Driven by sparks of success, 20-something makes career of motorcycle welding and teaching his craft
December 2012 - You could say motorcycle fabricator Jesse Srpan got an early start. After building his own skateboard ramps and racing dirt bikes, Srpan bought his first welder, a Lincoln SP-135, with cash he’d saved as a 13-year-old.
“I wanted to learn how to weld,” he says. “I just picked up that Lincoln welder and I was afraid of it at first, with its tons of heat and electricity. I wasn’t sure what to do as a kid, but I got comfortable with it in the first couple hours.”
In addition to welding for his father Rick’s construction company, Srpan largely taught himself to fuse metal for his bikes, such as tube and pipe for custom exhausts. By 15, the second bike he built from the ground up, Tribal Chopper, was featured in the March 2007 issue of American Iron magazine—just one of Srpan’s more than a dozen fabrication accolades and awards. People began noticing the quality and ingenuity behind his work, and offered to pay him for it.
At 22, he already seems to have found the golden balance of hobby and career. Srpan is the face and flame of Raw Iron Choppers, his fabrication shop in Chardon, Ohio, where he’s plied metal since 2003.
“In the last three or four years, I never thought I’d get to the capacity I’m at today,” he says. Srpan is certified in MIG, TIG, stick, oxy-fuel and flux-core welding. “I never thought I’d be an AWS-certified welder, touring the country.”
This past summer, he displayed a custom bike built around a Harley-Davidson panhead engine at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota. The choppers he customizes with fenders, tanks and bodywork reflect the work of those who have inspired him, such as revered metalworker Ron Covell. “But I’d need years of experience to do what he can,” Srpan says. Although in many ways, he already does.
Out of his shop on Cleveland’s east side, Srpan’s motorcycle work extends to production and industrial fabrication. He’ll do staircase ironwork or ASME boiler piping. The scope of his services and clientele is that of a mid-size job shop and includes aerospace companies and research and development firms that need a prototype machined behind closed doors.
“They tell me how it needs to be done, so I engineer it and fabricate it,” he says.
In spite of his meteoric success with welding, he recognizes that education is crucial to cultivating advanced metalworking skills, especially in a trade where a lack of workers leaves high-paying positions unfilled. As if owning his own business wasn’t enough, he’s juggling a full-time welding instructor position at Lakeland Community College outside Cleveland, just seven years after he first picked up a torch.
“To finally be teaching it, to help produce people for the workforce—it’s a greater feeling than receiving any award or prize,” he adds.
Hard work and early mastery of skills underpin Srpan’s success, and making connections and pursuing contacts since he was in high school have equally benefited him. As a sophomore, he visited a welding class at Auburn Career Center, a nearby vocational school, taught by Ryan Eubank, a well-known welding instructor in northeast Ohio. Eubank currently teaches at Willoughby-Eastlake Technical Center, and is also a summertime instructor at Lincoln Electric in Cleveland and teaches for the company internationally.
“I had made my own little crappy business card, went to Ryan and told him I wanted to weld,” Srpan recalls. “I needed to weld—for my dad, my bikes and products.”
Because Srpan had taken so much time off to tour around the country, from Daytona Bike Week to the Donnie Smith Bike Show in Minnesota, the school initially resisted enrolling him. But for his age, Srpan was one of the most ambitious young men Eubank had met. “Once we got him into the program, there was no option to fail,” Eubank says.
Walking the line between small business owner and educator, Srpan’s vantage gives insight into the welding skills demanded by manufacturers. He can relay those needs to Eubank and Lincoln Electric so they can tailor courses necessary to filling advanced jobs. (The relationship resulted in Srpan earning a sponsorship from the company, too.)
“If I hadn’t met Ryan and the guys at Lincoln, I wouldn’t be talking about this right now. It’s how one decision of school could affect someone’s career path,” says Srpan.
That’s a message that Eubank tries to get across to his students. He says because more youths look to peers their own age rather than adults, Srpan’s connection with students keeps them engaged.
“Students today want things now, not in 10 to 15 years. So if they see young successful welders that have graduated in the past one to two years, they see the light at the end of the tunnel is much bigger, brighter and easier to reach,” Eubank explains. “They are showing them there are more things to life than video games and computers.”
Srpan certainly has his hands full with a growing business and teaching career, but he hasn’t let up on fostering his own skills. This month, he says he’s working to get certified in full titanium aerospace welding at Lincoln Electric. “You’re never too old to keep learning.” FFJ
June 1, 2014 UPDATE:
Jesse and Rick Srpan to be featured on the Discovery Channel's #BikerLive, June 2.
#BikerLive gives viewers a raw and real look inside the world -- and personalities -- of custom motorcycle builders. Each episode follows 3 bike builders who are given 5 weeks and $15,000.00 to build their dream bike.
America will ultimately decide that very night, LIVE, who built it best in that region.
View the preview segment below: