Sunday, October 30, 2011

Blog Entry #4 Newspaper Article 10/20/11

Blacksmith still hammers away

Posted: Sunday, October 30, 2011 12:00 am | Updated: 9:51 am, Fri Oct 28, 2011.
PEPIN - Robert Walsh carefully pulls a slender steel rod from a scorching hot forge, careful to keep his hands away from the tip of the pole, which glows bright orange.
He carries the hot bar to a nearby anvil, where he begins pounding on it with a large metal hammer.
Pang! Pang! Pang!
Orange slivers of hot steel shoot out with each strike. Working quickly - the metal is as malleable as dense clay for only a few moments - Walsh beats at the pole until the tip narrows to a fine point. Satisfied, he places the bar back in the forge, a special kind of oven blacksmiths use to heat the metal they work with; he'll continue shaping it once it's hot enough to do so again.
Then it's my turn. Donning thick gloves, I take my own piece of steel from the forge; Walsh tells me his can get up to 2,500 degrees. I do my best to repeat his demonstration, trying to shape the rod's tip to a point.
Pang! Pang! Pang!
But I'm clumsy, and my arm quickly grows tired. By the time my metal tube cools off, making it impossible to work with anymore, I find I've only barely reshaped it - the tip is a little askew, but it's far from the sharp spear-head I'd wanted. I put the rod back in the forge and wait for it to get hot enough to try shaping it again.
"It's therapy," Walsh later says of his job as a blacksmith.
A graduate of the former Dunwoody Industrial Institute in Minneapolis - now known as Dunwoody College of Technology - Walsh has spent most of his roughly 30-year career making wrought-iron gates and railings for high-end homes. His Pepin-based company goes by the name R. Walsh Gate & Railing Co.
But the housing bust of recent years has eroded Walsh's business. A decline in the number of people building new houses, he explains, has made for fewer customers buying his custom-built gates.
"For 30 years ... we forged for high-end homes," Walsh says, lamenting the economic downturn and the effects it's had on his business.
Walsh says he has eaten through almost all his savings trying to ride out the economic crisis.
"Over the last 30 years I have weathered through slow periods, but this current economic situation has been going on longer (than) my reserves can endure," he says.
So he's branched out. Earlier this year Walsh began constructing artful objects he hopes people will buy as memorials for deceased family members and other loved ones. His new creations range from simple, wall-mounted candleholders to more sophisticated bouquets of wrought-iron flowers. He also has sketched plans and started work constructing artful metal tombstones. He plans to sell his new work online and hopes to attract a national customer base.
q q q
I had agreed to meet with Walsh earlier this month at his blacksmithing workshop, in a small building behind his Pepin house. He's worked in this small Mississippi River town for about 14 years, though he's also worked stints as a blacksmith in other rural Wisconsin communities and in Minneapolis.
Spry for his age - he's 65 - Walsh moves nimbly about as he gives me a quick tour of his cramped workshop. Anvils and hammers are scattered throughout the building, and scraps of recycled steel litter tabletops and parts of the floor. An artistic bouquet of iron flowers sits atop an enormous table. Along one wall, a luminescent orange glow shines through the open front of a small forge.
Walsh, whose spectacled face is lined with a ring of silver hair, hands me a pair of safety goggles, ear plugs and gloves. He's promised to put me to work - we'll be making wrought-iron fireplace pokers, an appropriately simple project for a beginner like me.
He places two thin rods inside the forge, heating their ends. Once he's satisfied they'll be malleable enough to work with, he begins pounding on his atop an anvil, and I do likewise.
"It'll be comfortably warm," he warns me as I pull one of the poles from the forge. Good advice, I think: At about 2,500 degrees, I keep my gloved hands as far as possible from the glowing-hot tip.
I spend several seconds hammering feverishly.
Pang! Pang! Pang!
I'm left disappointed, though - I've only barely affected the metal rod's shape. Be patient, Walsh tells me, noting it has taken him decades to become proficient at his trade. I keep working the tip to a point, occasionally reheating the metal to make it more malleable.
Pang! Pang! Pang!
Finally, I'm done.
"It's perfect," Walsh - who, as it turns out, is an awfully encouraging mentor - tells me. "It looks great. It looks great."
q q q
A few weeks after our first meeting, I call Walsh to chat again, this time asking about how his new venture into artful metalworking is going. It's been a challenge making the transition from producing household gates and railings to making memorial artwork.
"What I'm doing is I'm starting from scratch with my own business," he tells me, explaining many of the companies he now competes with already are well-established. But many of them import their products, he points out, noting he makes all his wrought-iron creations by hand.
"They can't make it custom," he says of his competitors.
Walsh may not have to rely on creating and selling his artistic memorials for financial sustenance for long, either. While he says the housing market isn't doing much better now than a few years ago, he has noticed a bump in the number of people remodeling their homes. That could mean an end to the slump in his traditional gate-making business, he explains, noting home remodelers may start coming to him for their wrought-iron needs again.
q q q
After I've finally gotten the sharp point I want, Walsh shows me how to bend the end of the steel rod into a small hook. The hook is more than decoration, I'm told, as Walsh shows me how I can now hang my poker over a nail.
Then we twist part of the bar into a sort of corkscrew. That part, Walsh explains, will be the handle for the fireplace poker.
Later we place the other end of the rod into the forge - we'll shape this side into the part of the poker that goes into the fireplace.
Once it's hot enough to mold, Walsh again begins hammering the pole into the shape he wants, using his anvil and mallet to bend the rod into an "L" shape to complete the poker design.
Pang! Pang! Pang!
I repeat the process, struggling a bit clumsily again but eventually getting (roughly) the same shape Walsh had achieved.
Later, we'll use sandpaper to smooth away any rough edges and cover our pokers in a layer of wax.
q q q
We take a few breaks in our work from time to time, allowing me to jot down a few notes and ask questions.
Mechanically speaking, the transition from making gates and railings to iron bouquets and candleholders has been a fairly easy one, Walsh tells me, showing me how his new creations borrow heavily in style and technique from the products he used to make. His bouquets, for example, feature the same sweeping arcs and other forms he previously incorporated in his railings.
There is indeed a consistency in his work, and he proudly points out the artful flair he infuses in all his creations, whether they're functional wrought-iron gates or decorative candleholders.
"It's timeless," he says of his work, which he considers a form of art. "I'm 65, and I'm still excited about it."
Bennett can be reached at 715-830-5832, 800-236-7077 or

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Blog Entry #3 Hannah's Rough Start

In the beginning of blog entry numbers one and two, I explained that before changing the main focus of my profession from that of hand forging ornamental iron for fine homes into hand forging memorial ironwork, I wanted to write/pass on some meaningful experiences.  Meaningful experiences I had while hammering out architectural work. With the above in mind, here comes Uncle Bob’s meaningful experience number three.
This entry is highly unlikely. If someone else wrote it and I were to read it, I would probably question it’s validity. With that being said, here goes.
After birth, both of my daughters started life with rather rough beginnings. My oldest daughter Katie had spinal meningitis and my youngest daughter Hannah was born with towed in feet. What this amounted to, was that everything was fine down her legs and past her heels, but at mid-foot where the arch is, her feet pigeon toed in.
So here I was again, about to learn another one of life’s lessons. Living the starving artist/blacksmiths carefree (?) lifestyle was fun, when you have no responsibilities. However, when your newborn child’s health is being compromised because of your chosen lifestyle, your (my) values instantly became a horse of a different color. I guess this is called growing up (better late than never).
A number of things happened during Hannah’s foot era that were interesting, almost unbelievable in a positive way.
The first thing that happened was — After working a long day in Minneapolis, on my way home (into the country) I stopped into one of those open-until-midnight super markets to buy groceries. The store was deserted as it was late, except for two or three employees. Exhausted from working all day, plus having the weight of the world on my shoulders as my child needed help fast, I grocery shopped. While at the meat counter, the woman behind the counter asked "how are you this evening?". I thought for a minute and then let her have it all! I told her about how freaked out I was about my daughter, how I had to do something fast and was simply over my head in all areas.
Are you ready for this? She said, "No problem. My daughter’s feet were like that also. I can tell you all about it." A half hour and pound of ground beef later, I left the store thinking, if I believed in angels on earth, I just met one. How cool was this?
My wife and I hustled our daughter over to the local rural clinic which had a part time orthopedic surgeon. The doctor wanted to put casts on Hannah’s feet to straighten them while the newborn bones were soft and playable. So we did this. The doctor seemed knowledgeable but I was apprehensive.
Here is where the story goes from being a little unusual to being really unusual. With the casts on her feet (which she did not like) I went back to work. Later that week I was installing a railing in a modest but fine home. The man of the house was downstairs reading the morning paper and I was crawling around upstairs, drilling holes in his floor to anchor his new railing. Close to me upstairs was a maid, ironing.
In an effort to make small talk with the maid, I asked her what the homeowner did for a living? She said "he is a world renown orthopedic surgeon". I couldn’t believe my ears! Are you kidding me? With the weight of the world on my shoulders, I immediately set down my tools, went downstairs and said, Dr. ---- could I please have a minute of your time? What was the likelihood of my being in his house, and him being home when the one thing in the world I needed was an ally in the orthopedic business?
Dr.— put down his newspaper and listened as I described Hannah’s problem. He then said "I don’t want to interfere with what another doctor is doing, but I will tell you exactly what he should be doing and when, and if that is not what is happening, come and see me".
As it turned out, the country doctor was an excellent doctor, did exactly what needed to be done and our Hannah turned out being a great and athletic girl. Do I sound like a proud father? I hope so, because I am.
What was the likelihood of running into these people when I needed them? Some people might credit God. Some Karma. Some Irish luck or just plain chance. Chance? I don’t even know an orthopedic surgeon, how did I find myself in one’s home when I needed a second opinion? You tell me?
Ironwork has put me in contact with many different people from many walks of life.

As grateful as I often am, some of the scenarios I just cannot explain.
Robert Walsh

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Blog Entry #2

Spinal Meningitis
In the beginning of Blog Entry #1, I explained that I wanted to write three or four blog entries that address meaningful experiences I have had while hammering out ornate gate and railing work. These stories proceed a future blog series that will focus on memorial metalwork. With meaningful experiences in mind, here comes Uncle Bob’s story number two.
When I first went into blacksmithing full time I was really on thin ice. Forging metal I knew quite well, but business and people I absolutely did not. Actually business and people are not my strong suits now either, but we all do what we have to do. Speaking in favor of myself, I don’t think anybody is strong in all areas??
Well anyway, in the early days I was squeaking out a living, hammering out what I could. Then my wife Pam and I received great news from mother nature, Pam was pregnant. I suspect you may have heard the old saying "Every baby comes with it’s own bread basket". Mine did. Trying to live on love and optimism as many young couples do, the economics of having a baby were not thought out well, or thought out at all! Somehow, everything was just supposed to fall into place. Oh, the optimism of youth!
Here comes the bread basket. Shortly before my first daughter (Katie) was born, I received an excellent commission. Hooray! The commission was hand forging four nice interior gates for the Minnesota Governor’s Residence. Great job! The gates were not paid for with taxpayers money, but instead with funds raised by the 1006 Society (Ten-Oh-Six Society). The address of the Governor’s Residence is 1006 Summit Avenue. The 1006 Society is (or was at that time) a group of women who do many things. One of these things is being the fund raising arm for the Governor’s Residence Council.
I met with members of the 1006 Society, The Governor’s Residence Council and the Interior Decorator in charge. This commission I was really excited about. There was one stipulation on the project.  The gates were to be installed by a specific date so they could be presented as part of a future event. No problem (I thought).
Everything was going along as planned and while working on this wonderful commission, my daughter Katie was born. How cool is all this!
It was cool until about three or four days after Katie’s birth, when my sister-in-law probably saved Katie’s life. When my sister-in-law Patty saw Katie on her first visit, she said "this kid is sick, look at her skin, she's green!". After being really disappointed in my sister-in-laws words, we started to re-think Katie’s color. How could anything be wrong with our perfect daughter? Soon we were back in the hospital as Katie had spinal meningitis. This is a big deal. Spinal meningitis kills people swiftly, or if they survive, they often have brain damage. I will never forget the doctors telling Pam and I to leave the hospital floor while they held Katie down so they could perform a spinal tap. The advised us that kids scream a lot during this procedure and it is easier on the parents if they do not hear it.
Following the spinal tap and a number of other tests, Katie ended up in an incubator. She had her hands tied to the sides of the incubator so she could not pull the needle out of the vein in her forehead where medication and who knows what else was fed into her system.
My marriage to Pam was my second marriage and I came into it with some baggage. My first wife and I lost a baby shortly after birth and I will forever feel remorse for not being a more compassionate husband during that process. Speaking in my own weak defense, my first wife and I were becoming parents so young (18) that the whole process was (for me anyway) just a blur of events that I was too immature to comprehend with much depth. I did not understand the magnitude of what was happening and as such, did not handle it well. My lack of maturity left the ball in my wife’s court. Not cool. Real men are tough. Right? Wrong!
Fast forwarding to Katie in her incubator. So here I am working on this dream job with a deadline and my wife is staying in the hospital with our daughter who may or may not live? I worked on the governor’s gates for a few days as I was trying to honor my commitment and then would support my wife when not working. In all honesty, because I was living on an economic shoestring and because the Governor’s Mansion and all the trappings are from a world I know little about, I was afraid of not honoring my commitment to them. I wondered if I balked, if that would start legal proceedings based on the contract I signed?
After thinking about what was happening with Katie and watching history repeat itself with regards to my first lost child, scared to death, I called and arranged a meeting with the appropriate members of the Governor’s Residence Council and the 1006 Society. While in the board room, I could not help myself, I lost my composure, broke down and told these women that whatever repercussions needed to happen to me, they will just have to happen. I simply could not leave my wife at this time when our daughter was fighting for her life. Their wrought iron gates were not going to be installed for their event. I was thinking, OK now here come the lawyers.
What happened totally blew me away! Instead of meeting with iron fists from people who come from economic means far beyond anything I will ever see, I received an avalanche of compassion! Most or all of these women were mothers themselves and as such were totally in support of what I was doing. Instead of reprimanding me, they asked me how could they help? My daughter became one of their concerns. All of a sudden I had this army of resources behind me in support of my needs instead of insisting on some metalwork that probably few people would really care about anyway.
How cool is this. Well, everything worked out. I did not want any help from the Council or Society, only a window of time so I could be with my family when I needed to be. Katie lived through the meningitis and without any brain damage (although in her teenage years I often wondered!!). As soon as Katie's health was stable, I hammered out the gates along with many thank you notes.
I enjoy ironwork and hand forging pretty things, but things are only things. I have devoted my life to making fine metalwork, but I once heard a quote that I cannot contest, "The best things in life are not things". The best things in life are people and life itself.
I will never forget that the members of the Governor’s Residence Council and the 1006 Society value people more than things.
And because this, I will always feel a deep sense of gratitude for these people.
I realize there is a reason for written contracts. However in this case, in my book, these people were examples of humanity acting at it’s finest.  People doing the right thing when it needed to be done.
Actions like this are beautiful.
Uncle Bob

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Entry #1

Uncle Bob’s Blog 
My name is Robert Walsh (Uncle Bob). This is my blog.
I own/operate a business, The R. Walsh Memorial and Ornamental Iron Co.
Our primary products are memorial items. Why would anyone selling memorial products have a blog? Good question. An even better question might be, since people only (hopefully) purchase memorial products a few times in their lifetime, who would ever read or frequent a blog written by someone in my profession? Did you ever see the movie Harold and Maude?  I hope your life does not parallel that of Harold or Maude's, however, it was a really great movie.
Well, to address the above questions, who would read this, for most of my life, I would have said "not me".
Then why am I writing this blog? Well truthfully speaking, after hand forging beautiful gates and railings for fine homes for 30 years, because of the downturn in the building economy, I had to expand the focus of what we produce. That is the un-sugar coated truth. While producing architectural ironwork (gates and railings) I have written many-many articles on the subject, mostly for trade publications.  I will continue to do this because I enjoy it.  With our new focus on memorial products, I thought I would write this blog as well.  We'll see where the blog goes?
Focusing on memorial products is becoming very meaningful to me.  Let me tell you why.
In the past, I never promoted memorial work because it rubs shoulders with grief and death. Now that I am working in this field, I have found that it also has a very beautiful side. It has soul. Think about this, what is more important than a birth, the quality of life, or a death? People cry at funerals and it is often for the loss of a loved one. How meaningful is that?
I am real sorry for the grief and death part of my profession. However, when I was a welder, I cannot tell you how much meaningless stuff I welded and when finished, thought, how much better the world would be if it had the natural resources back that it took to manufacture some of this waste. I am not putting myself on any pedestal as I must admit, I am as guilty of owning as much unnecessary junk over the years as anyone else.
What I am planning for the focus of this blog will be some of the meaningful or soul side of the memorial profession, plus some metalworking techniques. The metalworking techniques will not be "how to weld" but more advanced stuff that although technical, will hopefully have a broader interest? Conceptual, more than how-to. Design composition, the different colors of bronze alloys etc.
On my own personal journey, before I leave the architectural gate and railing side of my career (unless someone calls me with an order) I would like to tell four or five stories of events (meaningful to me) that happened while I was producing decorative architectural metals. This is Uncle Bob’s story time.
Once upon a time, I/we manufactured ornate brass beds. This really dates me, but if you are older than dirt, you might remember after Bob Dylan sang his song Lay Lady Lay with the lyrics about "lay across my big brass bed" brass bed sales went through the roof. We could not make them fast enough.
One day in the midst of this brass bed frenzy, a very concerned man came into my Minneapolis shop. He had a family friend who was a 12 or so year old girl who was dying in California from a terminal disease. This very upset man asked me for help.
The man said that the young girl was granted two wishes by the facility she was in. The two wishes were, 1. To die in a brass bed that she had sketched. And 2. To die with her dog. The problem was, there was little time as she was about to die.
The man asked me if I could make a brass bed based on the girls sketch? Make it so it could be dis-assembled so he could fly it out to California? And how fast could I do it?
After a work marathon of a couple days and nights, we had it done. The man picked it up and was off to California.
A couple months later, into my shop walked the same man, not looking stressed anymore. He handed me a thank you note written by the young girl before she passed away. Passed away with her dog, in the brass bed she designed.
It’s jobs like this that make it all worthwhile.
I have a few more architectural/welding stories that have been meaningful to me. I would like to share these stories before moving on and into the memorial based blog. For me, these stories bring a beautiful conclusion to a career into which I invested 30 years of my life.
Since this is a blog and not a book however, I need to get back to work and will submit another entry as time permits (probably once or twice a month).
Uncle Bob

R. Walsh Memorial & Ornamental Iron Co.