One day, Lisa Humbyrd was in her machine shop in Westport chatting with one of her regular customers when a tourist came in. She asked him if he needed something.
“I walk up and say, ‘Can I help you?’ and he starts talking over my shoulder to my customer behind me about what he needs done,” Humbyrd said.
Humbyrd, who is a thin 5 foot 4 inches tall with a long, brown braid hanging down the middle of her back, turned and gave a withering look to her regular customer, a man, who proceeded to tense with apprehension.
She turned back to the tourist, looked him in the eye and pointed to the sign on the wall of the Westport shop. “Look,” she growled. “This is Humbyrd Machine. I’m Humbyrd. You’ve already pissed me off. What do you want?”
This is customer service, Lisa Humbyrd style. While the interaction was most likely an uncomfortable one for her potential client, it was par for the course for the 41-year-old Humbyrd who, as a rare female in the world of steel and oxyacetylene, is used to having to stand her ground when her skills are questioned or overlooked.
In fact, a gritty facade and grumpy demeanor coupled with a fluency in the use of expletives is almost requisite for a machinist whose client base is mostly commercial fishermen. The strength, durability and functionality of the custom gear she makes for boats has to stand up to the rigors of a brutal and dangerous job.
In that context, the person who makes the gear needs to stand up to the rigors of the job. Fishing gear needs to be tough. Fishermen want the person who makes it to be tough too. Humbyrd has found a profession where political correctness is a liability, and she loves it.
“I don’t have to pull my punches,” she said. “If I don’t like somebody’s attitude, I can tell them to leave. If they don’t like mine, I can tell them to leave.”
After dealing with commercial fishermen for her entire adult life, the tourist was small fry. “He was thoroughly apologetic. He was really embarrassed,” she said.
Raised Around Steel
As a child, Lisa Humbyrd remembers being dropped off by her mother at the machine shop where her father, Lonnie, worked. At that time he worked for Ernie Fields in a shop located on what is now the current Westport Shipyard campus. Lonnie would trick the kids into cleaning the metal shavings that collected under the machines.
“My dad, clever old coot, would take a handful of Hot Wheels and throw them in the trays under the machines and we’d clean out the trays to get the Hot Wheels,” said Humbyrd, laughing.
Between Humbyrd and her older sister, Krysty, it was Lisa who was drawn to the noise and the dirt of the shop.
“I’d pull pieces of scrap off the floor and drill holes in them and make wind chimes for my mom,” she said. This was when she was around 5 years old. “You know, it was the ’70s so it was OK to have your kids in a dangerous environment. There are probably 10,000 scrap steel wind chimes (at her parents’ house).”
By her teenage years, Humbyrd was having trouble at school. She struggled with authority and found she had a penchant for partying. Still, she would spend a few hours a day at what was now her father’s shop (Ernie Fields had passed way and Lonnie bought the business from his widow, renaming it Humbyrd Machine & Welding), partly because it was the only place that would have her, she said.
“Nobody was going to give me a job. I was already collecting tattoos, I was a smart ass and not doing well in school,” she said. “I’d spend three hours every evening after school just putting away tools, cleaning up scrap and clearing out chips, just making sure everything was where it went so that the guys could pull it out and leave it on the floor again.”
At that time, her father employed nine men in two shops. One in Westport and one in South Bend.
“You know, it was a job and it was a good place to start,” Humbyrd said. “I spent a lot of years on my knees under tables finding drill bits. It gave me a sense of, I may be 18 but I ain’t that important.”
After high school Humbyrd took a welding class at Grays Harbor College but she was already too advanced for it, so she went to work in earnest at her father’s shop. One of the first things she did was shave off every inch of hair.
“When I first started here I had big, poofy ’80s hair and hairspray goes up like napalm. I caught it on fire three times in one day,” she explained. “So I went to a lady who groomed it that night and told her, ‘shave my head.’ My customers started calling me butch. I wasn’t into that. That’s no way to find a husband let me tell ya.”
Humbyrd says that her goal from those years was a bit shortsighted. It was to find a rich fisherman through working in the shop, marry him, and party for the rest of her life. Instead, business slowly ebbed away, with fewer jobs and fewer employees until finally it was just her and her Dad filling orders.
Finally, the president of Ocean Gold came in and offered her father a job. With Lisa standing outside the office waiting, the two men negotiated a deal. The next day, Lonnie was an Ocean Gold employee and Lisa was in charge of Humbyrd Machine.
Trial By Fire
The business was off to a bad start. A percentage of clients jumped ship right off the bat because they wanted to deal with Lonnie, not his daughter. But that was the least of Lisa’s worries. Foremost on her mind was her own inexperience.
“I actually spent about an hour one day standing in front of a band saw trying to figure out which finger I didn’t need because I was just crazy working seven days a week,” Humbyrd said. “It was the same amount of work me and my dad had done but now it was just me with maybe 10 percent of his knowledge. I didn’t know how to do anything. I could drill holes and I could build things, but some of the things we do are very specialized I didn’t know how to do it. So the first year I worked here on my own, I almost had a nervous breakdown.”
Her father would stop by and help when he could, she says, but he was working full-time.
“I was having to redo things over and over,” she said.
Slowly, Humbyrd learned on the job. While her father would have most likely done it faster and with fewer mistakes (if any), the work was still good and worthy of the family name. To this day she has clients who have remained loyal and go to Humbyrd Machine for their fabrication needs.
“A lot of my clients haven’t had any other welder. The guys that I worked with when I started are the grandfathers of the guys I’m working for now,” she said. ” The name is the guarantee. The things that I’m building now are the same things that (my father) was building 25 to 30 years ago because they’re just that good. There’s no need to change the designs.”
When Lisa Humbyrd was 12, her father went to work in Alaska for a while. While he was away, Lisa’s mother, Vicki, got a tattoo of a tiny butterfly on her arm. Her father’s reaction to the art upon his return stuck with young Lisa. “Way to ruin an otherwise perfect body,” she remembers him saying.
“It was cheesy and silly but it was romantic and sweet at the same time,” said Humbyrd. “From the moment I saw the tattoo I thought it was the coolest thing and it was just a matter of time before I got one.”
Humbyrd started collecting tattoos as a teenager. Her favorite shop was the local one: The Golden Gun, run by Butch and Terry Tucker. As she got to know the couple, she started bringing in artwork she designed.
“I came in one day and there was a couple getting my designs,” said Humbyrd, “Butch said, ‘Well, apparently people like your artwork. I’ll teach you.’”
Thus began a seven-year period when Humbyrd would work in the machine shop throughout the week and design and apply tattoos on the weekends. In that time she continued to add art to her own body.
“At first I thought it was cool as a teenager because I could get them and nobody else could, but now it’s art. They are like souvenirs,” she added. “I don’t have to dust them, they don’t get broken on the way home and I haven’t lost one yet.”
Art, romance and Welding
While most of Humbyrd’s work is industrial, she has done a fair amount of metal artwork. For a time she was doing a decent business selling pieces out of several galleries in Westport, and has done some decorative metal work for local businesses. One of her favorites is the life-sized mermaid commissioned by the Westport Winery that greets visitors near the establishment’s front door. Currently, she is repainting another mermaid, one she made 20 years ago on the wall of the Mermaid Pub and Deli in Westport.
She no longer makes tattoos, although she has managed to persuade her fiancé, Mike Murphy, the owner of a pest control franchise, to make the plunge and get inked.
“For 22 years (Murphy) wasn’t into tattoos and now he has a string of 35 carpenter ants on him crawling on his body,” Humbyrd said.
Humbyrd has known Murphy for 20 years but only recently became romantic. Murphy got in touch with Humbyrd on Facebook. They went on a date and have rarely been apart since. He might not be a rich fisherman, she said, but she’s found something way better. Now she finds she prefers spending time at home together to whiling away the days partying.
It might be a surprise to the 18-year-old Humbyrd that, instead of living a life of luxury, the current Humbyrd is still plugging away in the shop, working hard and getting filthy. What might be more of a surprise is that the current Humbyrd can’t imagine it any other way.
“This job just pretty much fell into my lap and I found that I liked it. I like getting dirty,” she said. “My job description is burned, cut and smashed. All three of those things are unpleasant, but it’s a great job. I’ve been here 22 years and it still amazes me that a guy who has been working on boats his whole life will come in and ask my advice. And I know the answer.”
Still, she gives credit to her father who, she said, has forgotten more than she will ever know.
“Mostly it shows what a good job my dad has done,” she said. “Because he never let me say, ‘I can’t do that. I’m a girl.’”
MacLeod Pappidas, Daily World photographer, can be reached at 537-3934 or by email: email@example.com