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Spotlight - Matthew Szynal, Slight of Hand Metalworks

image Matthew Szynal and Honky Tonk visit Szynal’s late dog Nia, who has her own shrine at the Slight of Hand Metalworks shop.

AUSTIN - Matthew Szynal, who plays drums and electric guitar, cut his musical teeth on bands like Metallica. With his welding career, he jokes that he went from being a metal head to metal working.






Share about your background.
    I was born in the Washington, DC area and lived in Virginia until second grade and lived in West Virginia until sixth grade. In junior high, during my formative years, I lived in Strongsville, OH, which is a suburb of Cleveland, and then I spent high school in Dublin, OH, which is a suburb of Columbus. We moved a lot and I had to learn to be friendly and make new friends every couple of years. I kind of think it was a good thing and helped me to be more outgoing.

Did you come from a creative family?
    I guess there are some creative juices in there. It turned out that my grandfather is also a welder, or more of a pipefitter; he did pipefitting and steamfitting. He was a member of United Association Local 777. After I became a metal worker, I realized it was in my blood through my grandfather. My dad did some woodworking and woodcarving and I tinkered a little bit with it; I built shelves and other things.

Did you show other creative tendencies as a child?

    I’ve always been good with my hands. At around age 6, I started taking apart and put back together any number of things, and that would make my dad very upset! I was kind of a tinkerer with Legos and Erector sets, and I always loved science classes; they were more hands-on than math or some other disciplines. I think I was creative because I was the middle son of three boys; maybe I was trying to make my stamp on the world. I always had a good imagination and would be a little more extravagant with things maybe than other people.
    I always thought that I would never really be happy at a desk job. I wanted to play a musical instrument and I always kind of liked art; At around age 12 or 13, my uncle gave me an electric guitar and I also started playing drums in seventh grade. I liked creating things, but it was more musical than anything else.

Where did those creative tendencies take you after high school?
    By high school, I had been taking lessons from a master drummer in Cleveland for four or five years. I had five or six different drum books and I would do a couple of pages per week. I really studied and learned rhythms, beats, and reading music, so I was disciplined on that.
    I thought I was going to major in business and minor in music. I went to Columbus State Community College and was going to do a two-year, four-year transfer program and do UT engineering. But when I went to UT, I kind of felt profiled to some degree. I had long hair in dreadlocks, holes in my jeans, looking like a little rocker kid. They said they appreciated my efforts, but I was never going to get into the program. They said they had a list of 500 people with a 4.0. That was a bit of a disappointment, seeing as how I thought I would be able to transfer.
    When I moved to Austin, I took some of the core classes and took a welding class. I used to drive an Isuzu Trooper, since it could hold the drums and had four-wheel drive because I loved to go skiing up north in the winter. Part of the frame rusted out and I had to learn to weld to repair the frame on my truck. That truck was kind of the gateway to learning mechanics; I even rebuilt an engine for it. I took a welding Art Metals class and just fell in love working with metal. I ended up getting an associate degree in AutoCAD and also pursued an Associates in Art Metals from Austin Community College.

What path did you pursue after your time at ACC?   
    I started working at a company called Mind Over Metal. I was fresh out of school, and the first day I worked there, they had me running an angle grinder with a wire brush on a bed frame. I remember my hands going numb and I basically left the job after four hours. I thought about it and then went back and got my job back but under the condition that I wouldn’t be running the grinder, I would be doing welding and fabrication. I spent three or four years in the field doing ornamental iron such as chandeliers that looked like vines and leaves, railings, bed frames, and tables. That’s where I learned all of the tricks of the trade they don’t teach you in school.

When did you use your experience to start your own business?
    In about 2001, I was having a hard time getting paid more than $9.50 an hour when we were doing $60,000 railing jobs; the time came for me to strike out on my own. I had a friend, Reji Thomas, who is a glass artist. She was kind enough to let me rent some shop space to do my welding work out of. While I was under her wing in her shop space, I met one of her clients and we did a collaboration on some sconces.
    The next 20 years came with no advertising, just word of mouth after that job. My first big job was the benches in front of the Juan in a Million restaurant on Cesar Chavez St. Then, I was lucky to be making bamboo-looking railings for a builder who was working on ex-Longhorn football coach Mack Brown’s house. I hustled, which got me more and more work over the years.
    The original reason I became self-employed is that I didn’t want to leave my dog at home 9 to 5. My old dog, Nia, was my shop mascot and she is actually buried at my shop. I have a little shrine to her with a fire hydrant and a giant valentine candy heart that says “Awesome,” which was what I used to say to her. I have a new dog, “Honky Tonk.”  That is a nickname that grew out of the name “Ushanka,” which is the fur hat Russians wear. When I rescued her from the pound, she was three months old and curled up into a little ball like one of those black Russian hats with eyeballs. “Ushanka” became “Shank” became “Honk” became “Honky Tonk.” From the way she acts, I think she is a reincarnated Nia.

How has your work evolved?

    Primarily, my work is done by hand, nothing from the machine, everything is usually textured or distressed, nothing really looks like rough steel. I’ve evolved into doing a lot of the horizontal railings, the modern look that you see around town. Also, I make rusty metal planter boxes and edging. I’ve kind of evolved into a more modern look.

What are your favorite projects?
    I did some really neat pool gates out of patinaed copper by Lake Belton. I have done a railing at the Driskill Hotel in the Victorian Room and we reused some of the historic, 1-inch twisted steel bar that used to be the rebar in the bank vault of the Driskill basement.

What work would you like to do?

    I would like to get into more public art and sculpture. Last year, I worked with Capital Metro to do a historical feature for east Austin.

What do you do in your free time?
    Besides playing drums and doing metalworking, I’m an avid mountain biker. I’ve raced a couple of seasons of cross country, have gotten to travel around Texas, see some of the other trail systems and have enjoyed nature and parks around the state. When I get off of work, I’ll probably go home and get on my bike. My dog joins me, and we go down to the trail. She plops in the creek and that’s what our nightly ritual is.
    I also love to cook. Growing up, I had a bunch of restaurant jobs and I learned to cook.
    I’m single right now, no kids. I’m in between relationships, kind of letting my heart heal from the last one. It’s been an adventure!

What role does music play in your life now?
    I am a trained drummer and I always had an electric guitar. At this point, I play a lot of instruments, mostly by ear. When I moved here, I joined a band and we named ourselves the “Poquito Street Hustlers.” I ended up welding as a fallback career and ended up paying the bills a little more regularly, so I stuck with that. I still play guitar and drums mostly for personal pleasure and enjoyment. I don’t gig a whole lot, but I have a whole lot of fun.
    If I could get something released, I would probably quit welding, or I would only do the metal work in a more fun role. I’ll probably work in welding my entire life, though. I love working with the metal and making cool things!
    Subcontractor Slight of Hand Metalworks is in Austin. –mjm

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Author Info

Melissa Jones-Meyer dfweditor@constructionnews.net