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Welding

Fabricator on fire

By Lynn Stanley

Custom welding helmets mix extreme art with the science of metalworking

July/August 2015 - “If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write something worth reading or do things worth the writing.” Benjamin Franklin penned these words along with other still famous proverbs about everyday life. As though heeding Franklin’s advice, Eric Plebani has been doing things worth writing about since he exchanged a desk job for a welding torch and turned a $300 junkyard car into a sleek racing machine.

The self-taught mechanic, fabricator and tuner became a licensed driver for the National Hot Rod Association at 23. His skills—both as a driver and a fabricator—led to a job with World Racing and considerable ink in some of the industry’s top magazines. Over the last 19 years his custom car work has often pushed the limits of metalforming but it’s his extreme custom welding helmets that have gone viral—creating a new niche market for Plebani and bringing fresh attention to the welding industry.

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Polar opposites

The architect of metal also holds an associate’s degree in computer design and animation. His one-off welding helmets allow him to combine artistic expression with the mechanics of sheet metal forming, a marriage he finds appealing. “They are really two polar opposites but that’s what I love about it—mixing contradictory elements to make something unexpected.”  

Reaction to his work has been surprising, creating a career shift for Plebani that he says was orchestrated by chance and timing.

“I am a self-avowed Star Wars fan,” he explains. “I grew up with the movies and dressed up for Halloween as either Darth Vader or Boba Fett the bounty hunter more times than I can count. I always wanted to build a Boba Fett welding lid for myself because I thought it would be cool.” 

Some free time between custom car jobs—a rare occurrence for Plebani—gave him the opportunity to experiment.  

“I took a wearable helmet and modified it,” says Plebani. “It was rather simple and something I put together fairly quickly. My buddy took a photo of the helmet sitting on my fab bench and posted it on Reddit without telling me. A couple of days later he confessed, explaining that I had been trending on the front page of the social media platform all weekend and that my helmet had received more than 2 million views.”

Plebani began receiving calls from people asking if he could make a helmet for them “and offering to pay pretty much any amount. I blew it off at first, thinking it would die down. It didn’t.”

In February 2015 Plebani established Plebani Built LLC and began taking orders that range from “mild to wild.” Prices start at $200 but can escalate up to $2,000 depending on the level of customization desired. “Most customers’ tastes tend to run to the extreme,” he adds.

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“The helmet I did for myself was just about appearance,” he continues. “It makes you pause, though, when you are making something for someone else. That’s why the second one was so hard.”

The order was for a clone trooper helmet from the movie Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. “Custom helmets are difficult because there is no CAD drawing to refer to, no design/build specifications,” he observes. 

Plebani started the process by purchasing and reverse engineering every welding helmet on the market to see how they worked. “I also evaluated different components like viewing lenses. Because I design such unique contours and shapes I have to start with high-performance head gear, lenses and items like rebreathers.”

“Blueprints” are developed based on in-depth discussions with the end user. Engineering, ergonomics, geometry, metalforming and finishing all play a role in bringing the helmet to life. The equipment also has to meet or exceed industry safety standards. Plebani gets a feel for how the helmet will look, fit and function by modeling his concept in clay and then building a prototype.

“If I don’t like it, I tear it apart and start over,” he says. “It has to be perfect.” He also test drives each helmet before he ships it by wearing it for a day under all different types of working conditions.

Expressions

“In the final analysis, it is a welding helmet,” he says. “It has to appeal to the guy [or girl] who wants it and it has to function properly.” 

Consumer studies report car choices often reflect their owners’ personalities. “These custom helmets offer welders a similar outlet for expression except that they are smaller and I can ship them,” Plebani says. “You might not walk down the street wearing a Cylon Centurion helmet from Battlestar Galactica, but you can wear one at work because it is a required piece of safety equipment.”

To date Plebani has released more than 20 custom helmets. Images and postings of the handcrafted creations, ranging from Star Wars villain Darth Vader to Snow White’s Dopey, are spreading across social media sites like wildfire—along with their owners’ stories.

“If a welder sets his or her helmet down at work, it draws a crowd,” says Plebani. “One exhaust welder with an Iron Man helmet told me that people started coming to his workplace just to watch and take pictures. Selfies are also popping up with customers wearing their helmets in different scenarios.”

Plebani approaches each new project with an eye toward improvement. Exploring new ways to use exotic alloys, materials like carbon fiber and plastic and different finishes, he’s working with an aerospace company to study their tight tolerance processing techniques. His ability to translate his increasingly extreme art concepts into wearable, ergonomically sound safety gear is based on a solid fabrication foundation that was forged and sharpened on the racetrack. 

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Grueling environments

“It’s a brutal world,” he says of the auto racing community. “You typically have to over-engineer each component because it has to last under grueling conditions. It literally was automotive fabrication college for me.”

Drag racing contests require fast and furious repairs under harsh conditions with no margin for error. 

“We spent a lot of time in the desert,” says Plebani. “In that situation you are pulling hot parts off a hot car in an unforgiving environment and depending on the problem, you could be TIG welding stainless, aluminum or chrome moly. But before you can weld you have to have a clean surface. You are fighting dirt, oil, chemicals, heat and a very short timeframe. If you have to make repairs, you have to do it with what you have on hand. It forces you to learn to MacGyver a lot of parts. It’s a great deal of pressure but you have to perform flawlessly.”

Plebani brings the same competence to his character helmets which, in addition to attracting new customers, are capturing the attention of local tech schools along with a growing number of young people and non-welders from different walks of life.  

“When kids visit my workspace they are amazed at the labor-intensive nature of the projects and the different disciplines needed to make a finished product,” Plebani says. “I try to show them that whether it’s helmets, race cars, bridges, buildings or aircraft, welding and fabrication is the foundation of everything that is made. 

“For a generation who has been raised on the Internet there is disconnect between manufacturing and the products they use every day,” he continues. “I want to help close that gap a little by teaching them that clicking likes and posting on Facebook all day is not how things get done. You have to build them.”

Since making his first custom helmet Plebani admits he “really hasn’t slept much,” adding that the work now comprises 80 percent of his time. He is designing two helmets as display pieces for the 3M exhibit booth at the 2015 SEMA Show to be held in November 2015 at the Las Vegas Convention Center. The leading supplier of welding helmets and safety equipment plans to use the helmets as eye candy to capture visitors’ attention. 

Plebani’s newest release is a closely guarded secret. “I’m learning how to chrome plate for the project,” he says admitting that keeping the new helmet under wraps will be challenging. But if we use Franklin’s proverb as a gauge to measure Plebani’s progress, I think it is safe to say he won’t be forgotten. FFJ

Sources

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