Tales of the Trades shares just some of the millions of stories in the skilled industrial trades, shining a bright light on the hard-working tradesmen and women who build, operate and maintain the world we live in. We also focus on the individuals and organizations working hard to advance industrial sectors and ensure their success over the coming decades.
Meet Mike Rizzo. Mike, aka @muffin.man.metal, is a welder, bladesmith, metal artist, and the founder of Muffin Man Metalworks. Based in Connecticut, Mike started out in the heavy equipment repair and fabrication industry through an apprenticeship program in and out of high school. After serving in the Army for 4 years, he returned to the trade and developed a much deeper interest in the welding and fabricating side of it all, where it activated a creative side he didn’t even know existed. Mike started working with different types of scrap metal and building sculptures when he also became heavily influenced in blacksmithing through the History Channel’s “Forged in Fire” competition. He eventually applied to compete on the show, where he earned champion status in Season 8, Episode 1. Since then, he’s been blending all things metal work-related together to further feed his curiosity and strengthen his skills.
What led you to pursue a career in the trades, and specifically your chosen industry?
Growing up, I had two grandfathers that were blue collar and just sort of MacGyver-type individuals. They did a lot themselves, and I spent a lot of time with them. I’ve always been a really hands-on person, so when the time came to find a job, I ended up with an apprenticeship at a heavy equipment and truck fabrication shop through some family connections. That really ended up opening up a whole bunch of doors for me, as far as getting even more mechanically inclined. I learned how to weld and just general fabricating skills, as well. The apprenticeship turned into a full-time technician position, and I ended up being a jack of all trades by my early 20’s.
What has your journey been like since you started?
In between all of that, I actually joined the army for 4 years, too. I was in logistics in the army, and then came back to that same technician position. I was a bit older when I returned, and I started looking around and saw that everybody who had taught me was significantly older than me. It didn’t seem like there were a lot of young people coming into that particular line of work. I really started to notice that the industry is pretty grueling on your body. Ultimately, I made the decision to leave the trade for a little while and took up a few different management positions. I also had my own business for a little while, but I really missed the trade and tinkering in that particular category.
I started acquiring a lot of the tools at home, and with the significant background I had already, what ended up happening was that I started to realize that I had a real creative side I had never really unlocked before. With the times that we’re living in and with the presence of social media that different types of artists have, my creative juices started flowing. I ended up taking those skills and sort of testing them out in a creative manner, so I got really into scrap metal art. I was watching “Forged in Fire” on the History Channel, and I got into blacksmithing and knifemaking. Over the past few years, I’ve sort of blended that all together under this metalworking umbrella. Now, I have a waitlist and am making everything from knives and swords to sculpture commissions. It’s this blend of many different avenues, which is the type of person I am, because I don’t like the idea of picking just one thing. I like a lot of things.
What have you learned about yourself from being in the trades?
What I’ve really started to learn about myself is that I’m not a fan of any sort of repetition. I have an extremely good work ethic, and if there’s a job at hand then I can get it done, however big or small. But one of my favorite parts about where I’m at right now is that every time I walk into my shop, I am making something totally different that I’ve never done before. That is incredibly stimulating to me, and it’s challenging. It’s a lot that I never really thought about in my early 20’s. My family is pretty old school, and they’re mostly immigrants and business owners, so from a really young age, I was taught to hustle hard and focus more. I always had two or three jobs, it was always, “Go, go, go!” and “Never say no to a book,” but now I’m exhausted. I’m pretty burnt out. This creative avenue that I’ve found in myself brings me so much more joy, and it really doesn’t matter about the dollar signs or where I’m going. It makes me appreciate the moment much more, which is kind of where I’m at in my life in general.
What is the most rewarding part of your work?
I do get a lot of joy once something is complete, or even as I’m doing it. Making something from nothing is definitely rewarding. What’s also rewarding is compliments from people. We probably wouldn’t even be sitting here today had it not been for just the first few things I made. People were impressed, and it kept me going further with it. I do a wide variety of things, but now I’m open to this wide network. I’m a member of the American Welding Society, the American Bladesmith Society, and a few different collaboratives as well. I like that I can hold a conversation with anybody in the field and get the gist of what they’re talking about. That’s really rewarding, too.
What are the most challenging parts of your work?
I would say for every super awesome internet post, there’s probably 3 of that same post that have been in the trash. I feel like every type of artist, especially those that are using the internet as their platform, feels that same way. I’m a bit of a perfectionist myself, and I hold myself to some pretty high standards. There’s also definitely been some struggles to figure out how I can live this more relaxed yet more creatively stimulated life, but still pay the bills. We all sort of do that dance. It’s an everyday challenge.
Over the last few years, I’ve had periods of depression, but I’m also a big fan of rising to those occasions and battling those mental health issues. I’m a big fan of being your own positive reinforcement, so on the door to my shop, I printed out a piece of paper with something I typed up one day that I put up and it says, “I am capable.” That’s it. That’s all it says. I see that every day when I walk in. Any sort of real firm, positive statement is what keeps me going.
What does it take to be successful at what you do?
I would definitely fall back to the work ethic I was raised with. There have been plenty of days where I’ve started at 3 or 4 in the morning and finished at midnight. What also helps is that in the particular avenue I’ve chosen to walk, I have real, genuine interest in all the things affiliated with it. I don’t think I’ve ever looked at something that someone else has made and thought, “I don’t feel like doing that.” Anything metal working related, I’m definitely going to try.
What is a misconception about your work or frustration that you experience in your trade?
It’s pretty remarkable how many people will probably never understand what goes into making a good quality knife, especially when that is a particular tool you can now go to Walmart and get for $10. With sculptures too, someone will look at a price tag and be like, “Well, this is just old car parts,” or something. People just insult welding as a trade overall. It’s crazy how much people will shame or simplify something that they’ve probably never even done before.
With my work, it’s not some big company behind it… it’s just me. If you happen to have some sort of issue with something that I made, you can contact me directly – the guy who made it – and I can fix it, repair it, or modify it. You’re also getting that with the price tag, which a lot of people don’t consider. People just look at that number, but you’re getting a lot behind that price.
It’s not all entirely negative. I’ve made bookshelves and other furniture for people, and the flip side is that even though they know they can get this stuff at a furniture store, customers buy pieces from me simply because they enjoy the fact that it’s either made locally or they know the guy who made it.
Any advice for those thinking about taking up an industrial trade?
Some of the best advice that I once got was that a paid apprenticeship is better than an unpaid internship. If someone were to get certified in a trade, even if you didn’t want to stick with it, it would be no different than having a minor and a college degree. It becomes something you can always fall back on. I have so many fallbacks at this point, and I’m still young. It’s because I have an interest in knowing multiple things, and I don’t see anything wrong with that. I feel like that’s how future generations should be raised – to take interest in more than one thing and commit to learning more than one avenue of life.
I am forever grateful for the fact that I was exposed to on site task training where I was getting taught in the moment. It was sort of like a baptism under fire where you learn as you go, which is really important. I feel like too many people are crawling instead of jumping.
Last but not least: what’s your favorite way to spend your free time?
I have a dog, and me and my dog are pretty much ride or die homies. Because of my background, I basically like anything with an engine on it, so I’m an avid motorcyclist. I’ve also got a project truck I’m working on. I like weekend getaways, and I love being outside. Anything like mountain biking, kayaking, etc. I’m getting back into fishing again, which I appreciate a lot. I’ve recently started to get more heavily involved in veterans charity work, as well.
Our thanks to Mike for making time to share his story and industry insights with us.
You can follow and support Mike on the following platforms: