Career jump

By Nick Wright

Two friends grow job-shop after realizing shared passion for shaping steel

September 2012 - For one reason or another, people switch careers. Sometimes it’s an itch to pursue a passion. Other times, it’s the necessity of circumstances. At two-man fabrication shop Studio23, Olympia, Wash., a shared desire to hone metalworking craft underlies a philosophy that’s a blend of both.

Co-owners and longtime friends Mike Rathke and Paul DesJardien both left white-collar jobs to get their hands dirty fusing metal. Studio23 mainly builds custom railings, furniture and architectural elements for contractors and customers in northwest Washington.

Rathke says in 2002 he began tinkering with old cars as a hobby when he wasn’t at his nine-to-five job. “I learned how to weld to make that easier,” he says. He built a bed, table and other projects out of metal through weekend metalworking classes at a nearby community college. Unfulfilled by his desk job in facilities management, he quit in 2007 with the blessing of his wife.

“My wife said, ‘Open a metal shop; you keep talking about it,’” he recalls. “And I said, ‘Okay, I’ll do that.’ It was because of my wife, really. She made it okay.”


Rathke officially opened the businessin 2007, although the two friends have worked informally together on projects for years. DesJardien, originally a graphic designer, had assisted a metal fabricator while he was in law school from 1998 to 2001. After Rathke went full-time, DesJardien worked part-time at Studio23 until 2010 when he left his job as an attorney and joined Rathke to fabricate full time.  

The 2,400-sq.-ft. shop contains work tables, a slip roll, sheet metal brake, welders and a CNC plasma cutting table to render mostly carbon steel into custom work. The addition of its cold saw, which Rathke calls one of Studio23’s most professional tools, amped up its workflow. “Our world changed when we bought that,” he says.

Studio23 works mainly with the simple surfaces of 1/8th-in. hot rolled steel. It recently delivered steel table tops with folded edges and welded corners to the offices of a Seattle-area technology giant.

“It’s the kind of thing where we’re taking good-old, humble industrial steel and making furniture out of it, which takes a lot of rubbing and wiping,” Rathke says. “We’re trying to make it look good, basically.”

Small shop challenges
There are inherent challenges in running a small business. But Rathke and DesJardien handle all aspects of the shop, including the office work and maintaining the website—which DesJardien developed in-house.  Studio23 finds that having an accessible website, which can host their metalwork portfolio, is indispensable for sourcing new business. The job-shop goes after new clients in modern design work, and those customers generally find Studio23 online, Rathke says. 

The shop relies on referrals, as well as print ads and direct mail, with the goal of directing people to its website, DesJardien adds.

“And that’s turned out to be a strategy that has worked. If you’re a contemporary client looking for something, you’re going to use the web, not the phonebook,” he says. 

It turns out Studio23’s fabrication skills extend to project management, as well. For one recent sculptural lighting fixture named “Snow Words,” London-based designer Cecil Balmond (of ArcelorMittal “Orbit” fame) contracted Studio23 to be the stateside project manager. It’s currently installed in the lobby of the new State of Alaska crime lab in Anchorage. 

“Snow Words” is expressed by 24 30-ft. polished aluminum tubes arranged in concentric circles with over 200 LED fixtures attached along the tubes.

“The designer couldn’t find anybody to deal with the project up in Alaska,” says Rathke. “So he started looking as close as he could get, which was Seattle, and found us.”

Studio23 sourced the materials and found and supervised the other contractors. This included getting the 48 15-ft. sections of aluminum tube laser cut and having hundreds of parts machined. Components were polished to a mirror finish, including the 10-ft. circle at the base of the sculpture. After threading assembly holes and fitting all of the pieces together, Studio23 then shipped the fabricated materials to Anchorage. 

For the bulk of its fabricated work, Studio23 primarily sticks to functional, finished steelwork for customers like restaurants, retailers or home remodelers. Knowing that something will be used and endure follows suit with the shop’s philosophy.

 “There’s a challenge there we like, taking this humble material and using it as a finish material,” Rathke says. “As a small shop, our whole goal is to practice craftsmanship. So if what we do fits that, then we’re happy.” FFJ



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