Mechanic with rare skin disorder finds new purpose 'reimagining, redesigning and reinventing' scrap metal

Thompson, Man., resident Don Glenn was a mechanic for 16 years until he was diagnosed with dermatographia in 2015. Unable to work and broke, he turned his talents to reclaiming scrap materials and turning them into household items.

Unable to work as a mechanic after dermatographia diagnosis, Thompson's Don Glenn finds new business success

Don Glenn in his store in Thompson, Man. The custom shop sign behind him is made of railroad spikes, parts from a metal gazebo, coils from a garage door spring, a double roller chain and a flywheel from an old engine. (Brett Purdy/CBC)

Don Glenn sands over the rough edges of a wood TV stand in his Thompson garage workshop. It's one of many custom orders the former mechanic is now constructing from his home-based business in the northern Manitoba city.

Glenn, who everyone calls "Shorty," makes functional artistic pieces out of reclaimed scrap material through his business, Shorty's Upcycling Studio.

"It's kind of a new take on recycling, basically. I like to think of it as reimagining, redesigning and reinventing. Redoing the three Rs of recycling is kind of our company motto," said Glenn.
Donn Glenn, also known as Shorty, does some finishing work in his garage on a custom-ordered TV stand. (Brett Purdy/CBC)

Glenn's business has been building since 2015, but he says it started from a darker place.

The mechanic of 16 years had been sick with what he initially thought was an allergic reaction. He would have episodes where his skin would get red and itchy, and his tongue and throat would swell up.

That went on for months before he was eventually diagnosed with dermatographia, a skin disorder commonly known as "skin writing." It causes his skin to have significant reactions to seemingly minor contact or scratches.
Glenn has made a couple of custom chests for RCMP officers for storage of their dress uniforms. (Submitted by Don Glenn)

"Some of the weirdest things are challenging. Brushing your teeth, your gums swell up, your mouth gets all itchy. Itching and swelling between your fingers, your ears — when I wash my face I look like I'm about to explode and kill somebody. I go all red and swell up. You have to work around everyday stuff that you might not think about."

Laughing, Glenn said crunchy foods aren't top of his list anymore.

"Toasted sandwiches aren't a go-to item anymore and shaving is kind of a skip."

'A dark place'

The biggest impact of the disorder, he said, has been on his family life.

"The hardest ones I found are [that] I like roughhousing with my kids. I like to play with my kids and I can only do that for a certain period of time before my skin starts to flare up on me and that was very, very hard for me."

The contact condition ended up limiting Glenn's ability to work as a mechanic. He was on disability benefits while doctors tried different types of medications to see what drugs would mitigate his symptoms.
Shorty's Upcycling produces many custom-made pieces from scrap material, like this side table. The table top is a wire spool top mounted on a flex plate, bolted to a crankshaft. It uses part of a wheel-bearing hub to transition to a flywheel base. (Submitted by Don Glenn)

Glenn describes himself as an able-bodied, independent person and said that he's always worked, going back to his teens. Not working or being able to provide for his young family, and watching his bank accounts dwindle, left Glenn in a "dark place," he said.

"I was diagnosed with severe depression and I was also going through the guinea pig process of trying different medications to try and get my skin condition under control."

Glenn said he needed to pick himself up off the couch and find something to keep his mind busy "and try and get back the value of myself as a person. I felt like I had lost that, like I didn't value myself as a person and a father and a provider, and so basically it's what drove me to the garage, and this is kind of where I let my crazy out."

The need to get off the couch and an argument with his wife led to some "garage time," where Glenn made one of his first custom pieces — a kitchen pot rack, made from a the side of a baby's crib.

The success of that project and the encouragement from his family led to him to start up a business, reclaiming scrap material and creating furniture and other household fixtures from the discarded materials.

Happier, healthier, busier

Four months ago, Glenn started taking once-a-month injections which have been greatly reducing the effects of his skin disorder.

Happy and healthier, with a growing family and business, orders have been steady and growing, even though Glenn hasn't done any real marketing.

He said there has been incredible local support and that the city of Thompson is a great place to run a business like his, as there is ample scrap material. Requests from clients lately have involved taking old, meaningful items and reshaping them into something new and practical.

These steampunk liquor dispenser lamps are custom pieces made from recycled pressure gauges, light fixtures, gears and pipes. Each one is unique and geared to the customer's tastes and budget. (Submitted by Don Glenn)

In February, Shorty's Upcycling won the 2017 Just Watch Me video contest in the Manitoba startup bracket. The non-profit Community Futures contest celebrates business successes from rural Manitoba and Saskatchewan for entrepreneurs with disabilities or health conditions.

Glenn is entering the contest again this year in the seasoned entrepreneur category. On top of the $1,000 cash prize for the winner, there are a variety of business-building prizes, including marketing training.

Glenn said his business is doing well enough at this point that they are thinking of hiring someone in the shop to help him, but that winning the contest could help his small company grow even more.

For now, he's happy to be working.

"I get a lot of pleasure out of the business. I find it very challenging. Every day is something different, every day's project is a different challenge and … it touches onto a creative side of me that I didn't really get into before."

Don Glenn turns scrap material into functional artistic pieces

3 years ago
Thompson, Man., resident Don Glenn was a mechanic for 16 years until he was diagnosed with dermatographia in 2015. Unable to work and broke, he turned his talents to reclaiming scrap materials and turning them into household items. 3:53


Brett Purdy

CBC National Field Producer

Before becoming the field producer for The National in Winnipeg, Brett was a video journalist with CBC Manitoba, filing for TV, online and radio. Brett has been in broadcasting since 2004, spending time with CTV and Global Winnipeg. Brett also worked as a producer in the Northwest Territories for two years, where he produced documentaries for national broadcasts about the Inuvialuit people in Canada's western Arctic.