Tammy R. Lee is a small business owner based in Illinois. "Barnhill, to be exact," she tells me, "which is actually a tiny township approximately 4 hours south of Chicago. Everyone automatically assumes you must be close to Chicago if you're from Illinois, but that's not true at all."
Tammy has drawn the attention of thousands of TikTok users, one hundred and forty-five thousand, to be precise, thanks to her creations of "junkyard art" made almost entirely from scrap metal. After a back injury a few years ago, Tammy set up her own business, and hasn't looked back since.
YesWelder chatted with Tammy, to learn about her work, her small business, and what it's like to transition from being a court reporter to a full-time scrap metal artist. Here's our discussion:
YesWelder: I read your feature in the Wayne County Outlook, in which you mentioned that you took up scrap metal art after a health setback in 2017. Can you tell us about when and why you began welding, and what inspired you to start a scrap metal art business?
Tammy: I had never touched a welder in my entire life until the spring of 2017 when I was off of work from my job as a court reporter with a back injury. I am not one that enjoys sitting around watching TV, and I desperately needed something to occupy my mind and distract me from the fact that my very active lifestyle was now very limited due to the injury. I spent a lot of my down time on Pinterest looking at all kinds of cool stuff, and I started seeing a lot of really neat ideas in the "scrap metal art" category. I just happened to mention to my husband how cool I thought it was that people were taking old pieces of junk and turning them into art, whether it be yard art or sculptures.
A week or so later, my husband bought me a small welder and gave me my first welding lesson. We are farmers, which means we have lots of scrap metal from repairs and maintenance work to the equipment sitting out back behind the shop. I had lots of scrap metal readily available for me to practice on. To say that my welding skills were bad is an understatement. It was lousy. However, I did seem to have a flair for coming up with some cute ideas.
After I made a few pieces for myself, I posted pictures on my Facebook account. I had a lot of positive feedback from friends, although looking back I don't know why. Those early pieces now make me cringe when I see the horrible welds. However, I am eternally grateful for those friends who encouraged me because they are the reason I kept going.
By fall of 2017, I had had several people start asking me if I was going to sell any of my creations, and that is when I officially started my Facebook business page. Sales far exceeded my expectations, which in turn gave me a burning desire to keep making stuff. I had returned back to work as a freelance court reporter after the first of several back surgeries, but I spent every free moment in the shop welding and creating.
YesWelder: Can you tell me about your passion for turning scraps into artwork, and the process of building your own shop?
Tammy: I started splitting my free time between going junking for "art supplies" and creating pieces. I enjoy the pursuit of junk every bit as much as the process of creating. I started accumulating so much junk that I was taking up a good portion of my husband's shop, which didn't go over well when he needed to bring in a huge piece of farm equipment to work on. Sales continued to climb, and I decided to save every penny from sales to invest in building my own shop. After a year of saving, I had my own shop built right next to my husband's. Best. Decision. Ever. He's happier, and I am over the moon having my own shop.
YesWelder: So how did you realise that your work was good enough to be sold, and that you were ready to do this full-time?
Tammy: Business continued to grow and grow, and it was getting to the point that I was taking a lot of time off from work to try and keep up with demand. I began enjoying my real job less and less, because I wanted to spend more time in my shop, so I decided to retire early from my career in May of 2020 in order to pursue the art business full time. With the onset of the coronavirus, the timing could not have been better. I no longer had to travel and was able to work from home.
YesWelder: Did you have any prior experience in the trades or welding? Your Instagram bio says that you're a retired court reporter, but that this was your "side gig", so have you always experimented with metal work?
Tammy: I do not have any prior experience or background in the trades or any type of metal work whatsoever. However, one thing I did have a background in (prior to court reporting) is marketing. This has helped me immensely at branding my business and getting my name out there.
YesWelder: On the topic of marketing, what made you decide to take your work to social media platforms, such as Instagram and TikTok? You've amassed an especially large TikTok following -- did you expect your content to become so popular?
Tammy: I first started my business presence on Facebook. About a year later, I started posting on Instagram, but I wasn't attracting much of an audience on there until I learned the importance of hashtags. That changed everything, as far as Instagram is concerned. But the real game changer for social media was when I decided to take a leap and post a video on TikTok showing the steps involved in making one of my pieces.
I was scared to death at what kind of reaction I would get, but viewers were overwhelmingly positive. This led to more posts showing how I make my stuff. Not only was I developing a decent following, but it translated into a lot of sales. I started shipping pieces all over the United States.
YesWelder: What advice would you give to someone starting out as a small business owner, or to someone who is in interested in learning more about the trades?
Tammy: My advice to others thinking about starting up a small business is to pick something you love and are passionate about. If you have love and passion for your work, it is no longer just a job but a purpose. You do not necessarily need the most advanced and/or most expensive equipment to run a small business, especially in its early stages. Overextending oneself financially on frivolous items that aren't vital to the functioning of the business can be the kiss of death. Use multiple social media platforms and use them frequently to promote your business.
Tammy's story shows that it's never too late to get involved in the trades. As someone who worked in retail and as a court reporter, Tammy hadn't previously worked as a welder or metal artist. Still, thanks to her determination to create art (and with some welding lessons), Tammy created a business from scratch, and built an audience of supportive followers and customers.
Her final advice to us was this: "Leave your shyness at the door. You must be willing to put yourself out there and take a risk. Is it scary? Heck, yeah. If you succeed is it rewarding? Double 'heck, yeah.'"