Baton Rouge’s Iron Man: David Cano of Iron Design

David Cano, the founder of LCI’s member business Iron Design, never thought that he would end up owning his own metalworking business one day.

Yet, he owns one of the most popular custom metal workshops in Baton Rouge. His life’s work seemed to find him rather than the other way around, and it’s taken him to new heights.

Native Son

David Cano grew up in Baton Rouge where he lived in the Villa del Rel neighborhood where he attended Glasgow Middle Magnate and Scottlandville Magnate High School from which he graduated in 1996. He went to the University of Louisiana in Lafayette to study engineering, but he didn’t stay there for long. He explained, “I quit because I couldn’t see my future at that point in my life. I never had a plan and didn’t know where I was going. I was always working on cars and stuff, and I had a guy at the shop that did a lot of import and unusual car repairs. They did some race stuff too. He offered me a job, and I said, ‘I can’t believe this guy thinks I’m good enough!’”

David stayed in that position for a handful of years before trying his luck at higher education again. “I ended up going back to school at LSU in math and philosophy. I got about 36 hours away from a double degree, then quit again.”

A string of odd jobs followed his second attempt at a college degree: delivering pizzas, gardening, and working at an auto parts store. Nothing seemed right for David until he landed in one job that led him to an entirely different opportunity. “The landscape guy that I worked for was always getting custom metal stuff made for his clients like wall trellises. My boss was always complaining about the guy who made his stuff being too slow. So I talked him into letting me make the stuff.”

David admittedly knew nothing about ironwork when he asked to be given a chance to start making custom pieces, but his boss promised him enough work to pay for the equipment that he needed to buy in order to start learning the craft. David bought a weld machine that he installed in his garage, read instructions on basic welding, and jumped right into bending and welding metal after some practice. David’s pieces were good enough for his boss to buy, but he wasn’t able to make a living off of ironwork just yet.

Practice Makes Perfect

After three years of making iron pieces in his garage after work, David decided to do ironwork full-time and quit all of his other jobs although it would be a strain financially. “My first exposure to the public as I started doing it was the Arts Market in Baton Rouge; I was one of the first vendors. That was a really crucial builder for the business because people would come up and see what I had and ask questions. People started asking me to do other projects, so I would just figure out how to do that. My skill level increased throughout the years, and I learned how to charge for my work better through the years. Probably like most people do in the beginning, I gave everything away. I got better at the craft and business ends.”

Iron Design took a long time to grow, but now it’s a thriving business with several employees. David has no regrets about leaving the realm of odd jobs to see if his business would take off. “I probably would have made more money working a job; I don’t think I made over $30,000 a year for the first eight years. But I finally got over the hump, got employees, learned how to manage employees, and make them efficient. I went from $22,000 one year to $108,000 the next. I have four full-time employees. I used to have a full-time shop dog, and the new shop dog is just part-time.”

Every Little Detail

David believes that his business has flourished due in part to his emphasis on crafting truly unique pieces with his custom tools. “The nice thing about welding is you can make strong connections. So when you bend something you can make your own tools which is something I hadn’t been able to do before. I started making my own bending tools that do different things and make different parts. I feel like we offer a higher level of detail compared to our competition, and I think our finishes are a little better. I like to think that we’re the people you call if you’re willing to spend a little more money and get a little more level of detail out of it,” said David.

David isn’t the only craftsperson in the family; his wife Kathryn Hunter owns an arts-based business as well. In 2003 when she earned an MFA in printmaking from Louisiana State University, she purchased a 1000-pound Chandler & Price 8×12 letterpress in Chicago that she moved down to Baton Rouge into the backroom of a friend’s place. As her budding business called Blackbird Letterpress grew, she moved the heavy machine and other equipment into David’s metalworking shop by 2007. “Letter press printing is like the obsolete printing method that’s not used anymore. There’s been a rebirth of the printing, but more high-end stationary and wedding invitations.” Kathryn and David purchased a two-story 1950s-era building a block down the street from David’s fabrication shop which now houses Kathryn’s business. They live above Blackbird Letterpress, and David enjoys walking to work every day.

David and his wife enjoy spending time out at their remote fishing camp in the Bayou Terrebone watershed when they’re not working at their respective crafts. Just like his work, David didn’t find his hobby until later in life. He said, “I grew up in Louisiana and never went to the Coast, never fished, and never did any hunting. I had some friends who started taking me fishing when I was 30. Within a couple of years, I had my own boat. Within another couple of years, I had a fishing camp. It’s out on the water; it’s a primitive camp. I’m there as much as my wife will let me go. She’ll go too; she’ll go kayaking, sit and sketch, or read books.”

You can learn more about Iron Design at Irondesignllc.com.