IN action, face etched with concentration as he hammers and shapes heated metal, Matt Nolan looks like he could be from another world.

Six-foot plus, wearing a leather apron and pictured in a dimly-lit cave, you could be forgiven for thinking he was some kind of Viking warrior, forging weapons and shields from molten metals in a time long forgotten.

But as a former electrical engineer, working on silicon chips for the digital age, the image is far from the truth.

Two years ago, Matt left electronics behind to embark on a full-time career as a cymbal and gongsmith, and in that short time he has built up a global reputation which sees him as one of a tiny handful of specialists in the art.

Matt, 36, first picked up drum sticks as a pupil and member of the choir at St Augustine’s RC High School, Billington.

On leaving school, he went to Bath University to complete a degree in electronic design and has lived in the city ever since.

“I started to get more fascinated in cymbals about six years ago,” the self-taught artisan said.

“I had been playing electric drums so as not to disturb people in the house, and, especially regarding cymbals, I came out of that with this amazing thinking about them.

“eBay was all the rage and I was buying and selling on there, getting broken and bashed ones to hammer about.

“Then I met a Welsh guy, Steve Hubbuck, a cymbal and gong maker who’s working in Prague, having bought a gong from him.

"He showed me a couple of things and that was the turning point when I felt it was something I could do.

“People were asking for stuff having seen things I made, then a couple of years later I started full time.

"At that stage I was probably spending more time thinking about cymbals than my job. And here we are about two years later.”

Matt has clients as varied as yoga teachers and meditation therapists, through to Bristol-based trip hoppers Massive Attack - who recently commissioned a custom-design cymbal after a Google search landed them a specialist in their neighbouring city - and a ‘big international artist’ who cannot be named.

His ‘artisan metal percussion instruments’ can be bought via his website or at trade shows, and he can create bespoke works to the most unusual specifications; one such project at the moment is a ‘challenging’ Salvador Dali melting clock-inspired gong.

“I’m always making in general, with a rough aim for a sound and people will buy them, or people hear about them and come to me to see if something is possible.

“I’m someone they come to with a crazy idea.

“A year or so ago, I made a relatively small hand-shaped gong and I intended for each of the fingers to have a different note - which it did fairly well.

“A guy in Chicago then asked for a really big version, one-metre tall, that took about three weeks.

“I have a big propane blow torch I use to heat and soften the metal, but that wasn’t hot enough; I had to borrow a friend’s garden to build a bonfire.”

As well as their distinctive sounds, his cymbals and gongs look beautiful and can easily double up as works of art.

“A few people do have them on their walls, which I do quite like” he said.

“But it is also a shame as they’ve been made with this lovely sound.

“I approach them from the point of view of something that sounds and looks wonderful and how it’s great what I can do with these pieces of metal.”

Cymbal and gong making is such as specialised field, that Matt believes his niche products are what have enabled him to become established in a relatively short space of time.

To put it in context, there are just four major cymbal firms - each one only employing around 40 people. There are ‘quite a few’ Turkish firms with around five staff, one in Italy and two or three in China. But in terms of independent cymbal makers there are just eight in the world, and only around half of those also make gongs.

“It’s a really small community,” Matt said.

“But everyone has their own style and angle, so it’s not like we’re in competition.

“Even down to the materials and tools we use. Each piece of metal is different and you have to adapt to that too.”