Meet Minneapolis' man of steel — and other metals

Nick Bounds creates the tools or replacement parts needed to maintain the city's aging hydrants and water mains.

Sparks fly as Nick Bounds creates a new gate key with a welding torch.
Sparks fly as Nick Bounds creates a new gate key with a stick welder inside his workshop July 13 in Minneapolis.
Isabel Fajardo for MPR News

Chances are you don't get giddy looking at a fire hydrant. But Nick Bounds does.

"I can look at a hydrant and laugh," he said. "And I tell my wife sometimes, 'I made that.'"

Actually, Bounds helps make hydrants do what they're supposed to. As the city blacksmith, Bounds creates the metal tools or replacement parts needed to maintain Minneapolis' aging hydrants and water mains.

He does that because often there are no new parts that can be ordered for old infrastructure.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is Member supported public media. Show your support today, donate, and ensure access to local news and in-depth conversations for everyone.

"Back in old times everybody went to the blacksmith to get something made," said Bounds. “And sometimes, blacksmiths made horseshoes because they could do it. But traditionally, a farrier will do the horseshoes."

Bounds' work area at the city’s east side yard in Minneapolis looks like the lair of a mad scientist. Rods made of steel and iron are stacked and ready to be cut apart, bent or welded onto others. Several large bins full of gears and gizmos look like the spare parts Marvel Comics hero Tony Stark used to craft his first crude version of Iron Man.

Nick Bounds walks through the shop with a rod of steel.
Nick Bounds chooses a rod of steel to be welded into a new gate key.
Isabel Fajardo for MPR News

The part of the job he really loves

Garage doors on one end of the shop can be raised to help dissipate heat and odors that can make Bounds' workplace hard for coworkers to bear.

One day Bounds opened up a metal covering attached to a section of pipe.

"It just reeked like all get-out when I took this apart," said Bounds. "This one had everyone in tears almost. It was that bad."

But there was treasure inside that sealed casing long buried under the city streets: a pristine set of gears that can be reused.

"Look at how clean it is,” he said. “It's like brand new. And it's been in the ground for like 18 to 20 years."

Bounds said the gears, which came from a gate used to open and close the flow of water, are in such good shape because they were sealed in oil. However, the section he opened also contained some organic matter which fouled up the shop.

Nick Bounds looks off camera to the left in window light.
Nick Bounds shares his insights on the craft of blacksmithing and the pursuit of trade skills in an increasingly digital world.
Isabel Fajardo for MPR News

Bounds is clearly excited about his find. But the part of his job that he really loves is welding. A particular form, called stick welding, is his jam.

"It's old school," said Bounds, who's been a welder for 30 years. "A skilled welder loves stick welding because it just takes you to that place. I love it."

In layman's terms, stick welding — also called shielded metal arc welding — involves the use of electric current to create intense heat that bonds metal together. The welding tool is an electrode that looks like a stick about the width of a shake straw. The surge of electricity makes a loud zapping noise.

Bounds dons his fire-retardant jacket and drops the dark shield of his welding helmet over his face. The intense light, he warns, will damage the naked eye.

In a little over 30 seconds, Bounds welds a section of a 6-foot-long steel rod onto a metal box that is open on one end. The open end of the box will fit onto the top of a gate — similar to the foul-smelling one Bounds previously described. Workers use the tool like a socket wrench to turn the gears inside the gate to control the flow of water through the city’s water mains. Usually, he'll make 40 to 45 of these tools at a time.

Sparks fly as Nick Bounds wears a welding mask and cuts a new key.
Nick Bounds wears a welding mask as he creates a new gate key.
Isabel Fajardo for MPR News

As part of his job, Bounds welds short handles onto the shovels public works crews use to dig around water mains while in tight corners. He makes the long metal keys workers use to open the dessert-plate-sized water main access covers that sit along city sidewalks.

And Bounds makes hydrant wrenches.

"This goes on like that — bada bing, bada boom — they turn it. And, it opens," said Bounds as he demonstrated how the tool fits over the top nut of a hydrant.

Parts of the wrenches are fashioned at the city's machine shop in Fridley. But Bounds welds steel handles on the tools to make them stronger and easier to use. Some of the older wrenches were made of cast iron, which he said is porous and can break. And Bounds said the handles on those tools were too short.

"It's hard to wrench on something when it's short," said Bounds. "You actually need a little leverage there. That's why I make them long. They like that."

‘You’re going to have to do something with yourself’

Bounds grew up in north Minneapolis and attended North High School. As a young man, Bounds says he "got into a lot of trouble" and spent some time locked up. Then one day, his mom gave him an ultimatum.

A stack of work shirts that read "Nick" hang on a locker.
A stack of Nick Bounds’ personalized shirts hang by the lockers inside of a city of Minneapolis workshop.
Isabel Fajardo for MPR News

"My mom sat me down at the dinner table and she told me, 'I'm not going to take care of a grown man.' She said, 'You're going to have to do something with yourself, or get out.'"

So after high school, Bounds enrolled at Dunwoody Institute in 1987. He said he decided to take welding because it looked like it would be the easiest course.

"And, it wasn't," he said.

After finishing the two-year welding program in 1989, Bounds went on to build boilers and bridges. He's been at the city of Minneapolis for 19 years.

Bounds, 50, is married and has an 18-year-old son who's going to college.

In addition to the tools city employees use, Bounds said he's equally proud of his work that winds up buried underground.

"My instructor told me, 'Whatever you work on, work on it as if it's going to be shown to the world. Even if it's under a car,’" said Bounds. "So that's how I work. I don't care if nobody sees it.”