Updated: March 13, 2014 at 12:59 pm
How many ways can you create a leprechaun out of galvanized sheet metal?
Plenty, according to students at the Colorado Sheet Metal Joint Apprenticeship and Training Institute.
Students there have entertained St. Patrick's Day Parade crowds in Colorado Springs with their float handiwork for years and always come up with something new.
This year is no different. They are among 100 entrants in the downtown parade that begins at noon Saturday. Grand marshal will be Pamela Shockley-Zalabak, chancellor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
The institute's float features two 100-pound, 6-foot-high shamrocks, four 3-foot-tall metal leprechauns perched on a pot of gold and a large sheet-metal beer stein. About 50 students and their family members will march with the float, some carrying intricately fashioned sheet-metal leprechaun marionettes.
Everything is custom made from scratch.
"It's harder to make than one would imagine," said Andrew Gilliland, training coordinator. "The tin men are tremendous amounts of work."
It takes at least two months to create the characters and motifs for the parade. One crowd pleaser over the years has been a dragon-like serpent with metal scales, symbolizing the story of St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland.
The school has a wall of photos from past parades, including one from 1929 showing the students with leprechaun umbrellas made of sheet metal. Under the current parade organization, this year's event is billed as the 30th annual.
"I'm not sure how many parades we have been in over the years," Gilliland said. He knows they have been in the event every year since 2001, when he joined the school and many before that. "It's a community tradition, and we like to be part of it."
It's not only fun but a way for students to learn new skills. For example, they use air-duct components to make the entire leprechaun tin men. "It shows off what we are about," he said.
The four-year trade school is the apprenticeship program for the Sheet Metal Workers Local No. 9.
The international union's apprenticeships started back in 1888, he noted.
The free program trains apprentices and provides classes for journeymen in fields such as air conditioning, heating, industrial welding and computerized drafting. Those who graduate have the equivalent of 51 college credits.
Nick Bassett, a fourth-year apprentice, looks forward to the parade. "It shows off what we can do, the quality and craftsmanship." He likes that the families of students also participate. His wife and son will be among the school participants walking and handing out candy to the crowd.
Materials for the float cost about $800, not counting all the free labor. The institute spends about $500 on candy to ensure it doesn't run out before the end of the parade route. It's hard candy - one year they got chocolate and it melted. They used to throw the candy into the crowd, but that is forbidden by the parade organizers.
It takes about three hours and lots of tools and choreography to get everything on the float. They do a dry run to make sure there are no snags.
The institute has won several parade awards, including a best float overall in 2003, and several "Bit of Blarney" awards.
The project also is a good cure for spring fever.
"Sometimes in spring, students lose their motivation, Gilliland said. "But they love working on the float."
Contact Carol McGraw: 636-0371
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St. Patrick’s Day
• Free public St. Patty’s Sports Expo,
10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday, Pikes Peak Center, 190 S. Cascade Ave.
• 50K bike ride, 8:30 a.m., starts at McCabe’s Tavern, 520 S. Tejon St.
• 5K Run, 10 a.m., starts and ends at Acacia Park. Leprechaun Fun Run, 11 a.m.
• 30th annual parade, noon, downtown. The route is south on Tejon between
St. Vrain Street and Vermijo Avenue.
For details: csstpats.com