Maker: Jim Trainer
Alabama Iron Works | Fairhope, Alabama
This Alabama Maker Turns Dreams Into Steel
By Tommy Black
November 13, 2017
Jim Trainer turns dreams into steel. “Whatever people dream up, I can usually make,” says Trainer, founder of Alabama Iron Works. “Most of my business comes from word of mouth. Someone will see one of my fire pits or signs and ask, ‘Where did that come from?’ Pretty soon they’re over here asking me to make one for them.”
From his Fairhope workshop, the metal master makes personalized fire pits, ornamental gates and railings, signs and furniture from steel, steel plate and aluminum for individuals and businesses. His one-of-a-kind pieces adorn backyards, downtowns and restaurants across the country.
After graduating from the University of Maine, Trainer moved to Seattle, where he worked for more than 30 years as a professional structural designer, using computer aided design (CAD) software and plasma cutters to design and build ships for the Navy.
“I came to Fairhope in 2005,” he says. “One weekend I was at a friend’s house and they had a fire pit burning in the backyard. It was made from cheap metal, and I thought, ’I can make a better one than that out of steel.’” He started experimenting with different designs and materials, and came up with a sturdy but portable fire pit that weighs about 100 pounds. “I put a quarter inch of steel in the bottom of the pit, and I’ve never had one returned with a burned-through hole yet,” Trainer explains. “And with a plasma cutter I could cut a logo like a football or the person’s name into the side of it. Pretty soon, folks were coming from all over wanting their own personalized pits.”
While Trainer is still mainly known for his unique fire pits, he’s also branched out into custom signs and ornamental gates and railings. “One of my customers asked if I could use the CAD software to design a steel sign,” Trainer says. “I figured out how to do that and now I do signage for restaurants, bars and shops of all kinds.” Trainer’s gleaming words welcome customers to restaurants such as NoJa in Mobile, and public places like the 52-foot-tall clock and clarion bell tower at the entrance to the Foley Centennial Plaza. “I’ve made signs with the words illuminated by LED lights, and right now I’m experimenting with mixing the steel with acrylics,” he says. “I like the way it scatters light when it hits the sign.”
In addition to high-tech tools like computers and plasma cutters, Trainer relies on some vintage equipment to shape and slice his metals. “I have a slip roller that’s about 60 years old,” he says. “It’s a pretty rare piece of machinery. You don’t see many around anymore. I found it in a scrap metal bin, brought it home and repaired it. It can roll a plate of steel into a perfect circle.”
Trainer also uses a World War II-era horizontal hacksaw “that can cut through almost any kind of metal.” “I enjoy using antique tools, especially when they work as well as these do,” Trainer says. “They give me the sense of really shaping something with my hands.”
These days, Trainer has plenty of work to do. A Mobile furniture company recently commissioned him to design the legs for a series of oak-topped tables, and he’s building a barbecue smoker for a local restaurant. “I do the Fairhope Arts and Crafts Festival every year, and that usually brings me enough business to keep me busy for a while,” Trainer says. “Since everything is custom made, I talk to the customer a lot before I begin a project. Then I draw several possible designs to find out exactly what they want – because you can’t hit the delete button once you start cutting steel.”
The Product: Steel fire pits and signs, as well as steel or aluminum ornamental metal gates and railings.
Take Home: A custom-made personalized steel fire pit (about 48 inches wide). Prices start at $550.
Alabama Ironworks, 356 Commercial Park Drive, Fairhope, AL