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New life for old stuff

Broken blades, tired tools, worn washers, grimy gears. These are sorry sights for most sheddies, but for Bruce Derrett they are the treasures of his trade. The Motueka metal artist combines his skill wielding a MIG welder with a highly fertile imagination to turn other people’s junk into quirky creatures, funky furniture, and striking sculptures. Bruce, who ironically failed metal work at school, has always had an eye for mechanical bits and pieces. “As a kid I was always pulling things apart, like clocks and radios. It used to really frustrate my mum,” he says. Now he puts things back together again, albeit it in a very different form.

Tired tools and discarded parts are reinvented
as works of art
By Sue Allison
Photographs: Juliet Nicholas

Bruce Derrett…he got his drill drill press and grinder at garage sales
A petrol can, tape measure and bike pedal, among other things, are transformed into a quirky bird

Broken blades, tired tools, worn washers, grimy gears. These are sorry sights for most sheddies, but for Bruce Derrett they are the treasures of his trade. The Motueka metal artist combines his skill wielding a MIG welder with a highly fertile imagination to turn other people’s junk into quirky creatures, funky furniture, and striking sculptures.  
Bruce, who ironically failed metal work at school, has always had an eye for mechanical bits and pieces. “As a kid I was always pulling things apart, like clocks and radios. It used to really frustrate my mum,” he says. Now he puts things back together again, albeit it in a very different form.
Bruce’s full-time foray into the art world is a relatively recent venture. He left school at 14 and, until four years ago, he and his partner of 25 years, Jocelyn White, earned their living working on orchards and dairy farms while raising three children. Along the way, Bruce taught himself the art of gas metal arc welding and tinkered in his spare time making metal creations and selling them at the Nelson Saturday market. 
It was Jocelyn who urged him to turn his artistry into a full-time job. “She’s my biggest fan,” says Bruce. “We worked hard and got rid of the mortgage and one day she just said, ‘You’ve got to go home and give it a go’.” He agreed to try it out for one year and has never looked back. 
While he sells smaller pieces at the World of Wearable Art (WOW) museum and supplies a couple of shops, the weekend market is still his main outlet.
Bruce makes his metal sculptures in a double garage attached to the house. “It isn’t ideal. I’d love a big shed, of course. What guy wouldn’t?” He has lined the interior walls with corrugated iron to reduce the fire risk and made all his own steel work benches. “Everything is on wheels so I can take them all outside if I need my garage to work on a trailer or something,” he says.

The John Dory’s scaly body is achieved using rings from trampoline springs with a variety of nails, including some from horses’ shoes, on its underside. Its tail is a garden fork, dorsal fin a circular saw blade, eye a skateboard wheel bearing, and the mouth is made out of pliers. The distinctive John Dory dot is a cap from a Stromberg carburettor
Bruce’s ‘Asterix rock’ is made almost entirely from old spanners welded together to form an asymmetrical ball. The sculpture, which took him a couple of weeks to make, was formed in a mould made out of a mussel float.
Bruce broke his finger making this bull out of mechanical bits and pieces that include a suspension leaf spring and rear truck axle for its horns. More than a metre high and too heavy to cart to the market, it now sits in the garden

 “It isn’t ideal. I’d love a big shed, of course. What guy wouldn’t?”

Bruce’s garage workshop. He made the steel workbenches on wheels so they can be easily shifted

Parts department
It is a highly organised workshop, despite containing huge quantities of paraphernalia waiting in the ‘parts department’. 
“You have to be organised or you would never find anything,” says Bruce, who separates bolts and bearings into boxes of different sizes, hangs lengths of chain from a post and has ladders around the walls to reach materials stored in the ceiling space. 
“I don’t waste much,” he says. “I use everything except aluminium, even the cut-off pieces unless they are too rubbishy or thin to weld.”
Bruce’s penchant for old tools extends to ones that still work. “Most of my tools are second hand. When I started out I couldn’t afford new ones, and the old ones are often better anyway.” He picked up both his drill press and a grinder at garage sales, and still uses the bench grinder he bought 23 years ago when he was 20. 
Preparing the pieces for welding can be as time-consuming as the construction process. Bruce has to dismantle the old machinery and clean all the pieces. For extra-grimy parts, he has invented his own washing machine, tumbling them in a concrete mixer filled with gravel and water. “It makes a big racket for the neighbours, but it cleans off a lot of the rust and grease.” A final scrub is done with a wire brush fitting on a grinder. “My MIG welder doesn’t like rust. You’ve got to clean up all the spanners and bolts before you can weld them.”

Ladders make it easy to access…
…his collection of paraphernalia

“They like to see things being reused rather than going to the dump”

Everything has a use in the parts department

Garage sales
Bruce makes plaster of Paris moulds for some of his forms, such as his half-wood, half-metal bowls. As with table tops, he has to lie the pieces face down so the finished surface will be flat. This makes visualising the end result all the harder as he can’t see the full effect until it has been welded together.
While Bruce often spends more than 40 hours a week working on his sculptures. He enjoys the freedom of setting his own hours, often working into the night or taking time off to scour garage sales for raw materials.
Friends know where to bring their broken tools and appliances, and people drop off bits and pieces at the market. “They like to see things being reused rather than going to the dump,” says Bruce, whose stall always attracts curious people exclaiming as they recognise components in his creations. “People love looking to see what things are made of. Old garden tools are good because people can really relate to them, but they are getting harder to find.”
While Bruce makes standard lines through popular demand, no two pieces are ever the same. “I’m brewing ideas all the time,” he says. “It works both ways. I either have a design in my head or look at a piece and see what it will make.” He sees a bird’s body in a petrol can, scorpion tails in broken darts, a miniature bird cage in a wire cake mixer. “If you see those bits in a box in someone’s shed, it’s just junk, but I can change it into something people appreciate,” he says, mulling over a box of kitchen discards. “It’s not smart technology. It’s just giving old stuff a new life.”

A large mural in Bruce and Jocelyn’s garden features a collection of clutch plates, bearings, sprockets and cogs. “They look like bubbles in the steel,” says Bruce, who used a plasma cutter to cut the circles in the steel sheet before welding in the decorative shapes
People love identifying the bits and pieces in Bruce’s table tops. He makes them upside down so the finished surface is flat. “It means you don’t see it till it’s finished,” he says. The tables, which have painted steel legs, are topped with a sheet of glass. “They look good because all the pieces are different shapes but it’s flat”
Bruce managed to achieve a light, lacy look with steel on this corset. He used chainsaw chain on the back and trampoline springs cut into rings then spot-welded together for the front. The lacing is plastic brake cable from a pushbike
Bruce’s simple lizard is made out of motorbike chain, with its head constructed from the legs of a gas cooker. “He’s my template for other lizards because I got the shape just right”
Bruce made his bird of prey’s feathers out of old hedge trimmer blades with nails for its finer chest plumage. The crest on its helmet is plastic-coated insulation wire. The bird, unfinished in the photo, now sits on a “leather” glove constructed out of steel patchwork and with a leather cord around its leg. “It sat under my work bench for months while I worked out how I would finish it,” he says
This large, abstract ball, which hangs from a chain, was constructed using orange reflectors off pushbike wheels attached to a frame formed out of a geometric arrangement of welded steel rods. “I had to weld the reflectors on very carefully, wetting them as I welded to keep cooling them down,” says Bruce, who has fitted the sculpture with LED lights so it sparkles at night
Bruce is always on the look-out for wooden bowls at garage sales or recycling centres. He makes a plaster of paris mould of the inside of the bowl before cutting it in half. The metal pieces, which can include anything from buckles and bolts to old spanners bent to fit the curve, are laid face down over one half of the inverted mould and welded together. Once assembled, the construction is screwed to the wooden half. “Old bowls come up like magic when you oil them up”
Bruce’s “car-becue” sits between the front door and his garage workshop. “I saw a barbecue car made with an Anglia about 20 years ago and when I came across a mini at the dump with its back end all crashed up, I thought ‘that’s what I’ll do with that’,” says Bruce, who blew up his grinder cutting off the front. He fabricated a single sheet of steel under the bonnet for a three-burner gas barbecue to sit in, with a drip tray that slides out the back. The mobile car-becue can be picked up by its two front legs and wheeled along. It’s the second one he has made. “I sold the first one on Trade Me. The people came to pick it up in a campervan, and we managed to strap it on the back and they drove off home to the North Island”

Cube table 
Bruce was in the process of making a modern coffee table in metal decorated with sprocket inserts when The Shed visited.
Bruce welded six half-metre square sheets of steel together to form a cube. 
He lays out the different sized sprockets, most of which came from motorbikes, then marks their positions with a pen. 
He cuts the circles using a plasma cutter. Bruce made his own “compass” jig out of wire and a magnet. The magnet sits at the centre of the circle with the other end of the wire attached to his cutting tool at the length of the radius. “It’s too hard to cut a perfect circle free hand,” he says. 
The sprockets are welded into position and then he cleans up the welds.
This trendy coffee table is now in an apartment in Melbourne.

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