Workshop skills are a staple part of most farm jobs, but a sideline fabrication business could also offer a useful extra income.
Farmers Weekly speaks to Tom Blakeman of Suckley Engineering, who has started his own full-time manufacturing operation specialising in one-off builds
How did you get started?
Our home farm in Shropshire was never going to be big enough to sustain the whole family, so I have always been conscious of needing to carve a career away from agriculture.
For that reason, I studied engineering at Harper Adams, then headed to New Zealand for 18 months. There I took up a job designing and fabricating mud recycling systems for the oil and gas industry – basically 40ft containers full of screens, filters and shakers to separate drilling mud, solids and crude oil.
When I got back to the UK I worked as a designer for different engineering companies, but always craved the freedom of the farming lifestyle and being my own boss.
I started Suckley Engineering last year on a part-time basis to get things moving, but it was at the start of this year that we went full-time.
Did it take lots of investment?
It’s surprising how little kit you need to get going – a band saw and welder can get you a good way into most projects.
I’ve gone with a mix of old and new. The two band saws both came second-hand for about £1,000 – a 15-year-old Startrite and an eight-year-old Pedrazzoli that have plenty of life left in them and are far better than cheap Chinese imports.
I would always rather by old and quality over new and cheap because everything starts with the saw and a straight cut is imperative.
The two welders – one mig, one tig – both came new. I didn’t want to risk buying second-hand with the welders because, to a large extent, the welds are what the final product is judged on.
I have gradually added the other items – an oxyacetylene cutter with decent-length pipes and a long head, ring rollers to curve plate steel, a mag drill and bench grinder.
We also have a portable extractor fan that works like a massive hoover, but the best buy has to be our forklift truck that I found on eBay for £1,200.
As for hand tools, the most used is the grinder – so I made sure I had a decent one. Hitachi gear is pretty good, but I’m not wedded to any particular brand.
And laser cutting?
I tend to try to outsource that kind of work. A large laser cutter, for instance, could cost the fat end of £500,000 and I would constantly be thinking about different ways to make it pay for its self.
We send ours to a pretty big outfit in the West Midlands because not everyone can handle the 70mm-thick Hardox that we sometimes need profiling.
I also like to try to buy the kit outright, rather than the constant burden of monthly payments when hiring or leasing. It’s simpler to know how much it costs me to send it somewhere else – that way my risk is minimal.
What about your workshop?
A 2,000sq ft block came available in a collection of old industrial buildings not far from where I live. It’s rural, but I’ve got to know all the contractors in the area so there’s no problem finding staff. It’s also big enough for us to gradually expand as we take on more work.
However, there’s no office so the laptop just sits on a toolbox in the corner of the workshop and we have a sofa that we roll out when customers come to talk through their plans.
It has turned out to be an advantage because we can adapt things on the fly by quickly digging out the drawings and tweaking them as we go.
One of the neighbours happens to have a powder coating facility, which is also useful when it comes to offering customers the complete package.
Do you work away from the workshop?
As far as the customer is concerned, we take care of the lot – all the way from pencil drawings through to final installations, including the 3D modelling, fabrication, painting and delivery.
Doing anything away from the workshop is always inconvenient. To help, I have built the workshop benches on wheels and to a size that means they can slot on to the pick-up’s rear deck.
In time, I will also make them double up as tool carriers to stash kit in while we are away but we try and do as much as we can in the workshop before we leave – sometimes that can mean assembling huge projects and hoisting the whole lot on to a lorry.
What sort of customers do you have?
We deal with all sorts of requests, from fancy staircases for London maisonettes to adaptor plates for telehandler headstocks. It’s useful to have repeat customers but pretty much everything we build is a one-off and most people find us through the website.
The idea is to make the process as simple as possible for the customers and allow them to get as involved as they want to be. Some come with detailed plans of their item, but most are less fussy and leave us to it.
What have you built?
Most of the work comes from quarries – excavator attachments, lifting kit and that sort of thing. Some of it is heavy-duty stuff, such as a 100mm-thick ripper attachment designed to break up sediment layers before going in with the bucket.
We have also built farm kit – livestock feed rails, loader attachments and steels for new barns – but it’s not just big stuff.
We designed a slide-out storage bed to slot in the back of a vet’s pick-up to carry all the paraphernalia required for the job.
We have also done gun cabinets, wood burners, fancy stairways and house signs.
Is there a growing market for this type of work?
There’s no chance of us competing with volume manufacturers churning out 100 digger buckets per week, but then that kind of factory work doesn’t appeal to me.
I think it’s a huge advantage to be both designer and a maker. We see the design from a practical point of view, even down to little things such as keeping grease nipples accessible and making sure it’s easy to get a socket on any nuts and bolts.