Donald Dawson

Vancouver Metal Fabricator, Blacksmith, Restorer, Artist

Vancouver Metal Shop Owner

 UBC Career and… so much more

My 22-year career at UBC’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering provided me with fascinating projects. As an Electrical Engineering Technician and Red Seal Journeyman Machinist, I worked on varied and exceptional research projects. I got a chance to teach, which I loved doing. I had a chance to work with faculty, staff and students. Many of those students became staff.

From my earliest days at UBC, I was the one picked to teach. As a shop supervisor and machinist, I helped students to bring their ideas and designs to life. It required fixing and modifying machine drawings and designs. It called for precision machining, design and assembly of complex components, including small intricate components for research.

During the course of those years, I built robotic, fibre-optics, nano, medical, microwave and radio science research components. These included:

  • Robotic components for the forest industry – stackers and loaders for safety in rough terrain.
  • Robotic components the space industry – a vibration-cancelling table for the MIR space station for the use of its microscopes.
  • Medical components for prostate imaging, hearing aids, and dental equipment.

Prior to UBC, as I was finding my true interests, my jobs included architectural model building, theatre props building, stage managing and cabinetmaking.

And for 5 years, I volunteered on the heritage steam towboat, The SS Master. As Third Engineer, I machined, fabricated and restored the valves, fuel and water pumps, winches, boiler and the triple expansion steam engine. I maintained and operated mechanical devices within the wheelhouse and galley, including cooking and hosting Wooden Boat Society meets.

All of these experiences bear on my current work on custom metal work innovations, restorations and repair.  You’re getting 35+ years of diverse experience and years of teaching and training.

SS Master Steam Tow Boat

SS Master Steam Tow Boat

A Leadership Program Leads to Change

As fascinating as my work was at UBC, I had other dreams. Among them, to open my own shop. The invitation from my wife to join her in one of four retreats at a Leadership Training Program that she was attending reconnected me with those dreams.  Without hesitation, not only did I resign but I also completed the program.

It was now time to do what I’d wanted to do so many years back when I learned blacksmithing from John Smith in Crawford Bay, B.C.

It didn’t happen all at once. I had my eye on the only place I wanted to open shop, and in 2016, after waiting 2 years, a studio space opened at The Mergatroid Building in East Vancouver.

John Smith, Kootenay Forge mentor & Donald Dawson

Kootenay Forge Founder John Smith with  Donald Dawson

“Getting Rid of Our Throwaway Society”

Among many things, I am passionate about repairing, restoring and making use of items that we own. Instead of discarding good material and meaningful personal objects, we could be repurposing or preserving them. What a great opportunity that is for the environment and for us.

Perhaps I came to love metal from growing up with a mining engineering father who would take me to mines and on other field trips. As a child, I built stuff, took things apart and had parents who encouraged my curiosity, my natural interests and education.

As a lifelong heritage and museum enthusiast, I delight in restoring objects of all kinds. For example, restoring a seaplane model for the North Vancouver Museum and Archives’ new exhibition space, or fabricating a new part for a solid wood planer machine.

Industry & Personal Training

If I can teach these skills and the knowledge of metallurgy and other materials to local industry and individuals who can use them, all the better.

From my earliest days at UBC, I was the one picked to teach. As a machinist and shop supervisor, I taught students to bring their designs to life. I applied, fixed and modified machine drawings and designs, provided precision-machining, design and assembly of complex components and of small, intricate components for research.

For students with unique needs, like cerebral palsy, I created ways for them to access and operate machinery safely, complete their projects and finally graduate. Many of my students became full-time professors, researchers and entrepreneurs.

I relish teaching and training. Whether it’s people in industry who need updated skills training or individuals who want to experience fabricating, I am always enthusiastic to teach them what I love doing. (Find out about industry and personal training here.)

 Custom Metal Work Projects

Luckily, I can still count on diverse and fascinating projects like these:

  • I restored a model seaplane with a 6-foot wingspan for North Vancouver Museum and Archives for their new 2020 opening.
  • I created and taught a blacksmith course for the staff of a local government facility that repairs the city’s metalwork.
  • One client bought a half-day with me as a surprise 70th birthday gift for her boyfriend and he created a marvellous gift for her!
  • In the land of model-building, I built and replicated a NASCAR hauler, repaired a model Lamborghini and a model Tall Ship. Now, that’s the kind of detail work I love.
  • An Emily Carr Institute of Art graduating student asked me to build a forge-inflated object and metal structure for her special end-of-year project.

Vancouver Eastside Culture Crawl

Mad Scientist Feature Exhibit at Culture Crawl 2018

In mid-2016,  I created my first piece, – a massive LED lamp. As an empty steel gas cylinder, it had a great sound when hit with a rubber mallet. Later the following year, a juried panel selected the lamp to represent that year’s theme – Sound of Light. It was my first public gallery exhibition and I was thrilled.

The Crawl inspires me to create new work, including forge-inflated pieces. Generally, people don’t realize that you can inflate metal, too. By heating and then inflating them with compressed air, you can make a metal pillow look billowy.  Besides art, I also scheduled demonstrations for visitors to see metal heated and formed into any number of objects.

With all the research projects I’d done at UBC, I wasn’t surprised that a Culture Crawl organizer Jodie Ponto called me a Mad Scientist. That year’s Bicycle Powered Pipe Organ was a bit wild. 

For me, it’s all a treat.

And as a solo entrepreneur, fostering collaboration with local artists and business owners priceless.