Keep Craft Alive

In December I was interviewed by Fine HomeBuilding Magazine. It is a great honor. I have read Fine Homebuilding for 30+ years and was thrilled to be part of it.

Below is a copy of the interview and a link to the piece that they ran.

Did you feel called to be a blacksmith?

I have always enjoyed making things. I get great satisfaction from watching people use something that I have made. I also love it when I watch a person have an emotional reaction to something I have made. I began working in metal as a fabricator. One day we had a job that involved making some rings and scrolling. My coworker dragged out and old forge made from a truck wheel, filled it with coal and started a fire. At 2000 degrees steel becomes like clay. It is fun. It is exciting. Your job changes from connecting reshaped bars together to one of squishing andstretching and shaping totally new forms. The options suddenly become endless.I had the door cracked open into blacksmithing. I wanted to explore it. Once I gained the freedom make my own shapes in metal I knew that was where I had to go. 

What is it like or what does it mean to be a blacksmith in the 21st century?

Few people really know what a blacksmith is. They wonder if I shoe horses or if I am involved in civil war reenactment. Part of my job as a blacksmith today involves helping people to understand what the blacksmith does.

Most of us played with clay as children. We understand that a piece of pottery was once a lump of clay.  The word clay makes us visualize that lump. Today all steel is manufactured. For efficiency, the industry decides the shapes that we see. When most people think of the word steel they visualize an I-beam or flat bar or tubing. They don’t see the source. I take a bar of steel, heat it to 2000 degrees fahrenheit and suddenly the possibilities for shaping it are exposed; tools, swords, hinges, but also flowers, feathers, skin and bone. Iron has always offered the blacksmith an opportunity to shape and build anything. Humans have been blacksmithing for well over 2000 years. Just like they did in the first century, the blacksmith in the 21st century moves metal. Even though I now have access to many modern tools, like all blacksmiths in history my mentality is one of finding my own solutions. If I am given a task in my shop I solve it. If I need a tool I make it. Modern industry has taken away much of the necessity for the blacksmith. To be a successful blacksmith today you either have to do reproduction work or contemporary artistic work. Iron and steel possess incredible strength. This offers the artist blacksmith an opportunity that does not exist for glass blowers or ceramicists. Although all three artists work with a plastic medium, the strength and stability of iron allows for a great variety in design regarding connections and balance. This presents a rare opportunity to create pieces of function that can surprise and provoke the observer.

What have you produced for homes?

hoods, railings, gates, glass fireplace doors, pot racks, hooks, brackets, chandeliers, commercial sign brackets, trellis’, large decorative timber brackets and tables of various sizes. 

 Do you have full creative control? (Is your process collaborative? And who do you design with?) 

I do have full creative control. I work alone and develop all of my designs. I encourage the client to give input. I want to know what their interest are and tastes. I want to make a piece that fits into their life. When I design a piece I first look at how the design will fit into the environment. Then I concentrate on the over all flow and balance of the piece. Although I started as a fabricator, at this point in my career I am a pretty strict blacksmith. I follow the techniques and skills of blacksmithing, forging , forge welding and joinery. My work focuses on forging the metal and on making interesting connections. Because of this, the design of the piece is largely dictated by my blacksmithing process, this creates a certain look. I work for clients who want that look. 

 How is your smithy powered?

My house and shop are “off the grid”. My husband and I live about two miles from the nearest public utility so we generate all of our power ourselves on site. This does change how we do things a little bit. We are very aware of how much electricity we are using and we never leave a light on. But, I think you would be surprised at how normal we live. We have all of the typical household appliances and I have a fairly well stocked metal shop. Our power comes from solarpower in the summer months and hydro power in the winter months. We have a 25 kilowatt diesel generator that is used for backup between seasons or if I run a welder or plasma cutter. The generator runs less then 150 hours in a year.

Most of the time my shop is run with the renewable power. All of my fans, blowers, forges, lights and small power tools run without the generator. I have a 155 Big Blu pneumatic power hammer. It is powered by a 6 1/2 hp gasoline powered air compressor. Blacksmithing is a very energy intensive craft. Getting the material up to temperature takes energy. To heat the material I use a small propane forge, a coal forge or an oxygen/ propane torch. When you have an alternative power system, during certain parts of the day, you will most likely be dumping power. Your batteries will be full and your usage low and so the system bleeds off the excess. This is inefficient so we are always looking for ways to use that power. Here in rural California bottles of oxygen are expensive and hard to come by. I have to drive two hours to exchange an oxygen bottle. I did some research and discovered that I could make oxygen right here using the excess power from my solar and hydro systems. I got an oxygen generator. It fills a 155cf oxygen cylinder in about 24 hours. I only run it when the system has excess power so it basically makes oxygen for free. Oxygen greatly increases the flame temperature of propane. This in turn lowers my fuel use and costs. Our solar power comes from 21, 230 watt photo voltaic (solar) panels. These panels charge 16 L-16 batteries and a 4000 watt Xantrex power inverter. In the winter months the system is supplemented by a micro hydro system that charges the batteries at rate of 12 - 20 amps at 24 volts depending on rainfall and water flow. The power from the hydro system is created by a small 8 inch diameter pelton wheel. The wheel is fed water through two tiny nozzles that vary in size from 3/16th to 1/2 inch depending on water flow available.

What traditions do you draw inspiration from?

I am greatly inspired by joinery. When I work up a design I like to focus on the places where the pieces will join together. There are many beautiful joints in the tradition of blacksmithing which I use but I am also attracted to joinery in other crafts. 

I began as a wood worker. I studied Japanese joinery and timber framing. Both of these traditions have influenced my blacksmithing. Often I explain blacksmithing as the timber framing of metalwork. My work, like timber framing has substance and joinery. It blends a visual connection to the raw material with connections that portray the human energy used to make it into a functioning piece. Like Japanese joinery the attraction and beauty of the finished product are largely created by the process. Getting the metal yellow hot. Pushing and shaping it with a hammer and hand tools. This process is evident in the finished work. Although all of my work is held together tightly while in use, many pieces are like puzzles and can be taken apart. I enjoy making items that tempt people to touch them, play with them and try to figure them out. Concentrating on the beauty of each segment of a piece, my goal is to create a finished item that will be as pleasing to run your fingers over as it is to look at

Do you work everything out on paper first?

Yes, I try to draw when possible. Blacksmithing when you weigh 125 lbs involves a lot of thinking about efficiency. I like to lay out a project to scale and from all angles before I forge anything. Mostly I draw to get an idea of the over all design and flow of the work. How it will look from all directions. These drawings become an outline. I then start working and refining the details. I work out many of my forms and experiments with joinery in modeling clay. I use my hammer and tools in the clay just as I would with the steel.


Blacksmithing seems like a craft of extremity.

It is extreme. I love watching people when they first come to my shop. There is always that slight hesitation before entering. Take a look at my apron. It is a thick pigskin. The light brown leather is stained black with coal dust, rust and the oil that comes off of new steel. This creates a sheen that is decorated with lines and shapes that were burnt into the leather at random spots as I used my apron to shield myself from the hot metal, scale and flying wire brush fragments. But there is incredible beauty there too. Early in the morning the air is crisp and first light is just reaching through the trees, touching the cracked cement floor and turning the shop into pixels of metal dust. The smoke of a freshly lit fire curls up into ghosts and dragons who then get sucked up the flue. I put a lot of faith in the medium. Steel and iron are so soft when they are hot. They are supple and pliant, stretchy and malleable but the material is not relaxed. The medium is hot, super hot. The atoms are bouncing against each other as they get hotter and hotter they move faster and faster until they have enough energy to break free and melt. But I don’t want the steel molecules to melt so I am holding them at a temperature just before melting. This creates some tension. When you are blacksmithing you are playing with this tension. When I am struggling with some profound question. When I am frustrated and saddened by the news of the day I can always feel better making things. Blacksmithing adds to this an ancient alchemy. In this harsh environment, when the metal is yellow hot I get the feeling that if I hit it hard enough and pay close enough attention I could find the answers. And if I don't find the answers I will at least feel better and maybe have made something to set my beer on.

Monica Coyne2 Comments