Man of metal

Metal is Bill Martel’s passion. He realises his own dreams in metal and those of his customers out of a very large “shed” in Plimmerton, the engine room of his business, Metalmorphic.
During 17 years of high-precision work, he and his team have made all sorts of furniture, balustrades, ornamental light shades, and more, even a 17th-century wrought iron sundial, four metres in diameter, which they “cut up into little pieces” and reassembled to correspond with the southern hemisphere.

A passion for precision
By Helen Frances


Bill Martel on the Trade Me office slide

Taking slides
Global offices with spectacular slides include those of Google in Zurich, Tel Aviv, and San Francisco (a multi-coloured tube slide like a hydro slide at a swimming pool), YouTube headquarters in California (a straight, red slide for three people at a time), LEGO Group’s corporate headquarters in Denmark, drinkmaker Red Bull’s HQ in London, advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather’s two-floor location in Jakarta and Electric Works, a communal space for creative, digital and media businesses in Sheffield.
The Sheffield spiral “helter-skelter” will deliver a worker from the top floor down three floors to their reception in seven seconds, say the managers of the building which hosts unconventional businesses. “A ride on the helter-skelter in the course of the day does wonders for the mind and mood,” they say.

A passion for metal
Metal is Bill Martel’s passion. He realises his own dreams in metal and those of his customers out of a very large “shed” in Plimmerton, the engine room of his business, Metalmorphic.
During 17 years of high-precision work, he and his team have made all sorts of furniture, balustrades, ornamental light shades, and more, even a 17th-century wrought iron sundial, four metres in diameter, which they “cut up into little pieces” and reassembled to correspond with the southern hemisphere.
One client wanted a 50-metre copper and wrought iron balustrade in which every screw lined up perfectly. “I like working for difficult and pedantic people,” Bill says. Other pedantic jobs include 1.5 km of mirror-finished balustrade and handrails at the new Clyde Quay Wharf complex in Wellington (formerly the Overseas Passenger terminal) which had to be dead level.
There is a house fence with no visible welds—the pieces laser-cut to slot into each other. For another job he forged antlers to surround a massive Western-style acrylic light in a client’s mansion. Bill uses the facilities at Metalmorphic to make things for his own house: a steel kitchen, garden sculptures, furniture, a barn/apartment, and various other objects for which metal lets him bend it to his will. But working with the material is as much a conversation as the implementation of an idea.


The metal workshop

Talking to metal
“I love talking to metal, touching it,” Bill says. “It tells me what it wants to do. I don’t drive it.
I’m a touchy person. If I see a handrail I love running my hands over it, working out how it is made, breaking it down into parts.” This process of breaking a complex project down into its smallest parts, playing and experimenting, problem-solving the detail, and working out how to build it, is how he and his team at Metalmorphic work all the time. “We start with what the end product has to be and work all the way back.

Cenotaph
This is true of a current commission making the illuminated brass balustrade and handrails for the forecourt and the approach to Wellington’s Cenotaph.
The project is part of the redesign of the Cenotaph forecourt to make it larger and make the memorial more visible. It includes essential repairs and repointing on the monument itself and new steps will be built up to the Beehive forecourt and the Parliamentary Services to strengthen the connection to Parliament. It will be completed before the 2015 Anzac Day commemorations, “With the Cenotaph, we have broken the project down to how the light will look at every piece of handrail so that it looks right.”
Earlier, Metalmorphic staff had to wait three months for the brass to be brought from overseas and were using the time, along with other projects, to plan and make prototypes, which is what they usually do to make everything kitsetready to install on-site. “We are experimenting, welding (the brass) using processes that probably haven’t been done too much in New Zealand because most wouldn’t want such a good finish. So we have gone out to the world to come up with a process.”

Team
He says he couldn’t do the projects he takes on without his team, chosen for their particular strengths.
On site were metal fabricator Jason Kettle and Hamish McCaw, a mechanical engineer with a gift for detail. “Hamish doesn’t have tolerances. He’ll build something to ½ mm, map it all out and tell you what it was three months later. That’s just the way he is. I’ll go to L T McGuinness [construction company] and say ‘Hamish is doing it’ and they’ll say, ‘You’ve got the job’.


Metalmorphic tool board

Business whizz
Bill’s wife Koa is a business whizz. “She’s the brains, I’m the apprentice. In a small company, family is really important and this wouldn’t happen without my wife.” (He made their wedding rings out of gold and platinum.) His two sons, Will (15) and James (11) learn alongside Dad in his sheds but those at his house, also made of metal, he keeps private. Will made his version of a steel Spiderman hoverboard he saw on a Spiderman movie when he was just nine years old.

Transforming art
Bill’s introduction to the art of transforming metal was pre-arranged if not pre-destined.
“My father, (an Anglican minister), came home one day and said, ‘You’ve got an apprenticeship, you start next week’,” Bill says. “I didn’t know what an engineer was.” So at 15 Bill left school and began four years training as a fitter, turner, and machinist at William Cable Ltd in Christchurch.
There he worked on metal beams for buildings and on ships in dry dock—pretty structured stuff for a chap who needs to play. The apprenticeship finished, he jumped on a courier pushbike, did that for a while then traveled overseas.
On his return he couriered for a while then wore a suit and tie for Transpower, doing an office job. But he didn’t feel completely at ease in that kind of work environment. At the age of 30, Bill started helping a friend who was struggling to make money with his engineering company and his creative streak took off. “As you get older, you get more confident and comfortable about playing more,” Bill says. When he saw what his friend was doing Bill thought, “I can do that,” and he did. Which is how he approaches any job. “A lot of the time my phone rings and people say, ‘Can you do this?’ and I go, ‘Yup’ and I sort out how to do it afterwards.”

Trade Me slide
This is what happened with the slides for Trade Me in their new fitout on Market Lane, Wellington.
“A lot of people laugh at me but the way this slide happened—Dan McGuinness from LT McGuinness rings me up and says, ‘Can you make a slide?’ and I said, ‘Yes, I can make slides’.”
He likes the idea of a magnificent folly and thinks we are far too serious. “We need to have more fun in work— I like the challenge of making it work, nutting it out, and breaking it down into steps.” Metalmorphic cut its teeth on a single-floor slide for Trade Me in their offices in the 1918 former John Chambers building with its distinctive “bullnose” front on Market Lane.
But the company wanted three for the new fitout when they relocated. That included a three-level spiral slide around a staircase connecting levels three to five. Trade Me wanted an environment that was “fiercely anti-corporate, energetic, open plan, simple and flexible” with many different opportunities for interaction. The three-level slide permitted as an “architectural folly,” had to fit through a 4.5 metre by 5.5 metre hole, just fitting with a 75 mm gap on either side. The slide was to be craned in during mid-construction so the contractor could build around it.


The one-storey slide at Trade Me

Slide angle
Initially, Bill spent two days going around every playground in Wellington, looking for the correct slide angle.
The slide slopes from 31 to 36 degrees to provide extra headroom in one section. The change in pitch was made to conform to height restrictions in the building regulations. “I would have been horrified if they’d got on the slide and gone too fast or too slow. There’s a run-out on the slide so I spent a lot of time working out what that should be. You go fast down the slide but you come out at a relaxed speed.”
And it was decided people couldn’t get on the slide halfway down in case they were hit by someone coming down so the staircase has the necessary entry points. “We were lucky the council were very good to us and didn’t make us put a cover all the way over it.”
The team spent six months developing the design and used computer modeling, which indicated three facets would work. But they found that with three, then five facets the stainless steel crinkled, Candelabra, one of Bill Martel’s first pieces. making for a bumpy ride.
The slide now has seven facets and is made of 500 pieces. No two pieces are the same and every one is laser-edged and marked to fit in one spot.

Jig
Four tradesmen took six weeks to make the slide, which they built lying on its side in the Metalmorphic work shed. It was highly braced and they turned it with a gearbox and motor at one end of a jig.
“We were building as we were standing on the ground rather than being up in the air, so we were safe. The first time it stood up was when it went into the building.” They added extra steel when the slide started sagging under its own weight and stiffened the jig up to keep everything straight while they were building it.
Getting it out of the shed posed another problem. The slide, which was on wheels, went onto a cradle, was lifted by two HIAB cranes, and trucked to site where two cranes lifted it (vertical for the first time) into place. Trade Me staff, friends, and children had fun inaugurating the slide over many weekends and it’s a much quicker way to reach colleagues at work than taking the lift.


The jig used to form the slide

Teamwork
A detailed job done by Bill and his team and requiring great precision includes the 1.5 km of mirror-finished balustrade and handrails at the new Clyde Quay Wharf complex in Wellington (formerly the Overseas Passenger terminal) which had to be dead level. Bill always describes his wife Koa as a business whizz. “She’s the brains, I’m the apprentice. In a small company, family is really important and this wouldn’t happen without my wife.”



Home
Home is another testament to Bill’s love of metal.
Located up a winding road to a site in the Pauatahanui hills, the house commands a panoramic view of the countryside and coast. For six years he and Koa lived in a barn he made while they built much of their house. The barn framing is flat-bar metal hoops, with plywood internal cladding and a corrugated metal exterior.
Bill explains the framing: “I did the outside hoop, clamped it then did the inside hoop. I put more holes in the floor and bent the flat bar, welded it, and stood it up. It’s like putty to bend.” To put up the steel frame of his house, he built an A-frame crane with a pallet of bricks on and around it.
“We couldn’t afford to hire a crane and we wanted to get it all up ourselves. I’d bring a beam in every night and we rolled it on rollers and trolleys. Koa would drive the ute backwards and I’d lift the beam into place and weld it. It took us four weeks to put all the frames up—there’s a lot of steel in the house.”
They had a builder and an architect but did a lot of “nutting it out” themselves. They designed the floor plan and the architects fine-tuned it.
In the kitchen, a stainless steel cabinet he made 15 years ago was ahead of its time. Everything moves in and out: racks, drawers, and cutting boards. It’s very compact and took him 200 hours to make.
There is an ottoman with a stainless steel frame and vine-like forged legs; a bedhead of rusty steel is painted green to look like verdigris and a three-legged table and dish appears to dance.
Outside a sculpture of tall standing pipes makes its own music when the pipes blow in the wind. They are set in large steel plates underground to hide the fixings. And a revolving bird sculpture circles above a traffic island in Porirua.
Bill has made a number of wrought iron gates and ornate couches has copied 18th-century French ironwork and Napoleon beds that fold down and were taken from battle to battle. He has a forge at home which he HIABs to work when required. One of the first items he made was a forged steel candelabra, which he has kept.


Bill and Koa took four weeks to put up the steel frames


Bill’s stainless steel cabinet ahead of its time


Bill’s boat…


…and his metal fit-out

Fire
“I like the fire and the bending of it,” Bill says. “I’m really into the arty, creative side of it.”
Wrought iron (mild steel is used now) is a favourite. Mild steel has replaced the oldstyle wrought iron, which he says is rare but can be sourced in Wales for a price. “No curled bend is ever exactly the same. That adds individuality to it. Every blacksmith makes things slightly differently.
You can only do so much with the steel; it has limits and will tell you its limits by cracking and stressing. Stainless is great because you can join it and hide the joins. If you make a mistake you can fix it easily.” During a lull, Bill was checking his boat outside the Metalmorphic shed, a boat he largely fitted out himself and he was looking forward to forging hundreds of metres of replacement wrought steel for a Category 2 heritage building in Wellington. “The forged steel will be kitsetted and bolted together on site. All the planning happens here. You want to make installation fast and efficient.” Then it’s on to the next job, which is bound to be quirky, but then nothing is impossible.


Bill’s metal sculpture in Porirua

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