Where Sea and Sky Meet

Site of intended railings

railing with traditional joinery

Railing detail

The above picture is of the viewpoint at Grand Avenue Park in Everett, Washington. I was chosen some time ago to build some railings for the scenic overlook. It is a breathtaking view of the Olympic mountains across Puget Sound (when the mountains are not shrouded in clouds).

The design requirements of the project were pretty straightforward; there were to be six sections, eight feet long and 42 inches tall. The outside frame was to be 2 inch solid square for the upright ends and 1 1/2 inch solid square for the top and bottom. The thinnest any part of the infill could be was 3/4″ X 3/4″. Of course, the usual railing standard that dictated any open area must be less than a four-inch circle also applied.

During several visits to the site, before I began the project, I became fascinated with the ever-changing cloud formations and how the waters of the Sound reflected the mood of the sky. It was a dramatic vista and nothing I could possibly do would be able to compete with the surroundings. My best hope was to complement the site.I had a couple other challenges that I gave myself. One challenge was that the railings use some type of mechanical (traditional blacksmithing) joinery. As a blacksmith, creating work for a visible public setting, it seemed like a great opportunity to give an example of work that utilized the process of forging. Another challenge I faced was that the railings, once installed, would be visible from a considerable distance below the hill. If the railings were merely 3/4″ rods, they would disappear into a blur when viewed from such a distance. I thought that they might also serve as a landmark from the bottom of the hill, in addition to being a feature at the top (where their function as railings was served).

A visit to various historical archives provided some additional inspiration. I’ll let you investigate on your own to discover some of Everett’s colorful past. What I did glean from my investigation was that Everettt began as a city of optimistic promise and has a backbone founded on industry. Both of these continue to the present. It is also a relatively new city (by most of this country’s standards) and the tales of the Native Americans who lived there did not happen all that long ago.
Now I was prepared to begin. Filled with the same optimistic promise as the city that commissioned these, I wanted to pay homage to the natural surroundings, the Native Americans who took care of the land before the captains of industry arrived and to capture some of the essence of all the good things that industry (and human ingenuity) can provide. I felt that keeping some evidence of hammer blows (and there are thousands in this project) would give a sense of the industrial aspect. The central component of the railings gets its inspiration from a Native American oar design and provides a central focus, a beginning to the design. My biggest concern at this point was to capture some of the delicate, ephemeral nature of the clouds and the sea below. This I hoped to accomplish through the use of broad, sweeping curves, punctuated by precise alignment of vertical elements. Doing this with 1 1/4″ forged steel would be challenging. If I were to give a title to this project, I would call it “Where Sea and Sky Meet”, for that was a theme that kept recurring throughout the process.

Soon the railings will be installed.


The Courage to Explore Possibilities

candle stick

A candle holder with traditional joinery

I’m often asked what I do and what things I make. A large percentage of what keeps me busy is fulfilling custom orders. I enjoy interacting with the numerous people I get to meet and discussing their likes (and sometimes dislikes). Every project has its own challenges and considerations. The ever-changing variety of what I am working on each day keeps my creativity fresh.

It often comes as a surprise to people how many objects today’s blacksmith’s can make. A garden gate can seem very different from a candlestick, when viewed from the point of view of how we interact with them. But from the point of view of a blacksmith, all projects have a similar degree of problem solving. A garden gate takes into account placement of hinges, how the latch performs, a form rigid enough not to sag under its own weight and designing it in a manner to be compatible with its surroundings. A candlestick needs to support a candle, protect the surrounding area from heat and be stable enough not to tip over. A similar approach is taken with handrails, sculpture, lighting fixtures, cutlery, door hardware, fireplace screens, pot racks, tables. . .the list goes on. And it is a pretty long list.

It is not that different from picking up a pencil and discovering what marks can be made on paper. The pencil makes a mark, it is only a matter of how it is wielded that determines the result. Letter writing can be done, lists can be made and some pretty beautiful drawings can result also. It is just a matter of understanding the tools and materials while exploring their possibilities. Most blacksmiths (and I like think myself among them) are pretty astute at figuring out how something is supposed to work and fulfilling it to the best of our abilities.

The process of commissioning something bespoke can be a mystery to some people. It can also feel rather daunting when the item needed exists merely as an idea before it becomes a line drawing. I remind myself that a potential customer does not know all that I know with regard to metal work and that this may be a new experience for them. It may seem strange, when claims to be a specialist set ourselves apart from those in a related field, to not strike a claim at being a “fireplace poker specialist” or the like. It’s about problem solving through understanding the potential of the material (in this case, steel) and understanding the needs of the situation, including making the person it is intended for happy with the result. There is usually a learning curve associated with this, but that is part of the process also.

Today I am polishing a titanium jet turbine blade for a client, to make it worthy of presentation. I am also working on a stand for a wooly mammoth tusk that once belonged to a mammoth that roamed Alaska 12,000 years ago. I am also completing the last few components of a railing project and working on some designs for a stool that I hope to make in the near future. It might seem like it is all over the map, but for me, it all meshes seamlessly. Like my father (who spent 30 years working in a foundry) used to say, “metal is metal”.

By the way, the candelabra was the result of my wishing to combine traditional joinery techniques and end up with a two-candle holder.


This is a bit off-topic, but this event happened the other day outside my studio. I heard an unusual sound, which happened to be several hundred crows making a ruckus outside my studio. One of the few advantages of being self-employed, is that I can peek out my doorway when the mood fancies me.

A friend forwarded the picture to someone who knows a little about raptors and this is the reply:

” In my experience, crows are generally not normal prey for diurnal raptors.  At least not in our area here in western WA.  However, it might help to imagine what it is like for these birds of prey  in December.  Obviously, in winter, it is colder which requires more caloric intake to stay warm. Hawks have to hunt, kill and eat more to survive now than in  summertime. The days are shorter, giving them less time each day to procure their food.

In contrast, this works to the advantage of the nocturnal owls. Hawks, and especially Bald Eagles, often congregate in areas with a high density of prey to hunt and may experience more competition from other raptors for scarce prey. Once caught, the prey is often pirated by competitors, especially if you are an inexperienced juvenile. Prey species themselves are more experienced and probably in most cases, harder to catch. So things are pretty intense for hawks right now. In fact, those juveniles that can’t meet these demands are dying out there right now. As a result, hawks, and other predators, are unlikely to pass up a chance  to take any kind of prey that presents itself. As long as it is not too costly to obtain. After all, protein is protein.

Keep in mind that hawks can’t go to Safeway for their food like you. Having said all that, there are specific individual raptors that will specialize on a certain prey species like crows. A falconer will call this process “wedding” the hawk to a particular prey species. I recall Steve Herman telling me about a wild peregrine, I believe at Long Beach, WA (sorry Steve), that specialized in cutting off crows unwise enough to fly out over the ocean. It was a crow specialist. At a peregrine eyrie (nest) in the San Juans, where we banded young, one of the adults was also a crow specialist. When we entered the site, the ledge was littered with a thick mat of plucked crow feathers.

Oddly enough, we rarely saw crow remains in other peregrine nests. But this one was filled with them. This particular pair also liked to catch Pigeon Guillemots, one of my favorite birds and one I always thought of as perfect prey for peregrines. But again, we rarely saw them as prey in other peregrine nests for some unknown reason. But there were several in this particular site as evidenced by several little “glowing” red legs. So if you see a hawk of any kind eating a crow, I’d say that is fairly rare.” Bud Anderson, Falcon Research Group.

I’ve left the text intact. I thought this was too good not to share with everyone. As many birds struggle during this time of year, it is especially true of the raptors.

Eating crow-quettes

Eating crow

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Bespoke Design

Bespoke: bih-spohk, adj.
“made to individual order”

The origin of the word comes from the verb bespeak, such as giving an order for something to be made.

This has been a common word in British English and is only getting some acceptance in the United States. Although historically used for articles of clothing, it has gained wider usage to include many one-of-a-kind designed items, such as computer software and furniture. The word not only suggests that a higher level of quality is expected, it also implies that the customer’s individual needs are taken into consideration. This is in contrast to mass-produced goods intended toward a standardized taste.

The word “artisan” has been adopted by small-run cheese makers, distillers, bakers and other industries and might possibly mean that  a human being actually touches (and inspects) the goods before they are ready to be sold (whether or not they truly excel in their field). Other terms, such as “custom made” (or custommade) lack the same glamor that “bespoke” has. For instance, one can get an equally shoddy product made in a different size or color and consider it to be custom-made. That is not always the case, of course, but for want of a word that conveys when a craftsman really listens to a client and delivers the very best of their work, bespoke remains the best word choice.

 


The Elusive Nature of Quality

Demilune table

"Millenium" demilune table

I make things. Although I do make sculptural and jewelry items, I also make a variety of things that fall into the category of “functional art”. While in the process of making something, there are numerous decisions that get made along the way that can affect the outcome of the finished project. Many of these decisions pertain to the quality of the product. It is important to me that I make things well.

The term “quality” has two aspects. The first aspect is measurable. For example, in the case of a table, the flatness of the top and evenness of legs can be measured. So can its load-bearing abilities, its height and other practical concerns related to its function.

The second aspect of quality is more elusive and much more subjective. Much like beauty, our measurement of this aspect is measured internally by our responses to it. We perceive something and interpret it. Our interpretations are swayed by our previous experiences. How many tables have we seen? How does this compare to previous tables? Does the form evoke any feelings? When presented with an object, we approach it with certain expectations. When the perception of an object exceeds our expectations, the object is deemed to have “high quality”.

When artists get together and talk freely, there is often a discussion about how our best work is yet to come, or how we feel that we are always on a course for improvement in our work. Every day is a new day, fresh because it is enhanced by experiences from all the days before it. Any kind of undertaking, when accomplished, brings a unique set of lessons from the experience. Artists get better by making more.


One pair of gates, full view

A pair of old gates

This is a full view of one of the gates I mentioned previously. There is nothing extravagant or outlandish about it. The artisan who crafted it remains annonymous. It is the subtle details that I admire most.


Inspirations

Sweeping curves, traditional joinery

Gates of the imagination

A detail of a pair of gates

There were two sets of gates across the road from where I grew up. I used to visit them as a child and admire the spider webs that decorated them in late summer. I would visit at other times as well; how the stark contrast with the snow made them seem even more solid, or how well-placed they seemed as the first buds of spring began to emerge. When I was small, I would sometimes touch them ever-so-lightly, afraid that I might make them tremble upon the hinges set in stone columns.

It has been over forty years since I first interacted with these gates. Now I call myself a blacksmith and have done so for over twenty years. When I see these gates now, I still marvel over the construction and regardless of how often I have seen them before, I still find new things to admire. The difference between myself as child and myself as a seasoned, adult blacksmith, is that I grasp them with both hands now.


Railing section

Railing section with traditional joinery


Articulated sculpture

Articulated sculpture, Mended Moon

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Red Hot!

Hot from the forge at Quicksilver Metalsmithing

Forging a component of a railing project