Annie Chapter is a prop maker and set builder based in Bristol, England. She discussed her background in metalwork with YesWelder, and offered her advice for young welders who want to put their skills to the test in a creative setting, like the world of theatre, or even the Olympic Games.
Here's our interview:
When did you start welding?
I first did a bit of arc welding during my Mixed Media Fine Art degree in about 2002. I was rubbish at it. It was several years later when I went to RADA theatre school in London to do a postgrad diploma in Scenic Construction. That’s where I actually learned metalwork.
The course was fully practical. We built all of the sets for the RADA productions, they have 3 theatres in-house and would put on 3 ticketed shows every six weeks, so deadlines were tight. Metalwork and woodwork were the main focus of my training, but I also learned all-round fabrication skills for set construction, prop fabrication and stage-craft for the theatre.
Why did you start welding, and what motivated you to get involved in welding for living?
At heart I’m an artist and I think very much in 3D when it comes to design. I’ve always been interested in mixed media and a bit obsessed with learning different fabrication processes in order to realise the designs I have in my head.
After my degree I was creating immersive site art installations for festivals and had been commissioning someone to do the metal frames for me. I was frustrated at not being able to do it for myself. I wanted to be able to build my designs with my own hands. So I enrolled on the RADA course.
During my course I kind of fell in love with metal as a medium -- it’s just so diverse. I love its strength and permanence. Learning metalwork opens up so many doors as a creative professional, especially in combination with other fabrication skills.
When I graduated I veered more towards the props department rather than set construction. There seemed to be more variety and creativity in props, so the jobs were more fun. There were also very few prop-makers with metal work as their core skill. I very quickly got pigeonholed as the metalworker. So all the metalwork jobs would get thrown my way and then when the metalwork ran out I could jump on another aspect of the job -- woodwork, painting, casting, sculpting or whatever.
Can you tell us about the process of becoming a professional welder in the U.K.?
Well it varies depending which industry you are working in, so I can only really talk for theatre/events/TV and commercial prop and set construction from my personal experience. My qualification in Scenic Construction and the connections I made at RADA got me a foot in the door in the theatre and commercial industry. I got all the freelance jobs based on the strength of my portfolio and work experience. I was kind of thrown in the deep end a lot, and had to learn on the job.
You don’t usually need to be a coded welder to build set pieces and props that aren't coming into contact with the public. You might come across some situations where certification is required and things need to be ‘signed off’ by a structural engineer. Of course, risk assessments are required and the relevant insurance needs to be in place.
If you want to work in manufacturing or the construction industry, I think it’s a totally different ballgame.
It sounds like set building and prop making could be exciting areas to apply your welding skills. Can you tell me about how you became involved in this specific field? What is the biggest project you’ve worked on?
I had been working in events, mainly music festivals, for several years previous to that, designing and rigging my own decor. In the festival scene, set construction was becoming more and more prevalent in stage and venue design. I got inspired by some of the people I was working alongside and wanted to upskill. So I decided at that point I wanted to train in set construction and pursue a career as a set builder/prop maker.
The biggest project I’ve worked on is probably still the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. I had only just graduated at the time, so it was a pretty steep learning-curve. We built an actual-sized lightweight prop house that was flown into the arena and some giant puppets on huge hospital beds. I did a bit of other stuff too, not just welding. I was just a tiny cog in a huge machine.
You're also the co-founder of a women-led training provider, which offers workshops and courses. Can you tell us about why you started offering these workshops, and what it's like to share your skills in the trades with others?
In 2016 I fell pregnant, and pretty much sacrificed my career, or it felt like it at the time. The long hours, fumes, heavy lifting and all that stuff just isn’t compatible with pregnancy. Then I didn’t really feel like going back to working long hours with a tiny baby, so I had to think outside the box.
Myself and a fellow female metalworking mum, Felix, got our heads together and had the idea to run creative scrap metal workshops. At first we did it as a pop-up style thing where we hired a space over a weekend and set up just for a few days. Then we realised the workshops could generate enough cash for us to be able to afford to rent our own space and build up our collection of tools. So it became a regular thing. I was able to choose my own working hours and take on private commissions at the workshop too.
Also it was quite fun, the workshops are very fast-paced, creative, and we are constantly problem-solving.
We wanted to make metalwork accessible for anyone to just come and have a go at making something out of scrap metal without the commitment of an official course, like a taster session. It kind of snowballed from there and has grown quite a lot.
The fact that it’s female-led is just because we happen to both be women, but I think it helps some people feel less intimidated. Also women are great teachers -- fact!
What is the most significant challenge you've encountered working in the trades?
I think managing client expectations is an ongoing challenge. I’ve experienced clients who literally expect the moon on a stick. The deadlines and budgets can be crazy unrealistic. Time management is key. When making one-off bespoke pieces, everything always takes three times longer than expected. Clients sometimes move the goalposts halfway through a job. That can be a massive spanner in the works. I’ve had to work through the night to meet deadlines before when there have been unexpected set-backs.
Also, for me personally, being quite petite and physically not as strong as some of the other fabricators I’m working alongside can come with it’s challenges. Lifting heavy set pieces, for example, can be really tough. You have to know your limitations and make up for it by being extra good at the other stuff.
Lastly, one of my favourite questions: What advice would you offer to a young person who is interested in getting involved in the trades, or welding more specifically? I'm especially interested to hear your perspective as someone who runs workshops and has likely worked with young people who are interested in the trades!
I’d obviously say come to one of our workshops and try your hand at metalwork first. No, but seriously, find somewhere local to you where you can have a go on the tools and get your hands dirty. Hook up with other metal workers, offer to help out just to get some experience. Have a good attitude and work ethic, show up early, put in a little bit of extra effort, that kind of thing. Also remember to keep a record of everything you do, take photos, it’s important to build up your portfolio, especially if you want to go freelance.
You can find Annie on Instagram @anniechapter