Industry Watch

In his element: Hans Early-Nelson at his Minneapolis workshop 

Steely determination

At Primitive Precision, a metal forging and fabrication studio, Hans Early-Nelson scraps out a living and then some

By Erica Rivera
Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Hans Early-Nelson deals in what he calls “untold value.” A welder, blacksmith, and the founder of Primitive Precision, he transforms found objects into everything from meat cleavers to drapery rods to custom wedding bands.
The son of a sculptor, Early-Nelson became fascinated by scrap metal while growing up in Minneapolis. What attracts Early-Nelson to scrap metal is its history. A part may have “rattled around on a car for 40 years, but instead of getting scrapped, it gets melted down and turned into a bottle opener and can live on in its original state with some modifications,” he says. 
At age 11, he began using his father’s equipment to weld random pieces of metal together. “I made abstract structures, a dental chair — that’s still in my parents’ backyard, rusting — nothing necessarily functional,” he says. 
He took a welding class in high school, then at the urging of his German teacher, he applied to and was accepted by the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange, a program for studying abroad in Germany. He took advantage of a vocational component for graduating seniors.
While staying in the Cologne-Bonn region of North Rhine-Westphalia, he apprenticed with Room 8, a furniture builder, and with Bernd Scheuvens, a blacksmith. Though he admits his first choice would have been to work with a sculptor, he made the best of it. And he felt privileged when Room 8 allowed him to develop metal prototypes for chair legs, backs, and arms, as well as a bowl for a sink.
Another benefit of the program was learning how to interact with clients. “I got exposed to collaborating with customers commissioning your work,” he says. Through those interactions, Early-Nelson learned the skills necessary to negotiate the clients’ needs with his artistic vision.
Upon his return to Minneapolis in 2002, he enrolled in the welding program at the Dunwoody College of Technology, where he graduated in 2004. The program focused primarily on welding at the time and “lacked a focus on fabrication,” he says. “I wish I could have had more of that.” (The program has since evolved to include more metal fabrication, which is the building of metal structures by cutting, bending, and assembling processes.) 
Early-Nelson got plenty of practice with fabrication at his first job out of college, with ATN, a local stainless steel fabrication company. In teaching him how to do such tasks as making frames for CD drives from stainless steel tubing, his boss, Avi Nachmias, “worked really precisely,” Early-Nelson recalls. “He taught me a lot. That really set me up on my path.”
Due to immigration issues, Nachmias moved to Toronto. “I was left with Avi’s partner, who was more business-minded than craft-minded, and much more profit-driven,” Early-Nelson says. 
Shortly before the company folded, Early-Nelson quit and embarked on a contemplative, two-month freight train journey around the country. When he returned from his vagabond voyage, he decided he could no longer work within the rigid schedule of an employer. He founded Minneapolis-based Primitive Precision and initially operated out of a friend’s garage. “It was a scary transition to make,” he says. “I didn’t know what I was getting into.”
He supplemented his income by painting houses and lived with his sister and brother-in-law to share expenses. 
By 2009, demand for his forged and fabricated metal projects, architectural metalwork, and sculptures was high enough to warrant his own space. His banker recommended the former Canada Dry Shasta bottling plant across from Bracket Park in Minneapolis, where another metal worker wanted a shop mate. Early-Nelson moved into the space in 2009 and paid $280 in monthly rent. When a space opened up down the hall in 2011, he took it.
Because people around town know Early-Nelson is a collector, they’ll often drop off items, such as a spool of barbed wire or pieces from a building that was torn down, at his studio. He also likes to hunt for metal along train tracks. “I’m always looking,” he says. “When I pick something up, I’m like, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do with this thing.’ It might sit around for a year before I use it.”
Early-Nelson sells his goods at art fairs, where housewares, jewelry, and belt buckles are the hot products. Another big seller is bottle openers, which he makes from scrap metal, nuts, and bolts. He also crafts custom gifts, such as the sculpture he made for the pastor of a church. “People want something unique, not something off the assembly line, which I appreciate,” he says.
Thus far, Early-Nelson hasn’t felt the need to invest in advertising. The bulk of his business comes from word-of-mouth and returning clients. He’s also been picking up new customers from his partner, Liz Parent, who sells jewelry on Etsy. The couple had their first child together this year, and Early-Nelson has lent a hand with some of her orders.
“Rather than wait for people to come to me, I’m gregarious wherever I go,” he says. “I find out what other people are interested in, and share what I do every day.”
That approachable attitude helped him form a relationship with Randy Walker, a public artist based in Minneapolis who does specialized, large-scale installations throughout the U.S. After meeting at an art event, Walker sought out Early-Nelson for several projects, including a 45-foot-tall sculpture called “The Dream Elevator” for the City of St. Louis Park.
“Hans fills a niche that I was looking for,” Walker says. “He has a large base in traditional, straightforward welding processes: aluminum, mild steel, stainless steel. He’s familiar with all the fabricating processes that go along with those. His welding skills are exquisite. He has a lot of in-house machines and tools. He’s very connected; what he can’t do, he’ll search all over the country to get done.”
In a traditional shop, Walker might hand a worker a drawing, get a quote, and then receive the finished product with a quick turnaround. But “if there are mistakes in the drawings or if there’s a better way to do something which I haven’t thought of, that doesn’t get discussed,” Walker points out. He finds that the personal attention and collaborative spirit Early-Nelson provides is more conducive to his projects. 
“Hans really pours himself into the work,” Walker says. “He thinks it through to the level that he helps avoid expensive mistakes and comes up with more efficient ways to do it. That’s invaluable. Working with fixed budgets, I can’t pay for a job twice.”
If anything, Early-Nelson’s main challenge with Primitive Precision has been learning the administrative side of business. In 2009, he sought out a mentor from Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, a nonprofit based in Minneapolis. Together, they wrote a business plan and budget; unfortunately, one important topic not covered in the program was sales tax. 
In 2011, Early-Nelson found out “the hard way” that he should have been charging and paying sales tax. That experience “really pushed me to look at all the different areas of my business, from the books, to what kind of insurance I need, to keeping up-to-date with the laws as they change.” 
Early-Nelson got squared away financially and took a free class through the Minnesota Department of Revenue that covered the laws regarding sales and use tax on industrial production. “When I talk to other business owners, I say, ‘Do you know about this?’ and they don’t even want to talk about it,” he says of the tax laws. “A lot of people avoid it because they’re afraid or it’s time-consuming.”
Early-Nelson learned his lessons just in time. Business has been booming lately, thanks in part to the recovery of the housing market. He’s been making frames for Automated Building Components, a window and door manufacturer, to store its products on. And the newly renovated Birchwood Café, not far from his studio, features a pot rack he made.
He’s also working with Walker on two new commissions. One piece is called “The Connections Gallery,” a permanent steel structure for Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis. The other is a stainless steel cylinder that will be suspended 20 feet in the air as part of a sculpture for the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum in New Mexico. 
Because of the workload, Early-Nelson recently promoted his part-time welder, Charlie Parent, to a full-time position. Parent is a graduate of Minneapolis Community and Technical College and a welder with five years of experience. They met when Early-Nelson began dating his sister, Liz. They bonded immediately over their shared interest in welding, and Early-Nelson has since taught Parent blacksmithing. 
The plan for Primitive Precision is to grow slowly. Next on Early-Nelson’s wish list is adding 400 square feet to the front of his space for a small showroom and customer service area. The hire of another employee may be a consideration in a year’s time. He would also like to exhibit his creations in galleries around town.
“I prefer working on artistic projects,” he says, “but I also enjoy being versatile and incorporating a wedding band project and industrial welding on the same workday.”