe does some incredible work, specializing in custom copper range hoods, kitchen countertops. When I put out the call to interview women welders, Debra volunteered right away.
When did you start welding?
Started school in May 2000
What made you want to pick up a torch and start melting metal?
Started out learning a little bit from an ex-boyfriend who had a little Miller 110 welder he used for working on a hot rod he was building.
Was there someone in particular who introduced you to welding as a career option?
I started out going to auto body shop to learn more about body work and part of that class was basic welding. I started to entertain thoughts of a career change at that point –
How did you train? How long have you been welding?
Two years in Fresno City College welding program. [I’ve been welding] since starting school in May 2000. Was fortunate to pick up an entry level job in a fabrication shop by June 2000 and have migrated from shop to shop working my way up.
I see your specialty is in copper, can you tell me a little bit about what draws you to copper, and how you work with it? How is it different than other metals?
I started working in copper when my husband and I opened our own shop in 2004. It all started with one copper kitchen hood. That is how I found Archive Designs’ website and saw the repousse work they do there. Went to a class to learn it and have discovered other things to make with copper along the way.
I like copper because it is easy to work with. You can heat it, anneal it, hand form it, weld it and do all kinds of different colorations with patina processes and heat. Because it is a softer metal – it can be easier to work with in some ways than steel. It obviously depends on the application. And again, there are a variety of colors and textures you can apply that do not work the same way with steel – I guess you could say it is more versatile that way. For exterior use – it doesn’t rust like steel.
What other kinds of jobs have you had in the past?
I spent 5 years in the Marines right out of high school. Out of necessity I ended up doing mostly administrative type work after I was done in the Marines – with my last “career” being a medical transcriptionist for nine years.
I finally could not take sitting behind a desk any more and having had the exposure [to welding] …. I did some further research on job projections, etc., and decided to go for it. I quit transcription cold turkey in February 2000 and worked for some construction temp agencies until I landed my first job in a welding shop in June 2000.
Have you experienced any discrimination as a woman welder? if YES, how have you handled it? if NO, what do you attribute that to?
I can’t say I have experienced any hard core discrimination, as I said above, I have been fortunate to have gotten a job right away and have not missed a day of work since I stopped transcription. I suppose the type of discrimination I have dealt with have been more along the lines of inappropriate comments or people being surprised that I did the work – stuff like that.
My bosses have all backed me up in uncomfortable situations. I would say the best way to handle awkward situations in a male dominated work place is to keep a sense of humor and carry yourself professionally.
I see you have a son in the military…
(go Navy! I’m a navy brat… Dad was a Captain, Granddad an Admiral, and other Granddad a Commodore… Great Granddad a Lieutenant — the hard way… he moved up through the ranks, starting as an Apprentice Boy in 1904!)
ANYWAY… you also have a daughter… do either of them do any metal/ fabrication work?
My son went to work with me at one of my old shops and I actually got to teach him how to weld. He worked there the last few months before heading off to the service. Jen has worked with me a little at our shop now, but has always been busy with other things. She is artistic, but not sure if she really likes the hands on as much as she thought she would.
What advice would you give your 15 year old self?
As the great Dolly Parton once said (LOL) Don’t limit yourself just because people can’t accept the fact that you can do something else. Don’t let anyone try to steer you into a “practical” career or life choice based only on your gender or stature. Don’t ever be afraid to try.
What advice would you give young women interested in welding or other types of metal fabrication as a career?
Construction trades can be lucrative for women. The environment is starting to change. Go for it – but get educated, some type of formal training, the work isn’t just limited to the laborers. Many women that I have met are construction managers, company owners, architects, etc., etc. Education just gets you that much further ahead and there really aren’t very many “entry level” jobs these days.
Carry yourself as a professional – dress appropriately – don’t try to be macho and cuss, etc., to fit in with “the boys” because it just makes you look foolish. Be prepared to carry your own tool box, but never be afraid to ask for help if you need it.