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.
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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."
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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.
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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.
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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