I spent the last two weeks designing and fabricating 15 custom geometric bowls for a global tech company based in San Francisco. Their annual client and developer conference is coming up in a few days, and the bowls will be used as table centerpieces.
A friend on their events team had seen a photo of the geo planter I made a few months ago, and reached out to see if the design could be customized for their needs. I'd never done a production run this large before, but I was excited for the challenge.
Here's how I made the bowls!
First, I created a 3D model of the design in SketchUp. I started with a dodecahedron (my favorite platonic solid) and modified it to create an open, faceted bowl. As soon as I got the thumbs-up from the client, it was time to waterjet cut the pieces. I used Adobe Illustrator to create a vector line drawing of all of the pieces that I'd need to cut out of stainless steel sheet.
The last time I made a piece like this, I did all the waterjet cutting myself, which was time-consuming because I was still learning. Due to the scale of this project, I decided to outsource the cutting. So glad I did! The company I used, Triton Waterjet, was super pro -- clean edges, no burrs or tabs, flawless steel, and quick turnaround time. Here are one hundred pounds of beautiful pentagons, ready to go:
And then the welding marathon began! I started by tacking the faces together at each vertex. A number of metalworkers have asked me how I clamp down the pieces for this type of project. I actually don't use clamps or jigs at all. Instead, I just prop up the pieces on a block -- or even hold them together with my gloved hands -- and do a quick flash-tack to join the pieces. Then I bend the pieces into the correct angle before continuing to weld.
Once the form was tacked together, it was time to weld all the edges. TIG welding is my absolute favorite part of metalworking, and I was thrilled when the moment finally arrived to lay down a bead. And then another one. And then another one. And then another one...
Stainless steel is one of my favorite metals to work with because it welds cleanly and makes shimmery rainbows patterns.
Here's what the bowl looked like after welding all the edges.
For those of you who are really curious about this whole process, here's a four-minute time-lapse video of me tacking and welding a bowl.
Aaaannnd repeat x15!
It was both luxurious and exhausting doing nothing but weld all day long. I welded all fifteen bowls in two and a half days, which is definitely some sort of personal record. What's interesting is how much I improved over the course of the project: When I made the initial prototype, the welding took me six hours (lots of trial and error!). Bowl number one took two and a half hours to weld (better, but still learning). By bowl number four, I'd gotten it down to 40 minutes (I'm a machine!!). I learned a lot about efficiency and scale with this project!
Once the bowls were assembled, it was time for sanding and buffing. I like this step because it's like the big reveal -- I finally get to see the sharp jumble of sheet metal transformed into the lovely and smooth piece I'd envisioned in my mind. For sanding and buffing, a variable-speed angle grinder is my best friend. I started with an 80-grit flapwheel disc to sand down the welds, and then went over the entire outer surface with a Scotch-Brite disc to give it a satiny sheen.
Here's a time-lapse video of me sanding and buffing a bowl. It shortens 45 minutes of elbow grease into a snappy 35 seconds.
Not gonna lie, I was physically exhausted after sanding all 15 bowls. The weight, vibrations, and centrifugal force of the angle grinder did a number on my forearms and hands. My neck ached from bending over, and I was covered in a fine layer of metal dust at the end of each day. It was a relief to finally move on from this stage!
For the last step, I gave each bowl a coat of clear metal wax, which hardens and cures after being buffed. A protective sealant isn't really necessary for stainless steel, as it won't rust or tarnish, but I like the way wax looks. It gives the piece a little extra sheen, and it keeps fingerprints from appearing on the surface.
Here's a close-up of the bottom of a bowl, on which I'd stamped my company name, letter by letter. I had recently gotten coffee with Meyghan Hill from Whorehaus Studios (she's a kickass LA-based designer, welder, and business woman), and when chatting about this project, she insisted that I mark each piece with my company name -- brilliant. I immediately ordered metal alphabet stamps for myself. Thank you for the tip, Meyghan!
And here's a photo of the bowl at the conference!