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THE ART OF WELDING

Iowa welder turns metal into lifelike creations

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Tanner King, a welder in Auburn, Iowa, talks about his art, including a set of three welded oak trees at the Grant Park Trail trailhead in Auburn.

AUBURN, Iowa -- Every now and then, passersby make an unplanned stop, needing a closer look at three oak trees standing near the Grant Park Trail trailhead here.

Are the 24-foot-tall oaks real? Or are they just incredibly realistic replicas?

Welder Tanner King

Welder Tanner King sits near a pair of metal oak trees at the Grant Park Trail trailhead in Auburn, Iowa. In addition to more traditional welding jobs, King and his crew at Martin's Welding in Auburn create metal sculptures that can be seen throughout Sac County and beyond.

"There's actually been some people that say they had to get out and touch them," said Tanner King, a skilled welder who creates lifelike metal sculptures that at first glance might fool you into thinking they're the real thing.

It's exactly the kind of reaction King aims for.

"That's one of my goals, to make sure it looks as real as possible," King said.

The majority of his business at Martin's Welding remains commercial welding for area farmers, but the number of requests he receives for his ornamental welding pieces continues to grow.

"You never know what's coming next," King said.

He sure couldn't have known his sculptures would end up at resorts in Okoboji and Lake of the Ozarks when, drawing on the artistic ability he said runs on both sides of his family, he first made a life-sized palm tree about seven years ago.

"I thought it would be pretty cool to build sculptures," King said. "I just figured I could sell them."

Welder Tanner King

Welder Tanner King stands with a sculpture of a crane that is in the process of being built at his shop, Martin's Welding in Auburn, Iowa. King began still relies on commercial welding for most of his business, but has a growing ornamental welding that began seven years ago when he made a palm tree.

As he quickly discovered after that first tree sold, if you build it, customers will come.

"Word of mouth spread like crazy," he said. "I've probably made close to a hundred of those."

Some have sprouted in Auburn and nearby Sac City and Lake View. Others stand in Okoboji and Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri. He sold a truckload of 15 to a buyer in Kansas City.

Once word spread of King's talent for making palm trees, other requests came. The city of Sac City asked if he could make some dandelions to place in the city's South Park. The result, three stunning 26-foot-tall stainless steel sculptures of seeded-out dandelions so realistic you'd expect to see the seeds blow away in the breeze. King has made bald eagles, turtles, cranes, butterflies, owls and other animals and plants -- all of them extremely lifelike.

"I look at a picture and build from there," he said.

He pulled a lot of dandelions apart as research before building the Sac City pieces. Before sculpting a turtle, he caught one and kept it in a tank in his shop for a week to study it before turning it loose. Realism is important to King, and it's a big reason why you won't find him making abstract art.

"That's one thing I will not do is make something that doesn't look like it should," King said.

Welder Tanner King

A metal butterfly and other sculptures line East Main Street leading into Sac City, Iowa. All were built by Tanner King, a welder from nearby Auburn who has a growing ornamental welding business. Many of his sculptures can be seen in Sac City, including three 26-foot-tall stainless steel dandelions that stand in the city's South Park.

The artistic side of his work continues to develop upon a lifetime spent welding. He grew up across the street, spending hours in the shop owned by his grandfather Martin Erickson, who had owned it since 1955 and taught King how to weld. A mini motorcycle the two built together when Tanner was 12 or 13 is displayed inside.

King began renting the shop from Erickson in 2010 or 2011, he said, eventually inheriting it after his grandfather's death in 2014. Erickson never really retired, King said, showing up at the shop nearly every day to see how things were going. He saw his grandson's first palm tree, and King said he would have appreciated the growing ornamental side of the business.

"He'd think it was cool," King said.

A lot of other local residents think so, too.

King said he and his two employees have enough orders for ornamentals to keep them busy until July. That, of course, depends on what else comes through the door. King's focus remains on his commercial customers. You won't find him working on palm trees during the busy spring planting and fall harvest seasons, when farmers are coming to him to weld broken machinery.

The artwork keeps him busy during slower times, when he can take the time to allow his creativity to take over.

"It's been good," King said, "and obviously the longer we do it, the easier it's getting."

And the easier it gets for King, the harder it gets for the rest of us to tell his creations from the real thing.

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