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Doug McDonald recently did the welding on the front porch of this Fan home on West Avenue. Dovetail Construction was the contractor, Doug Harnsburger was the architect and OK foundry replicated the cast parts. Photo by Isaac Harrell
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McDonald fabricates contemporary cast iron designs as well.
Fans of Doug McDonald's metal come from all parts of the city. Some hail from posh addresses on Monument Avenue and in the Museum District. Others are of more modest means in Lakeside, Manchester and Church Hill. All, it could be said, like a little metal now and then.
Needless to say, the kind of metal McDonald makes is all about aesthetics and a lot less about power chords. A welder whose custom shop, Doug McDonald Welding, is located in a tucked away corner of Manchester, McDonald specializes in creating creative, custom metalworks for homes and businesses.
From unique indoor and outdoor furniture or decorative pieces that look both substantial and delicate, to ornate gates and fences, to restored historic metal pieces, McDonald's shop makes metal that's accessible regardless of your musical tastes.
R•Home: So you are a custom shop? What does that mean?
Doug McDonald: A lot of time we have people who will come to us with a specific problems, well, not problems but ideas they want to turn into something.
R•Home: They're your problems then, right? Their ideas and it's up to you to find the solution?
McDonald: Sometimes, yeah (laughs). They'll bring something to us and say ‘I need a sign, a fixture, a piece of furniture that's going to do this or that' - depending on the situation. We do restaurant pieces, pieces for people's houses, it all depends on what they need. We started out originally doing railings and pieces of fence."
R•Home: How did you get into this?
McDonald: I first started welding in high school. My father taught me a few things. Then I moved down here [from Arlington, Va.] and started working for a guy in Richmond. I came down here for college.
R•Home: Were you at VCU for art?
McDonald: Anthropology, actually. Then business started expanding. I started working with different people and different projects just sort of came my way.
R•Home: There's some very interesting metal work here in Richmond, right?
McDonald: There's some fantastic stuff. From the really, really old architectural stuff and there's newer contemporary stuff going in. And there's historical stuff; we've worked a bunch on historic stuff all the way from D.C. down to [Virginia] Beach.
R•Home: Do you know much about the history of Richmond's metal work?
McDonald: This is the book. (holds up "Cast and Wrought, the Architectural Metalwork of Richmond, Virginia" by Robert P. Winthrop) It's got a lot of the history of the main cast-and-wrought producers. These are individuals, the real sort of backsmith craftsmen. Tredegar [Ironworks] did a lot of it, but these are the guys who designed and built the really unique stuff for people.
R•Home: So in a city rich with so much history tied to metalworking, do you reference any of that history in what you do here?
McDonald: It depends on what we're going for. If we're working on classical stuff, we try to basically restore most things that we run into instead of build something new, or at least make it match. It's a difficult city - how can I say this nicely - it's a difficult city to work in because the city doesn't want you to create a false sense of historicism.
R•Home: This is the Old and Historic District architectural guidelines governed by the Commission of Architectural Review, right?
McDonald: Yeah, CAR. So it's difficult at times to work with certain things. I've worked with people on Monument Avenue who have the original architectural drawings for their house, no fence but the original plans and it's an intensive process.
R•Home: So you're talking about where someone wants to replace something that was there at some point, and they know was there and they can prove that to CAR? And if they get it approved, you can make that happen?
McDonald: Yes, absolutely. We dealt with preservationists Walter and Jennie Dots - she was with ACORN (the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods) at one point to do a fence in front of their house. It can be done. That was a two-and-a-half year process for them, though.
R•Home: You also do more contemporary stuff.
McDonald: Absolutely. It really runs the gamut. For a long time we did a lot of restaurant work. Fixtures, stuff like that, because there were a bunch of new restaurants opening a couple of years ago.
R•Home: And that's been very popular in the restaurant industry, right? These more contemporary looks and brushed metals or older patina metals?
McDonald: All kinds of things, from the sort of real clean to the roughed up, real abused-looking, aged look. You try to give unique work to people so it doesn't look like everything else.
R•Home: Do you consider yourself to be a metal worker, a tradesman or do you consider yourself an artist?
McDonald: I would say more tradesman? Maybe craftsman?
R•Home: Maybe an artisan?
McDonald: It's difficult. We like to joke each other about that a lot. Being as we also do a lot of light structural and repetition works - you're in a trade -- but there's a stigma, that being an artist is being someone who doesn't work. In the trades, there really is. So it's difficult to say where you fit when you're sort of in between.
R•Home: So that's the difference between and artist and an artisan is whether you're making one garden fixture or are you making 40?
McDonald: Maybe? (Laughs) And like anything else, it all depends. You can't really look down on somebody for making something cutesy or artsy, because somebody wants that stuff.
R•Home: And you may make some of it here, right?
McDonald: We just may. It's difficult to say what's going to be around the corner for us. There's always something new.
R•Home: So how affordable is this for the average homeowner? You've talked about clients in the restaurant industry or homeowners on Monument Avenue.
McDonald: It all depends on what exactly it is you want. If we're just doing little gates and fence and stuff like that, we definitely are not out of the reach of the normal homeowner. We do a lot of work for what I would consider my peer group - my same economic class. Not rich people.
R•Home: So you could afford to hire your own services?
McDonald: I would think so, yes. I mean not if I was doing something extraordinary. But if I was doing a normal gate or fence, sure. If you look at a wooden fence as opposed to a steel fence, probably the steel is going to be 30 percent more. That's still a very good business for us. We're not pricing ourselves out of work.
R•Home: So if I was doing a wooden fence, a design element in that wood fence might be some metal work - maybe a metal gate or something?
McDonald: Certainly. And we live in a great city for resources. There are salvage yards all over. And if [homeowners] find one thing - one piece that they want to put into their gate -- we can't always replicate it but we can install it into something they can build into a brick fence or a wooden gate or a wall or something like that.