Register Monday | June 25 | 2018

The New Age of Iron

Forging on in upstate New York

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Smithing went from indispensable to obsolete and, by the end of the twentieth century, the practice seemed to have been reduced to a cultic hobby driven by people with enough free time and disposable income to forge really heavy candlesticks for fun. However, smithing is making something of a comeback—and I’m not just referring to Jonathan Franzen’s metallurgic endorsements in The Corrections or Orlando Bloom’s grieving Middle-Ages blacksmith widower in Kingdom of Heaven. Hundreds of metalwork schools have sprung up in recent years, and organizations like the Artist-Blacksmith’s Association of North America (ABANA) now host huge welcome-all-comers biennial conferences. Rhoda and Ed Mack are a big factor in the blacksmithing renaissance. The Macks—they seem to do everything in the plural—grew up in real-life equivalents of pastoral novels. Ed is a former anthropologist whose rural Orange County childhood was fuelled by his sheriff grandfather’s tales of the American West. Rhoda is a writer who was raised on a southeastern Pennsylvania farm, complete with “original log home crumbling in the meadow.” For thirty years the couple lived together in a small stone house in the Catskills. The anthropologist in Ed was drawn to how “the use of tools harnesses energy to shape the social system,” and soon the couple’s burgeoning interest in blacksmithing developed into a career too big for their home. In 1993, they moved to Florida, New York, to set up a proper blacksmithing studio in a century-old Borden’s Creamery ice house. In response to the near-absence of formal blacksmithing apprenticeships in North America, the Macks founded the Center for Metal Arts in 2003. Rhoda describes the centre as “a natural outgrowth of our interests to provide advanced education for and by accomplished smiths, to learn from one another, to pass on a valuable education to the rising generation of metal artisans.” Israeli master blacksmith Uri Hofi teaches intensive one-week courses twice a year, attracting students from all over the world. The ice-house forge is enormous and spread over two floors joined by a luxurious nineteenth-century staircase. Upstairs is a wood-panelled room that showcases the Macks’ award-winning artistry. Little pots of copper flowers sit next to giant floral trellises and an array of elaborate Gothic-inspired gates. Inventive tables swivel from horizontal to upright positions. Smaller pieces—leaves, snakes, corkscrews—hang off planks along the rear wall. Many of the Macks’ awards, often designed by fellow smiths, lie about the floor, too heavy to mount. Ed and Rhoda are currently working on a gate for the Dakota, the Central Park West apartment in front of which John Lennon was shot. To meet the expectations of a modern, electronic-locking security gate, Ed explains, the project requires “skill sets from Renaissance sheet work to precision milling for hidden electronics, traditional forgework, laser and water-jet cutting, and 3-D sheet-metal patternmaking”—a microcosm for how blacksmithing fits into the contemporary world. To hear Ed speak this way, it’s easy to forget that tongs and anvils remain the quintessential blacksmithing tools. The process has changed very little, in fact, since the first bloom of smelted iron appeared somewhere around 2,000 bc. Though I push and prod the Macks for hot tales of neoteric blacksmithing styles, they insist blacksmithing technique has not changed much at all in the past 200 years, aside from obvious advances in technology (propane forges, air-powered hammers). Iron is heated over a flame to a progressively higher temperature until the metal is soft enough to be shaped with tools. The heat not only makes the metal malleable, it also changes its molecular structure, releasing impurities such as phosphorous, silica and carbon—allowing the blacksmith to manipulate the iron’s hardness and toughness as required. A large steel door separates the entry into the ice house from the shop. Giant lengths of steel sidle up against the wall. Upon walking into the building, I can hear the repeated thump of the building’s pulse. The shop extends back about 200 feet. In the front room, I find the different forges: coal-, propane- and gas-powered; in the back, more forges and the source of the room’s seductive heartbeat: the air-powered hammer. Blacksmithing is an oral tradition; protégés congregate around the forges for their daily lesson. Uri Hofi opens his courses with instructions on the physics of moving metal, the tricks of hammer control and proper body stance at the anvil. He teaches an ergonomically sound mode of blacksmithing, unimaginatively named the Hofi System, which strives to exert “minimum energy and time for maximum moving of the material.” The stereotypical stoutness of physique you might associate with blacksmithing is no longer a requirement—the force of the required swing now derives from the rebound of a short hammer off the metal, leaving joints and nerves relatively unabused. I watch as blacksmith John Rais suspends a piece of steel in the 1000-degree-Celsius flame that is shooting upward from a heap of bright-red coal. After two or three minutes, he places the now-pliable substance on the anvil and pounds away. Eschewing the traditional perpendicular stance, Rais places himself parallel to the anvil, redistributing his weight to avoid muscle strain. If Ed Mack has his way, the hunched-over images of exaggeratedly stalwart blacksmiths will become a thing of the past. Welcome to a new, more healthful age of blacksmithing. Students are shown the pyrotechnic potentials of propane and coal fires, and how to forge the tongs with which they will round, pound and pinch softened metal. They experiment with working the metal, creating forms from a small taper (a length of metal), a long taper and from a split. After students craft their steel, they use beeswax and ceramic powders to produce a salubrious sheen. The week-long course becomes more theoretical as the week progresses, delving into the philosophies of metallurgy. Modern steel, Ed informs me, is made from random bits of metal, which gives it a toughness that is difficult to shape. Copper is a far easier teaching material because it can be bent with pliers and heated with a blowtorch rather than over a forge’s flame. Students are shown how to bend copper and turn it into an elaborate floral design or a piece of jewellery. Having learned the theoretical foundation, and equipped with the requisite tools to subdue metal, students are educated on the “golden proportions” of shapes found in nature: the spiral, the triangle and the rectangle. The Macks embrace the symmetry of nature and use the organic balance of flora and fauna to guide their structures. Ed likes to tell his class how, over a period of months, the roses disappeared off the contemporary-colonial gates and fencing he had forged and installed across from Smith College; the thefts attest to the strangely supple and realistic look of the foliage. After an arduous series of lessons, as the steel dust settles, the Center for Metal Arts ends each course with a short lecture on blacksmith mythology. For years, these men were considered magicians. Today, thousands of them—men and women now—are at work in North America. Both private homeowners and commercial businesses are seeking out blacksmiths with increasing regularity. The drive behind the Macks’ practice is much simpler: artistry, empathy and what Rhoda calls “the conscious choice to work with something ‘real’ in a virtual world.” “There is nothing more real than fire and iron and body sweat,” she adds, “forming beauty out of earth ore.” On my office wall is a framed photo from the Toronto Department of Health. Dated 1912, it depicts a family living in squalor, their laundry strung up around them. Four years before this photo was taken, it was possible to order an exquisite eighty-foot “India hemp cable laid sash clothesline” for twenty cents from Sears, Roebuck & Co. A superb one-hundred-foot manila line sold for forty-three cents. A lovely one-hundred-foot galvanized, rust-resistant six-wire line went for twenty-three cents. The people in my photo, however, use

In medieval times, blacksmiths made it possible for people to ride horses to faraway kingdoms—and to then conquer those kingdoms by wielding some cold, hard steel. But the industrial revolution sunk the market for handmade swords and horseshoes. Smithing went from indispensable to obsolete and, by the end of the twentieth century, the practice seemed to have been reduced to a cultic hobby driven by people with enough free time and disposable income to forge really heavy candlesticks for fun.

However, smithing is making something of a comeback—and I’m not just referring to Jonathan Franzen’s metallurgic endorsements in The Corrections or Orlando Bloom’s grieving Middle-Ages blacksmith widower in Kingdom of Heaven. Hundreds of metalwork schools have sprung up in recent years, and organizations like the Artist-Blacksmith’s Association of North America (ABANA) now host huge welcome-all-comers biennial conferences.

Rhoda and Ed Mack are a big factor in the blacksmithing renaissance. The Macks—they seem to do everything in the plural—grew up in real-life equivalents of pastoral novels. Ed is a former anthropologist whose rural Orange County childhood was fuelled by his sheriff grandfather’s tales of the American West. Rhoda is a writer who was raised on a southeastern Pennsylvania farm, complete with “original log home crumbling in the meadow.”

For thirty years the couple lived together in a small stone house in the Catskills. The anthropologist in Ed was drawn to how “the use of tools harnesses energy to shape the social system,” and soon the couple’s burgeoning interest in blacksmithing developed into a career too big for their home. In 1993, they moved to Florida, New York, to set up a proper blacksmithing studio in a century-old Borden’s Creamery ice house.

In response to the near-absence of formal blacksmithing apprenticeships in North America, the Macks founded the Center for Metal Arts in 2003. Rhoda describes the centre as “a natural outgrowth of our interests to provide advanced education for and by accomplished smiths, to learn from one another, to pass on a valuable education to the rising generation of metal artisans.” Israeli master blacksmith Uri Hofi teaches intensive one-week courses twice a year, attracting students from all over the world.

The ice-house forge is enormous and spread over two floors joined by a luxurious nineteenth-century staircase. Upstairs is a wood-panelled room that showcases the Macks’ award-winning artistry. Little pots of copper flowers sit next to giant floral trellises and an array of elaborate Gothic-inspired gates. Inventive tables swivel from horizontal to upright positions. Smaller pieces—leaves, snakes, corkscrews—hang off planks along the rear wall. Many of the Macks’ awards, often designed by fellow smiths, lie about the floor, too heavy to mount.

Ed and Rhoda are currently working on a gate for the Dakota, the Central Park West apartment in front of which John Lennon was shot. To meet the expectations of a modern, electronic-locking security gate, Ed explains, the project requires “skill sets from Renaissance sheet work to precision milling for hidden electronics, traditional forgework, laser and water-jet cutting, and 3-D sheet-metal patternmaking”—a microcosm for how blacksmithing fits into the contemporary world.

To hear Ed speak this way, it’s easy to forget that tongs and anvils remain the quintessential blacksmithing tools. The process has changed very little, in fact, since the first bloom of smelted iron appeared somewhere around 2,000 bc. Though I push and prod the Macks for hot tales of neoteric blacksmithing styles, they insist blacksmithing technique has not changed much at all in the past 200 years, aside from obvious advances in technology (propane forges, air-powered hammers). Iron is heated over a flame to a progressively higher temperature until the metal is soft enough to be shaped with tools. The heat not only makes the metal malleable, it also changes its molecular structure, releasing impurities such as phosphorous, silica and carbon—allowing the blacksmith to manipulate the iron’s hardness and toughness as required.

A large steel door separates the entry into the ice house from the shop. Giant lengths of steel sidle up against the wall. Upon walking into the building, I can hear the repeated thump of the building’s pulse. The shop extends back about 200 feet. In the front room, I find the different forges: coal-, propane- and gas-powered; in the back, more forges and the source of the room’s seductive heartbeat: the air-powered hammer.

Blacksmithing is an oral tradition; protégés congregate around the forges for their daily lesson. Uri Hofi opens his courses with instructions on the physics of moving metal, the tricks of hammer control and proper body stance at the anvil. He teaches an ergonomically sound mode of blacksmithing, unimaginatively named the Hofi System, which strives to exert “minimum energy and time for maximum moving of the material.” The stereotypical stoutness of physique you might associate with blacksmithing is no longer a requirement—the force of the required swing now derives from the rebound of a short hammer off the metal, leaving joints and nerves relatively unabused.

I watch as blacksmith John Rais suspends a piece of steel in the 1000-degree-Celsius flame that is shooting upward from a heap of bright-red coal. After two or three minutes, he places the now-pliable substance on the anvil and pounds away. Eschewing the traditional perpendicular stance, Rais places himself parallel to the anvil, redistributing his weight to avoid muscle strain. If Ed Mack has his way, the hunched-over images of exaggeratedly stalwart blacksmiths will become a thing of the past. Welcome to a new, more healthful age of blacksmithing.

Students are shown the pyrotechnic potentials of propane and coal fires, and how to forge the tongs with which they will round, pound and pinch softened metal. They experiment with working the metal, creating forms from a small taper (a length of metal), a long taper and from a split. After students craft their steel, they use beeswax and ceramic powders to produce a salubrious sheen.

The week-long course becomes more theoretical as the week progresses, delving into the philosophies of metallurgy. Modern steel, Ed informs me, is made from random bits of metal, which gives it a toughness that is difficult to shape. Copper is a far easier teaching material because it can be bent with pliers and heated with a blowtorch rather than over a forge’s flame. Students are shown how to bend copper and turn it into an elaborate floral design or a piece of jewellery.

Having learned the theoretical foundation, and equipped with the requisite tools to subdue metal, students are educated on the “golden proportions” of shapes found in nature: the spiral, the triangle and the rectangle. The Macks embrace the symmetry of nature and use the organic balance of flora and fauna to guide their structures. Ed likes to tell his class how, over a period of months, the roses disappeared off the contemporary-colonial gates and fencing he had forged and installed across from Smith College; the thefts attest to the strangely supple and realistic look of the foliage.

After an arduous series of lessons, as the steel dust settles, the Center for Metal Arts ends each course with a short lecture on blacksmith mythology. For years, these men were considered magicians. Today, thousands of them—men and women now—are at work in North America. Both private homeowners and commercial businesses are seeking out blacksmiths with increasing regularity.

The drive behind the Macks’ practice is much simpler: artistry, empathy and what Rhoda calls “the conscious choice to work with something ‘real’ in a virtual world.”

“There is nothing more real than fire and iron and body sweat,” she adds, “forming beauty out of earth ore.”

d plain old rope.

 

The family’s straight wooden clothespins might have been ordered by the box—five dozen for fifty-eight cents—but had likely been salvaged and passed down from grandmother to mother to daughter. Some might even have dated back to the days when clothes pegs were either painstakingly homemade or purchased from a peddler, back when one had to undergo what a nineteenth-century diarist described as “the great domestic dread of the household”: sorting, soaking, scrubbing, hauling, boiling, rinsing, wringing, starching and hanging the laundry.

With the drudgery of washday largely behind us, the clothesline is now regarded either as an emblem of poverty that ought to be banned—tens of thousands of communities in North America have done just that—or a call back to so-called simpler times, when the pinning up of damp garments was a wholesome, home-baked art (read: neighbours shunned women who hung shirts sloppily). Members of the latter camp are now inspiring the innovators at places such as Ben-Mor Cables, a company at the forefront of a new age in clotheslines.

 

The Ben-Mor factory is a collection of green warehouses located in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec. The surrounding neighbourhood is made up of narrow two- and three-storey mid-century homes; some are brick, some are covered in siding, but almost all have balconies that anchor plastic-coated steel cords strung from nearby trees, telephone poles and fences. It’s November—it’s frigid—but many of the lines still sag under the weight of sheets, blankets, jeans, jackets and shirts hung out to dry.

Inside the warm Ben-Mor showroom, hundreds of clothespins of various shapes, sizes and colours are jumbled in pails and bags. There are pulleys. There are lines: ordinary, heavy-duty, green, blue or clear. There are also winches, hooks, drying racks, pulley elevators, spacers, clothespin bags and those outdoor umbrella dryers with webbed tops that fold down neatly around their stems when not in use.

This is where Richard Plante has taken the clothesline back to the drawing board. The director of sales and marketing for Ben-Mor is dressed in a pristine white button-down shirt that has never seen the inside of a dryer. “I always hang a shirt like this to dry,” he says, tugging at the crisply ironed fabric over his chest.

Plante is a man who thinks deeply about laundry. One day in 2004, he experienced an epiphany while contemplating his barbecue, deck chairs and other balcony accoutrements—including his Ben-Mor clothesline. “The most ugly product,” he says, pausing to catch my eye, “was my product!” His arms and eyebrows shoot up simultaneously in mimed incredulity.

Enter Ben-Mor R & D, a crew usually asked to create, say, a more durable cable for a construction firm or the US Army. The team tackled Plante’s balcony brainstorm and, ta-dah, this spring a new clothesline kit rolled off the factory line. Dubbed Harmony, it contains all the ingredients for setting up your own outdoor manual-drying system: a 150-foot line with a vinyl-coated galvanized aircraft cable (capable of holding at least 500 pounds of laundry), two zinc ball-bearing pulleys, one zinc spacer, one zinc mini-winch and two hooks.

The contents of this kit are colour-coordinated. Anything in the box made with zinc—normally silvery grey—has become a shade Ben-Mor calls Sahara Beige. It took twenty-four months of trial and error to select the most durable paint and to perfect its application on zinc so that the colour would not chip with use or fade under the sun. The clothesline, meanwhile, is covered in Moka PVC plastic, with just enough translucency to reveal its steel core. “So people don’t think it’s an electric cable,” says Plante in his Québécois-inflected English, “or a cheapy rope.”

It’s as if Martha Stewart got her hands on these utilitarian objects and set about correcting their offensive habit of looking more functional than decorative. And why not? As Plante points out, if people will pay dearly for a glistening stainless-steel barbecue—“to show off to their neighbours”—why wouldn’t they spend a few extra bucks for a better-looking clothesline?

The only thing missing from Harmony are the clothespins, but Plante’s working on that. He’s seeking a sturdy plastic clothespin design that will appeal particularly to Canadians. The right colour, the right shape: today’s clothespin innovations are all about vanity.

 

It wasn’t always this way. Early clothespin advances stemmed from wanting to alleviate hard labour. The US Patent Office issued the first peg patent on March 22, 1832. The design looked promising enough: a six-inch strip of hickory bent to form a clamp. But according to Barbara Janssen, an associate curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and the force behind the 1998 exhibition America’s Clothespins, it was a dud. “It used a wooden screw to hold the two sides together,” she tells me. “It wasn’t very practical. If the clothespin got wet, the screw would swell and you wouldn’t be able to operate it.”

It wasn’t until 1853 that the first “modern” clothespin appeared: two wooden legs that could pivot and open on a metal spring. All told, between 1852 and 1887—coinciding with surging advances in manufacturing capabilities—146 different clothespin patents were issued in the United States. A few were feasible enough to put into production. Credit for the last major clothespin innovation goes to Italian-American entrepreneur Mario Maccaferri, also the creator of a plastic reed and a plastic guitar, and one of the minds behind the eight-track. He developed the first plastic clothespin during the Second World War, reportedly after discovering the shortage of wooden pegs while on an errand to buy some for his wife. His factory subsequently produced more than a million pins a day to meet wartime demand.

That was sixty years ago. The US Patent and Trademark Office website records some thirteen designs for clothespin patents issued between 1947 and 2005, with little evidence of eureka moments. Some designs resemble your ordinary wooden clothespin but with more toothy, formidable jaws. One looks like a pliable, plastic U; another like a distorted thimble. One pin, patented in 1984 by Raymond L. Woodley of Leeds—a design I have actually seen in use among my British acquaintances—lies on the page like a tiny, armless plastic doll with nubby legs, outward-curving feet and a flat, faceless head, all of which combine somehow to convey a perky playfulness. These new designs claim more constant pressure, cheaper or simpler construction, greater resistance to the forces of wind and less likelihood of breaking in two, splitting or leaping off the line without warning.

The more recent the patent, the more likely it is that appearance trumps function. The Clip ’n’ Stay clothespin created in 1999 by Bruce E. Ancona and Louis Henry in New York represents one of the first such “advances.” It’s a one-piece plastic specimen with a hairpin curve and jaws that click together at two circular knobs, giving it a sleek, teardrop shape. During its brief availability, the clamp came in a translucent blue, green and orange, what one design critic described as “a palette of contemporary colours.” Indeed, the pin earned brief notoriety when it won a host of design awards and was named one of Time Asia magazine’s top-ten designs of the year. But because EKCO Housewares, the company it was concocted for, retreated from the market, the pin is no longer manufactured.

Forgive me if I don’t shed any tears.

Recently, I bought a bag of the very latest pins—a January 2005 patent by a pair of inventors from France—from a shop in my Ottawa neighbourhood. These plastic pins (soft yellow, coral blue, delicate candy orange) sport wide thumbs, a straight spring rather than a hinge and a “soft-touch grip system” that will caress rather than dent your clothing (yes, “caress” appears on the packaging). At $6.69 for ten pins, a pack of these Euro Collection clips won’t get you through a fifth of your load of laundry. And yet the space given over to them on the clothespin wall at Home Hardware is surefire evidence of a market for Plante’s Harmony clothesline kit—and that companies are trying to get in on the clothespin action.

I’m one of those people who considers a loaded clothesline a fine, bracing, soul-enriching sight. What could be better than a row of bright colours and patterns lifting on gusts of wind, held in place by tiny, straight-backed soldiers, teetering this way and that, working their little hinges? But these newfangled designs, late-breaking tools, upper-class pulleys and happy little bits of moulded plastic only make me look at my bucket of old wooden pins and think, “What’s wrong with you, old friends? What have you—all fifty of you for $1.99—done to deserve this flogging?” It makes them seem out of it. Left behind. Let’s face it, they’re pushing rustic.

Which, when you think of it, is just this side of cool.