Donald Dawson

Vancouver Metal Fabricator, Blacksmith, Restorer, Artist

Vancouver Metal Shop Owner

From UBC to Small Business Owner

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 an opportunity to work with faculty, staff and students. Many of those students became staff.

During those years, I built robotic, fibre-optics, nano, medical, microwave and radio science research components, including:

  • Robotic components for the forest industry stackers and loaders for safety in rough terrain.
  • Robotic components for 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.

I began teaching from my earliest days at UBC. As a shop supervisor and machinist, I helped students bring their ideas and designs to life. It required fixing and modifying machine drawings and designs and called for precision machining and assembly of complex components, including the small intricate parts for the research mentioned above.

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

Before UBC, as I discovered my true interests, my jobs included architectural model building, theatre props building, stage managing and cabinetmaking.

Restoration – Heritage Steam Towboat SS Master & Models

From 2002-2007, I volunteered on the heritage steam towboat 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 and cooked for and hosted Wooden Boat Society meets.

SS Master Steam Tow Boat

SS Master Steam Tow Boat

While working for Lindsay Architectural Models, I restored a mechanical relief map model of a railway in Rogers Pass, Illecillewaet, BC, with a fully functioning train. I machined and fabricated new parts for the mechanism that ran the tiny train via bicycle chain around the mountain through tunnels. It is still at the Rogers Pass Discovery Centre.

Restoration – Steam Whistles

In August 2003, I attended the 8th Annual Celebration of Steam at the BC Forest Discovery Centre in Duncan, B.C. Theresa Badger, head of Education and Curatorial Operations, invited me to present a lecture about the SS Master. In addition, I brought 11 whistles totalling 900 pounds that I had restored and operated for the steam-powered whistle-blowing event.


A Leadership Program Leads to Change

As fascinating as my work was at UBC, I had other dreams. Among them, to open my 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 Kootenay Forge’s  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 two 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 us.

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

As a lifelong heritage and museum enthusiast, I delight in restoring antiques of all sorts. Among other things, I repaired a seaplane model for the North Vancouver Museum and Archives’ new exhibition space and fabricated a new part for a solid wood planer machine.

Industry & Personal Training

I relish teaching welding, fabrication, blacksmithing, metal treatment and metallurgy.

There are people in the industry who need to update or refine their skills or individuals who want to experience fabricating, want help on a project or need intensive individual training. I am always enthusiastic about teaching them. (Find out about the 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 MONOVA – Museum of North Vancouver 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!
  • Model-building is a specialty.  I built and replicated a NASCAR hauler and repaired a model Lamborghini and Tall Ship. Now, that’s the kind of detail work I love.
  • A graduating student at Emily Carr Institute of Art asked me to build a forge-inflated object and metal structure for her unique 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. It was an empty steel gas cylinder with great sound when hit with a rubber mallet. Later, 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. You can make a metal pillow look billowy by heating and then inflating them with compressed air.  Besides art, I also scheduled demonstrations for visitors to watch me heat metal and form it into many 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. See other Crawl exhibits at the bottom of the portfolio page.

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

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