LACEY - A self-described “tomboy” who grew up in the Forked River section of Lacey, Stephanie Hoffman always had an affinity for the art of welding.
And today, as one of the few female faces of the industry, she’s taken her passion to unique new heights — from launching a successful Forked River-based business, UnderGround Metal Works, to starring on a popular Netflix show and opening a brand-new welding school, where she hopes to inspire the next generation of metal fabricators.
“My father was in heavy construction and was always impressed by the skill set of welders who worked for him,” recalled Hoffman, a Beachwood resident. “He constantly praised the field and thought it was a great career, so when I was about 11, I asked him if I could give it a shot. I immediately fell in love with welding and, as it turned out, I had a knack for it too.”
Hoffman took welding classes as electives throughout high school and was ultimately one of the first female graduates in that track at Ocean County VoTech in Toms River.
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According to Hoffman, however, being a woman in a historically male-dominated field brought added pressure.
“All through school, I was under a microscope. People were always looking for a reason to discredit me, so there were no mistakes allowed,” she said. “But that actually pushed me harder and I ended up securing American Welding Society (AWS) certifications that exceeded those of my male classmates.”
She spent the next several years doing heavy pipe work for different companies until 2008, when she had her daughter.
“At that point, I opted to teach welding based on the flexibility it offered,” said Hoffman, who became a teacher’s aide alongside her former mentor at Ocean County VoTech and then spent the next four years teaching at Salem County VoTech — a move which unexpectedly led to the launch of her company.
“UnderGround Metal Works started accidentally in 2016 while I was teaching,” Hoffman explained. “As I helped some of my students get jobs and they went to work, I found myself with time off at the end of day, so I started doing metal fabrication work for friends, including everything from custom furniture to roll cages for off-road vehicles and signage for hair salons, tattoo shops, bars and coffee shops,” she said.
“It was a different type of welding than anyone was used to and I realized that those kinds of projects were a great way for me to engage students of mine who weren’t yet employed,” she said.
Hoffman continued incorporating those types of “cool builds” into her students’ course curriculums until she left teaching to focus on that type of work exclusively, launching UnderGround Metal Works from her detached garage in 2019.
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As word of her work spread and she began to take on projects that included everything from crafting signage for a Botox studio in Red Bank to designing taps for a bar in Louisville, Kentucky, the American Welding Society approached her about being a face/ambassador of their organization.
“It was such an honor and I jumped at the opportunity,” Hoffman said of the position she’s held since 2019. “I currently speak to over 60,000 students a year at trade schools, state fairs, rodeos and agricultural events nationwide about the welding field, and I also prepare a lot of video content and tutorials for the AWS. In light of the estimated shortage of over 250,000 welders the nation will be facing in the next five years, I work to help raise awareness of the field and promote AWS scholarship and grant programs.”
Her prominence in the field also led to her star turn as a content expert and judge on the Netflix series "Metal Shop Masters."
“They reached out to me based on my status in the welding industry and it’s been a great experience,” she said of the show, which can be viewed on Netflix streaming.
Between her role on the show and the 14 weeks a year she spends touring the nation on behalf of the AWS, however, “I missed teaching,” said Hoffman, who addressed that void by expanding her business to include a new welding school in Forked River this February.
In the 2,000-square-foot space, which also now houses her business, “it’s very communal, with floating booths and a one-on-one feeling at affordable prices,” she said. “While other schools often enroll 20 students at a time and deliver one-size-fits-all instruction, we instruct five students at a time in a way that’s very tailored to their needs. We have small class sizes, a rad environment, and a very personalized approach to education.”
Since opening just two months ago, Hoffman said that all or most of her current classes — which range in price from $400 for single-day intensives to $850 for weeklong programs — are sold out.
“I’ve had students come from Washington, Texas, Tennessee and all over the country because this type of school doesn’t exist elsewhere,” she said.
“I’m a big punk rock fan and I love the Miami vibe, so this school is ‘punk rock meets 'Miami Vice,’” she said of the fully renovated, industrial-chic space complete with stamped tin tiles and neon graffiti on the walls, black epoxy floors dotted with glitter, and a 40-by-16-foot wall bearing the message "Enjoy the Ride … Stay Rad."
Enrollment fees include each student’s materials and personal protective equipment, while the school’s small retail shop offers a collection of laser-cut signs, UnderGround Metal Works merchandise, and other welding safety equipment.
Making welding more accessible
“You can get such texture and depth through metal fabrication and engraving,” Hoffman said of her creations, which often incorporate wood, lights and other materials and are priced at $95 per hour of labor plus materials (with plasma cutting charged by part size and material).
“I’ve made everything from big banquet tables with metal legs and wood tops to an item for comedian Jo Koy and a cool anchor sign out of steel and engraved copper for Bryan Kienlen, bass player for The Bouncing Souls and owner of Anchors Aweigh Tattoo in Bradley Beach.”
Among trends in the industry, Hoffman said that welding machinery has become more user-friendly, accessible and affordable than ever, especially for home hobbyists.
“You can now get great equipment for under $1,000 or $2,000 and can ‘do it yourself’ instead of hiring out the work,” she said. “In addition, I see more women coming into the field than when I started 20 years ago, which is great given the current shortage of male skilled trade workers. There are increasing opportunities for women to fill these jobs and companies are going to need us.”
Among her favorite parts of her job, “I love challenging myself to create things with metal and seeing customers’ appreciation,” Hoffman said. “I also enjoy tailoring my teaching style to engage each student and then seeing them succeed and feel confident. I love those ‘a-ha’ moments.”
As the modern face of an age-old trade, Hoffman hopes to make welding more accessible and less daunting to men and women alike.
“Welding was once just a structural part of construction, but now it’s an artistic medium as well,” said Hoffman, whose school will host an open house on May 21 with live demos, discounted classes and giveaways. “I want to inspire more people to take up the craft so that they can experience the joy of making epic things with their hands.”
UnderGround Metal Works
Location: 695 Challenger Way, Unit 4B, Lacey
Owner: Stephanie Hoffman
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Netflix Metal Shop Masters judge teaches welding at Lacey NJ business