Thursday, August 27, 2009

A whole lotta pictures:

This blog entry may be entering the realm of esoterica (wait, I'm a blacksmith...), but I'm posting a lot of pictures that detail tools, certain processes, machinery, and shop-layout. If this kind of stuff isn't interesting to you, then I'm sorry, but I think everything that I'm doing in regards to blacksmithing rocks. Tools are a big part of what I do. Therefore, tools rock. Especially big tools. Still, as far as I get away from traditional hand hammering, it all comes back to one's ability to see lines, understand light and shadow, and make machines do what your mind and eye desires. Ultimately, machines do nothing unless you direct them. I like that—it puts volition in to the mix. Enjoy!

The Treadle hammer. Awesome for precision hot-cutting, punching, or for when you need a very accurate and controlled application of hammering force. Basically, a very strong third arm. I'm building one ASAP.

The foot pedal.

The strike plate, a 1" piece of mild steel. I suppose you could use Aluminum as well.

Samuel Yellin original drawing. I revere this man. He was a master, and his empire of metal is worth looking in to.

His initials.

The spring-swage rack. Amazing amount of dies here.

Close up of the 7/8" spring-swage. This goes under the powerhammer.

Close-up of the 7/8" spring-swage.

Here I am, powerhammering the pipe from 1" to 7/8".

How does one powerhammer pipe without it collapsing, you ask? Fill the pipe with sand, weld the ends shut, forge to desired shape, then cut off the ends and dump out the sand.

Here's the beginning stages of me forging an escutcheon (the little decorative thingy that connects a chandelier or lighting fixture to the cieling). I start by laying out a piece of 1/4" metal on a big swage block, over the 3" bowl depression.

Apply heat with a torch.

Start hammering with crowned end of planishing hammer. Start in middle of bowl and work out from there in concentric circles The learning curve gets steepens from here. You have to be able to see, as Chris says, "line and shadow".

More hammering and sighting.

Here's the product, semi-finished. I still have to hot-cut the outline around the bowl and all that good stuff.

A hot-cutting chisel under the Treadle Hammer.

A number of cool dies for the hydraulic press. We use these to decorate, texture, or otherwise shape the things like drawer-pulls or bolt-heads.

The local climbing gym. I climbed here a few times, but I barely had any energy to pull on holds.

I'm going to miss Baltimore alleyways.

Here's some shots of a chandelier we made. Fitting the metal arms to the alabaster bowl was extremely hard and time-consuming.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The trappings of a good Baltimore evening in late August:

The mossies in Baltimore are small but voracious, so if you're going to play guitar on the porch at dusk, you must have a Citronella candle, bug spray, and Chianti—the latter is for drinking. Tonight, I was in need of relaxation. Even though Chris and I make ample use of mechanical advantage in our trade—powerhammers, hydraulic presses, the Hossfeld bender—every once and a while we have to resort to our brawn, especially in the case of punching and drifting holes in hot metal. Chris swung the hammer for yesterday's punch session, but today was my turn, so I cranked up the forge, stretched my shoulder, and commenced pounding.

To be sure, punching and drifting requires a lot of force, but the process is equally demanding in regards to focus and intelligence. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Blacksmithing combines the best of your body and your mind, and demands that they work together in harmony. Once you attain proficiency with the hand-hammer, accomplishing mundane hammering tasks can seem perfunctory and hack. Step back a minute: reflect on the beauty of mind directing matter; of intention guiding every minutiae of work. When my hammer swings, I witness the human spirit affecting material form, a ruddy, everyday kind of incarnation. Mysterious stuff, the material world—especially when it intersects so palpably with the world of ideas.

Before work, I don't wear clothes.

Chris and Rich deliberating over their next move.

Filing a chamfer on the support shafts for the sconces. When using files on metal, don't go back-and-forth as you would with a wood file. Treat the file as a "plane" and perform long, longitudinal strokes.

Ever wonder how to quickly remove scale from mild steel? Take your torch, fire up an overly oxygenated flame, and flash-heat the cooled metal. The scale will simply flake off. I wish I knew this three years ago.

Here's three unfinished pieces. You can clearly see the holes I hand-punched and drifted. It might not look like much now, but it's quite a process...

Work, followed by Fell's Point

Once again, Baltmore surprises me with its sense of awkward self-awareness, and, without waxing too fond, its charming smallness. Chris and I met up last night with Eric, one of Chris' former work-buddies (employee is too formal a word to describe their relationship), and we went to catch a beer at Max's On Broadway, a once-revered music venue on Fell's Point, but now just a bar that vaunts over eighty beers on tap (I had Resurrection Alse once again, as well as very, mysterious, very dark Belgian Ale. Both were good). As we walked towards Max's along the refurbished colonial buildings of Fell's Point, Eric described the small-town feel of Baltimore, how if you walk around long enough, you'll see people you know. Sure enough, the second we stepped in to the bar, Eric ran in to a girl he's known since elementary school. I know, I know: this coincidence doesn't suggest alignment in the celestial bodies or anything, but it was cool to witness. I also found out that night that Samuel Yellin, one of America's most famous iron-workers from the last century, did a lot of work in Baltimore. I also found out that Chris has some Samuel Yellin original drawings at his house. How cool.

Yesterday at work I spent a good chunk of time form fitting sconce arms to the alabaster bowls. The bowls will be "carried" by these arms, and since they will be seen from the front and side, the connection between the arms and the bowl must be absolutely seamless. Forged metal doesn't necessarily set you up for seamless, incremental work like this, but with the aid of the Hossfeld Bender—a leverage tool with a bending arm, not an Astro-Physics term like it sounds—I was able to form-fit the arms quite well to the bowls.

I also spent a while working with the 88, forging the bottom of the sconce racks. These little guys are pretty difficult to forge, and require a good eye, steady hammer pulse, and super-solid alignment of the metal. Another thing: in order to better see the true-ness of the hammer die, I have to be super diligent with scraping scale off of the metal the second I take it out of the forge. I'm making this a habit.

My favorite Baltimore Coffee shop. Its sufficiently socially-conscious name is Common Ground. They have good coffee regardless.

The Hossfeld bender. I love, love, love this thing. Dan and I have one, so I was fairly familiar with its use before coming to Baltimore.

The alabaster bowl sconces, and the metal arms that correspond to them.

Notice how seamless the joining of the bowl and metal must be. It's harder than it might seem to accomplish this.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Not exactly what I expected...

Pepper the Cat, may he rest in peace.

After a week of not eating or drinking and barely hanging on to her resilient thread of life, Pepper the Cat finally passed on. She was fifteen years of age, supremely kind, loving, and full of character. I’ve not met many cats of this caliber, and Chris was very, very attached to her. Understandably, I hadn’t factored in grieving to my Baltimore experience, but death has its own, clarifying way of breaking down contexts—and building up connections between people. As such, I spent the evening with Chris and Rowena and their artist friends Dave and Lauren, with whom I raised many a glass of wine, and made merry in a checked sort of way. It was unexpectedly tender, sad, and joyous all at the same time. I will never forget the experience of that strangely melancholy and rainy night.

I don’t know if it’s because of my de facto proximity to Chris, or simply that Baltimore has an uncommonly creative population, but I’ve been hanging out with a lot of working artists, or more specifically, artists who make a living with their art. Art is their nine-to-five. There’s Dave, the ebullient South African sculpture pedagogue; Lauren, the talented jeweler and farmer’s market aficionado; Jill, the custom wedding dress-maker and mother of two; and, obviously, Chris, my mentor in metal.

These folk aren’t in the midst of an every day societal revolution per se; their art is tempered by reality, and, from time to time, they talk about their work as work, not norm-rending epiphany, or resume boosters for their creative ego. Dave was of particular interest to me. His somewhat sardonic, lazy eyes give him the perfect cover for an arsenal of witticisms, pith, and hilarious South African colloquialisms. I listened to him—happily—for the better part of an hour recount his experiences as a draftee in the South African military, which included brushes with Meningitis, harsh treatment by drill instructors, severe cold, and malnourishment. Towards the end of his monologue, he stopped, checked himself, and bemoaned his tirade in heavy brogue:

“Wot wos I tawking about?”

I reminded him that he started out telling me how he loved the color of a certain variety of succulent plant, the kind with small, dusty gray paddles. Somewhere along the way, he ended up reminiscing about the military.

“Ah yes,” he chimed victoriously, “well, in the army, they made us croowl [crawl] through those plants oowl [all] the time. I hated the croowling, but loved the color of the plants.”

Once again, the conversation came full circle: from the death of a beloved cat to a celebratory dinner party; from me in Baltimore four years ago to me in Baltimore now; from a South African artist crawling through mountain scrub in the army to that same artist recounting his love of dusty gray succulents. Maybe this is how life unfolds all the time. Maybe my day-to-day skein of experiences, associations, and relationships actually refer to a point of control, a locus. Perhaps the rest of my life will abide in relative shadow of perspective, but in the meantime, I’m noticing abundantly bizarre and surprisingly relevant concatenations that suggest a certain kind of teleology. It’s enough to make me think that all those socks I lost over the last decade of doing my own laundry will someday appear in my refrigerator, food cupboard, or glove-compartment.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Coincidences, Pear, and Pizza.

Baltimore is turning out to be quite the medium of convergence for my life. Baltimore is the place where I used to work for the Johns Hopkins Outdoor Pursuits program, a generally rocky experience that resulted in me returning to Santa Barbara, working for my brother, meeting and falling in love with Mary, starting Santa Barbara Forge and Iron with Dan, then, lo and behold, returning to Baltimore once again, this time under the guise of an apprentice-blacksmith. And if I wasn't musing about the synchronicity of life already, I got a call yesterday from Graham Ottley, my long-time Summit Adventure buddy, and climbing partner of no small repute. Graham, or Mr. Forearm-veins as he is affectionately known, has flourished in the Outdoor Education field, and now works full-time for Summit Adventure. Anyway, to my utter surprise, Graham was in Baltimore, working for my former employer, Johns Hopkins, filling in as a temporary outdoor instructor for some big student trip.

Once we got over the anxious excitement that coincidences of this magnitude engender, we fell back in to our old repartee: tongue-in-cheek joking, pointed questions, pithy observations on our surroundings. Hanging out with Graham—who lives in the western Sierra Nevada—I realized that I dearly miss California, even though I've only been gone for a week. I miss its sometimes shoddiness, glitz, dry riverbeds, silly superiority complex, mammoth highways, farmer's markets, Spanish street-names, and countless other endearing idiosyncrasies. I can't help it: I'm my State's son.

Still, since I found myself today in a decidedly unique and, for me, unprecedented position—meandering in Baltimore on a humid Saturday afternoon—I made the most of things. Graham and I ate at a funky little grill on "The Avenue" (36th Street) called the Grill's Art, or Grill Art. I can't remember. We had a passable prawn-filled quesadilla, which could have been awesome, but I've decided that Mexican-themed grill food has to be very, very fresh to be tasty. This was, well, not fresh tasting. We also ordered a grilled pizza with pear, candied walnuts, spinach, and gorgonzola cheese on top—a cadre of toppings common to salads, not pizzas. The combination worked, however, and we enjoyed what had to be one of Baltimore's most friendly waitresses.

I finished the afternoon perusing a used book store on The Avenue, squatting in aisles and reading dog-eared books till my knees hurt, and finally placated the surly store-owner by buying a book of poetry.

A typical alleyway in West Baltimore.

The haggard-but-trusty steed of Mandala Creations. I drive this guy to and from the shop when I'm not on the bicycle. Chris shares the same diehard love of old trucks that my brother Dan has for his old beater.

Evocative sculptural elements in Chris' showroom

Chris' showroom, which is attached to the actual working shop. I would love to have something like this someday.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Week one finito...

Thus ends my first week as an apprentice to Chris Gavin, owner of Mandala Creations. My sojourn in the world of full-time Blacksmithing has not been without its travails: heat, long days, feelings of inadequacy. Today, however, went well. I spent a fair amount of time with the 88 Powerhammer, and I think I discovered the machine's internal rhythm, or heartbeat if you will. The 88 has a scrappy, almost cocky attitude to it's cadence, and I think its bark is a little worse than its bite. As such, I'm finding I can do surprisingly fine tapering and drawing out with the 88. Chris and I also spent a while punching and drifting some pieces for the sconces. Punching and drifting is something I've been wanting to master ever since I got in to Blacksmithing, and Chris showed me some key methods that I will certainly employ.

Compounding my joy, Chris, Rowena, and Rowena's nephew, Brandon, went swimming in the Clipper Park pool after work. This week has been, without a doubt, the hottest and, in regards to heat, the most physically uncomfortable of my life. As such, the pool, modelled after a Roman bath, felt magnificent and decadent, especially with the addition of cool beer in plastic cups, and a mid-August thunderstorm, complete with heavy rain and lightning. I love the gestation of East-coast thunderstorms: stifling humidity gives way to summoning winds gives way to utter release of rain, lightning, and thunder. Whilst hanging in the poolside hot tub, I met a woman who owns a custom bridal gown shop in Hampden, and we talked shop for a while by the light of oddly Romanesque pyres. She reminded me of why small businesses rock, and why I absolutely love what I do. I wouldn't trade it for anything.

It's a big, hard, and punishing world out there. We small business people have to earn our keep. The upside is we GET to earn our keep.

In case I haven't said it already, I love Baltimore. It's truly an amazing city. It exudes a strange humility and approachability that I find endearing, and its attention to the artistic community leaves me impressed. The Maryland Institute College of Art is one of the finest institutes of its kind in the country. And Baltimore's labyrinthine hallows, care-worn brick buildings, and cheap real-estate (at least, compared to Santa Barbara) allow for ample artistic endeavor. If you haven't been to Baltimore, I recommend you take the time...

Requisite Andy shot. I need to cut my hair.

Here's a few shots of the Clipper Mill Area, a revitalized and renovated turn-of-the-century industrial area. I guess Baltimore had the largest flour milling industry in the world during the early 1900s. I'm not sure that Clipper Mill milled flour, but hey, you gotta wonder...

This is a shot of all the friendly pool-folk frolicking during the thunderstorm. Pretty surreal.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Perfect Taper

I'm tired.

Ten-hour days in the shop are already long and arduous, and the ever-steepening learning curve compounds my exhaustion, so in between eating, sleeping, and working, I barely have time to think. The name of the game right now in my Baltimore Blacksmith Vacation is forging a perfect taper. If you've paid attention at all to the ubiquitous Spanish revival metal-work in Santa Barbara, you've probably seen (and yawned at) the frilly, scrolly, and spiral-ly gates. Pay closer attention. Notice how your eye intuitively follows—even WANTS to follow—the interior curve of the lines. As your eye travels ever closer to the center of the spiral, the width of the bar likely tapers gradually, terminating in an elegant, thin, and subtle curve. If you were to unfold this spiral in to a long, straight bar, it would, in a perfect blacksmithing world, taper incrementally. Sadly, much of Santa Barbara's scrollwork vaunts the spirals without the elegant taper. Chris believes that a blacksmith should be able to form the most perfect of tapers before ANY other work is done.

Forging an elegant taper is a right of passage, a removing of training wheels, a graduation from "hack" to artist-blacksmith.

I'm getting there.

The last few days have been long, but Chris and I are finding our groove together. Hard, physical labor, coupled with keen intellectual attention, is a beautiful thing to behold. I can't imagine a better line of work. I'm also settling in to a rhythm of working, returning home through the funky, old, and evocative neighborhoods of west-Baltimore, cooking dinner with Chris and Rowena, and falling asleep to cicadas and crickets. The humidity is suffocating, as is the greenery of Maryland, but not in a negative way necessarily. It reminds me of long summer nights as a kid, yard-hopping at dusk, throwing water balloons at my sister, and dreading the end of vacation and beginning of school. Nostalgic, I know. I should also point out that I haven't worn a shirt ONCE while at home; it's expected that you do not wear an upper-body garment upon entrance to Chris' home. He does not have AC in his house, so this rule makes sense.

This is a bending template for the sconces we are making. Notice how a metal wedge secures the piece in place so we can bend the "arms" around the template.

Baltimore has so many old, run-down, but hinting-at-revival buildings. This is a cool industrial complex by the shop that some rich dude has bought and planned on renovating.

I should say something about the heat in Chris' shop: it's been high 90's every day, and extremely humid. And that's outside. The shop, with several 2300 Degree forges going, can exceed 120 degrees. I had a FULL gallon of water today before noon, and I still felt wickedly thirsty. My clothes are so wet at the end of the day it looks like I jumped in a pool.

Pepper isn't looking too good these days. He's been vomitting in the mornings. Poor guy.

These beautiful tapers by Chris are based on the Fibonacci sequence.

Whaddya think, should I get new ear-plugs?

These little guys may not look like much, but they kicked my butt. When you see what they eventually look like, you'll understand what I mean.