Even in blazing summer, Austin's welders and forgers fire it up and make like rock & rollers
Watching a group of people forging metal with sledgehammers and tongs is like watching a band make rock & roll. Not so much because of the heavy metal noises being created but because their minds are synced. They move as one, from fire to anvil and back. They move quickly and precisely, meaningful eye contact abounding while sparks fly. It takes an exciting level of concentration and efficiency of movement to work with searing steel. I visited and talked with more than a dozen metalworkers, and one thing occurred to me: Bad metalworkers get hurt and quit fast. Folks who have been working with metal for more than five years are not just average/okay; they are great. The various processes are so dangerous in so many ways that there is just not room for mistakes. A bad painter can be just a bad painter, and nobody shows up and punches him in the gut. But a bad metalworker is going to get burned, be physically assaulted by his own tools. Which is to say the speed and focus of metalwork requires a certain temperament -- a level of physicality combined with intelligence and planning.
Trying to categorize metalworkers and welders is more complicated than you might guess. There are niches, such as making knife blades and swords, which require a specific knowledge of tempering to get tensile strength out of the metals' cooling process. There are automotive bodyworkers like the Eastside's Krush Proof Krew. There are farriers, who make orthopedics for hardworking horses. There are specialized machinists, who utilize computer-aided design and work with tungsten inert gas production methods, nonsteel welding. The shops I went to fabricated gates, safety rails, hinges, hooks, shelving, kitchen islands, benches, lights, tools, beds, and art. Metal is good for so many things, durable and powerful like the folks who work with it.
Making tools to make tools to make tools is part of the awesome history of blacksmithing. Todd Campbell, the principal at Fisterra Studio, reminds me that blacksmiths used to have to make tools and be able to repair everything on a farm. Historically, this range of items included hoes, plows, wheels, horseshoes, hammers, and all sorts of things that we just go buy at Home Depot today. This basic role is still appealing to modern metalworkers, resourceful problem solvers able to make lots of different things with a limited set of tools. There is an intellectual reward to this and the bonus of seeing the finished work.
When he first got interested in blacksmithing in 1977, Lars Stanley would make stops in small Texas towns, seeking out old blacksmiths to try and purchase their old-timey tools. Now this gentleman architect runs Lars Stanley Metalworks alongside his design firm. He says that the directness of metal informs his architectural practice, and its history and functionality are reflected in his designs. Stanley enjoys getting public art projects, like the gates at Zilker Park and the renovated bathhouse at Deep Eddy. He also likes the shop camaraderie. "I never could have guessed at how rewarding having this shop would be," he says, taking obvious pride in his present staff and those past assistants who have gone on to start their own successful businesses.
In working with metal, speed and concentration are huge factors. When a welder uses, say, a wire and an electrical heating element to spot-weld a joint, a balance must be struck. The welder is adding heat and metal to cold metal. Matt St. Louis, product developer for Saint Louis Designs, says a bad weld is "a caterpillar; it sits on top with no penetration." Also bad is a "blowout," when the added heat removes the actual surface you were trying to add to. Patching blowouts slows down the whole fabrication process and requires time-consuming grinding to hide the evidence later.
The role of speed in the process of shaping metal is most visible in forging, which refers to directly heating the metal, then beating the heck out of it to form a new shape. Watching people forge is exciting. Power hammers, jigs, sledgehammers, anvils both flat and shaped, and a variety of tongs are often used in rapid combination. The old method -- still very much in practice at LSM and Austin Metal Authority -- is to light bituminous coal in what looks like a souped-up barbecue -- Brian Frisbie of Frisbie Design Concern says an old car brake drum will do the trick -- with an electric fan underneath that acts as a bellows. AMA buys coal locally at Callahan's. Stanley purchases the cleaner-burning coke, but it only comes in industrial quantities, which once led to Stanley being asked by an Internal Revenue Service auditor to explain a receipt for 2,000 pounds of coke! These low-tech forges are nearly as fast at heating metal as the more common gas torches used by AMA, LSM, and Fisterra Studios. The gas torches are also supplemented with compressed air. These are dual-line open flames, and when the air cuts off, the removal of oxygen makes a loud popping noise. After a few minutes in the shop, all the popping noises and whackings start to make sense.
Blacksmith Suzanne Baas has worked in metals for 10 years and run Stanley's shop for five. Baas lives on the aptly nicknamed Tetanus Farm in South Austin, right next door to the well-equipped metal shop. She says that being able to step outside and get right to work with so many tools is ideal. I watched as she worked with a power hammer twice as big as she is. Power hammers are a lot like sewing machines, with the up-and-down speed controlled by a foot pedal. Baas twisted a hot metal leaf around under the die, slowing down to flip it over and then giving it the gas. If you think having your fingers near a needle is scary, these hammers have 250 pounds of force concentrated in one spot. My point about being good at your job is very evident with this dangerous machine. While I stand a good 10 feet back, Baas makes it look fun and easy. She speeds it up and slows it down, pounding out a repeated rhythm, a weird metallic song. The power hammer allows one person alone to have the power of a sledging assistant but with more speed of hits. So it's a mechanical solo dance as opposed to the teamwork of sledging with handheld tools.
Todd Campbell is known for his power hammering, using it frequently in fine art and functional projects. His dexterity and comfort with the machine are also clear. While I visited, he used a round eye-punch and the anvil to create holes for a series of "snake grabbers" that could double as long-handled fireplace pokers. (He was preparing to take his young family for a weekend on a ranch and thought they might come in handy.) Campbell has recently begun powder-coating some of his steel work. This is an automotive paint that is baked onto the steel forms. The unnatural modern colors achieved with this process contrast nicely to his old-school construction methods.
The Austin Metal Authority on the Eastside is a nice group of dudes. At the time of my visit, Colby Brinkman, Troy DeFrates, Haley Woodward, and Brady Foster were working on an elaborate headboard and footboard for a bed that was a combination of structural welds, scrolling, and forged details. These guys gave me a great demo of old-time teamwork. After Brinkman stoked up some coals, they hammered veins onto leaves together. Brinkman used a jig form on the anvil to get a consistent angled pattern. And while you don't have to be physically huge to be a metalworker -- tools do most of the work -- watching the well-more-than-6-foot Brady Foster swing a sledgehammer was massively impressive and scary. In a friendly Austin manner, they were hosting a Norwegian sword maker for a month. Floskvbak Carr has been living in a recreational vehicle trailer outside the shop and helping to produce the bed, even though he speaks no English. Apparently his knowledge of the craft is a strong enough bond for them to all get along just fine.
Hawkeye Glenn, who's been working in metal for 15 years and at the Splinter Group for nine years, had the fanciest tools I saw. Some were old, like the turquoise enameled machining lathe with chrome accessories or the 3,000-pound worktable. Others were just industrial strength, from his forklift to his X-Treme 12VS. All of the shops had Miller electrical components, but Glenn's Miller Deltaweld 452 was the biggest, delivering more than 36 volts. Dude, that's like having an 11 on your blackface tube amp.
In addition to presenting his awesome collection of tools and commercial jobs in progress, Glenn showed me the studio remnants of a recent public art piece. He shot a historical buffalo rifle through a sheet of steel. Then he put buffalo nickels in the holes, some with the Indian side out. He described the backlighted constellation that the bullet holes made, which sounded pretty poetic and conceptually articulate for an artisan blacksmith. Glenn, like many welders, doesn't exclusively work in metal; to meet the market's needs, welders work in combination with stone, wood, and cements. These guys do it all, with vigor and creativity in their ideas.
I asked various craftsmen about getting hurt. Frisbie was quite forthcoming. He recalled when he started welding, he made some errors and never has repeated them. He once built an air-conditioning mist machine out of a water pick and some hoses for his shop. He then spent a week steel-wooling the coating of rust off of all his shop tools. Once, he tried welding without a shirt. The blue ultraviolet radiation from the spot welder gave his belly third-degree burns up to his armpits. Ouch. Welder Sun McColgin recounted some UV moments: "You see nothing but a bright, purple circle. You close your eyes and wait two minutes. You are aware of your retinas; then the dot turns blue. Then it goes away." McColgin grinds a lot of odd angles and shapes in his fine-art sculptures; he estimates he's been to the eye doctor to have metal bits removed from his eyes 15-20 times. The two are now on a first-name basis. McColgin had the cleanest of all the studios I visited. He uses about seven tools for everything he does besides his creative designs. With his Lincoln Stick Welder, two grinders, jigsaw, chop saw, drill, and vise, he listens to the Melvins and reshapes steel.
When I called up Laura Garanzuay, she was working alone well into the evening to meet an installation deadline. I asked her if she had any good scars or calluses. She said absolutely not; she always wears gloves. Her favorite way to stay cool in Texas is cold bending -- bending steel without any heat, just lots of big mechanical torque. She was making a set of matching hinges with diamond shaped ends. These unique functional architectural details are not to be taken for granted.
"Dirty deeds done dirt cheap" could describe the jobs completed by the heavy metal craftsmen of Austin. They're tucked in shops all across town, grinding, bending, chopping, and hammering away all summer long. Not that they treat working around fire in the Texas heat as a big deal. Glenn, a father of three, says it's just what he does: "I have a lot of mouths to feed at home." Blue collars, dirty hands, and protection for eyes and ears are all par for the course with these welders and forgers producing custom metal work. What do they do to stay cool? Drink a gallon of water a day was a consistent answer. Sweat and a fan is "nature's AC," according to Frisbie. Brinkman says, "I'd rather stand by a fire than out in full sun."
When I started this story, I thought I would write about how physically strong and determined these folks were as a group. But the thing that really hit home the hardest with me was their intellectual acuity, refined motor skills, teamwork, and love of American blacksmithing history. There goes any theory of stinky heavy metal burnouts.