Single-Minded for Metal
Heart of Texas Metalworks LLC forms new bonds across the country
Few would know that Lee Lanford once considered studying genetic research and engineering—until he was introduced to the fine craft of metal sculpting.
Today, he’s the owner of one of Central Texas’ premier metalsmithing and fabrication companies, providing a range of services from custom production and assembly to restoration and repair of all things metal. The company’s reputation for excellence has even spread beyond the Lone Star State.
While the path to owning his own company, Heart of Texas Metalworks LLC, was neither straight nor easy, it is a route that has reinforced his love and skill for a vocation, even as he looks to push the boundaries of his growing business and excite the next-generation craftworker.
Cut, Roll and Bend
At the age of 23, Lanford, who had just opted out of the Stephen F. Austin State University genetic research program, was looking for a new career. While taking core classes at Austin Community College in Austin, Texas, he signed up for a metalworks class—and found his career passion.
The college had just started a welding technology degree program, which included courses in gas oxy-acetylene welding, plasma cutting, metal rolling and bending, and foundry work. Lanford became the first person to graduate with a welding degree with an emphasis in art metals. After graduation, he worked in machine plants as an inspector.
He attended an Artist-Blacksmith’s Association of North America (ABANA) conference in 1998 and signed up for the association’s newly founded journeyman program for shop owners. Through that program, he traveled around the country working for blacksmiths who were performing high-end work on residential and commercial projects.
Eventually, he returned to his roots in Central Texas, met and married his wife, and got a job doing precision welding in clean rooms while he continued to work side jobs for shop owners in the area as needs arose. In 2005, at the age of 35, he got laid off in an increasingly difficult economy.
Lanford recalls, “I decided it was time to go out on my own and gain a little more control over my career.”
It took another two years before Lanford was completely confident that he could forge a connection between his passion for metalworking and business ownership. As part of his vision for his company, Lanford set forth a plan to invest more into the tools, techniques and people. He bought some land and built a 5,000-square-foot building to house all of his equipment, which by this time included welding machines, power hammers, drill presses, finishing equipment and a water jet that allows for precision cutting on all types of materials. One of his first employees was a local welding inspector and one of his former metalworking instructors, Keith Wojcik, who not only helped work jobs as the business grew but helped Lanford establish operational standards, such as certified welding procedures and best practices.
While the bottom fell out of the economy in 2008, Lanford’s company had enough backlog to keep the business afloat. One of these projects was the decorative metalwork for the W Austin hotel’s plaza and fourth floor pool as well as custom entryway signage.
With an emphasis on quality, Lanford and his crew of metalworkers began to take on a broad scope of decorative and utilitarian work. For instance, his team helped fabricate the 35-foot-long glass and steel DNA sculpture that hangs in the science building stairwell at McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas, in 2010.
One of the biggest jobs has been The University of Texas at Austin’s Student Activity Center. The center incorporates activity, event, meeting, dining and outdoor gathering spaces. Lanford’s team has fabricated and installed railings and trellises on the patio as well as decorative architectural systems throughout the facility.
Earlier this year, Heart of Texas Metalworks completed a decorative project for a new H-E-B technology center and laboratory—an Austin-based, on-demand delivery service that is a wholly owned subsidiary of H-E-B. Lanford forged and fabricated all the custom signage for the facility in collaboration with the H-E-B Digital Partners group. The company also fabricated and installed the custom metal screens for the stairways at the Bumble headquarters in Austin.
Today, the company’s customers span multiple market segments, from commercial to industrial, and range from individuals and companies to global conglomerates. For instance, the Metal Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, wanted to produce some custom pieces for its headquarters, metal logos for the TruGreen lawn care company and custom bronze gates for another corporate customer in Hawaii.
“We build for longevity. Any work that we do should outlast my life.” Lee Lanford, Founder and Principal, Heart of Texas Metalworks LLC
His crew is also well known in the Central Texas area among the relatively small and tight-knit metalworking community. Lanford and his team will often help other metalworking companies complete complex jobs.
Lanford continues to add new capabilities in his shop as well, which has created some unexpected opportunities. For example, he’s begun building custom belt grinders for knife makers. The company is also contributing to next-generation space flight. His creative craftworkers have cut specialized aluminum and stainless steel parts for space vehicles and rocket parts for Hawthorne, California-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), a U.S. aerospace manufacturer and space transportation service provider, and Austin-based Firefly Aerospace Inc., a private aerospace firm that develops small- and medium-sized launch vehicles for commercial launches to orbit.
“We are willing to go where we’re needed and support any need on the ground or in space,” Lanford says.
Threading New Bonds
Beyond the continuous improvement of his craft through technology and technique, Lanford is highly focused on strengthening relationships with his highly skilled team of craftworkers, the community and his customers.
One way is by helping excite and educate the next-generation metalworker. Lanford regularly volunteers as a mentor for welding programs at local high schools, such as Pflugerville High School and Hendrickson High School. He’s been a member of the Austin Community College, Welding Technology Advisory Committee for more than a decade. In this role, he helps to define goals and curriculum of the welding technology program to ensure students have the skills and knowledge to enter the workforce. He also sits on the advisory council for welding programs at Texas State Technical College, a two-year technical state college with 10 campuses around Texas. He’s also the club manager for a local 4‑H program that provides kids with hands-on learning activities in health, science, agriculture and civic engagement.
He believes that at least a few of these students will work for him one day.
Back in his workshop, Lanford employs three talented metal-working individuals—minus his first employee, Wojcik, who retired in 2018. Lanford says, “He and I are lifelong friends. Even though he’s retired, he has still floated in and out over the years, and still signs off on our written procedures.”
Every member of Lanford’s team, current and former, believes in his motto: “Perfection is expected; Excellence is only tolerated.”
He adds, “I want to have people who are looking to improve and learn. We build for longevity. Any work that we do should outlast my life.”
Lanford carries that same maxim with his customers. He confirms, “Metalworking is all about building bonds—and so are business relationships. I like to work with my customers to deliver the best cost, quality and aesthetic solution for the project.”
While business is booming, Lanford is cautious about growing too fast, explaining, “I would like to expand, but not at the expense of quality and consistency of our work—and I still like to know and be directly involved in every project that we take on.”
He’s also still passionate about the craft of metalworking and always happy to talk about metals, concluding, “I love working with metal as do my guys. At the most basic, I’m a problem solver. I believe my team is among the best and that we can find a way to improve an existing metal system and fabricate most any solution, no matter the complexity or purpose.”