Meet Leo Gaev, your friendly neighborhood metalsmith.
Working out of a Lloyd Street shop in Carrboro, he and his employee, Sam Steele (really!), have produced grand work for large commercial and residential clients, including an outdoor steel-and-glass canopy at Lantern and a pizza oven for the new Pizzeria Toro in Durham. He’s also a go-to subcontractor for architects, making structural supports that, hopefully, will never see the light of day.
“Because our business is located right downtown, we do a lot of small repairs: fixing broken metal furniture, lawn mowers, you name it,” Leo says. “I kind of think of it as our community service. I equate it to the mentality in this area that people have, the same one they carry with them in going to the Farmers’ Market, that they like to know their farmers and the people who raise their food. There’s a similar quality to my customers. People like to come into the shop and touch the metal and get their hands dirty and have an experience with what’s being made for them, and thus they have much more of a connection.”
Those warm fuzzies have translated into good business.
“A $25 job turns into a $50 job turns into a $500 job,” Leo says.
The Massachusetts native followed a love interest to Valle Crucis after honing his craft in the late ’90s while attending Hampshire College, a small liberal arts school that happened to have “an amazing metal shop.” He moved to the Chapel Hill area in 2007 when his girlfriend came to start a graduate program at UNC. They’ve since split up, but Leo stayed put. He’d befriended Sam Caldwell, who ran Machine Technology Inc. on North Graham Street before he died in 2009. “He became a mentor to me,” Leo says.
After Sam died, Leo obtained all the equipment and moved to the Lloyd Street space later that year. He walks to work every day with his “North Carolina lab mutts,” Duke and Ella, then cranks up the blowtorch and keeps an eye out for whoever walks through the door.
“I really like the small-town environment,” he says.
Originally published May/June 2013