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Metal of Honor : What Have Imagination, Technology Wrought? New Irons in the Fire


Wrought-iron work offers homeowners a chance to make a personal mark. The spiral staircases, doors, gates, furniture, lampposts, wall-hangings, bookcases, even hinges and doorknobs, add up to more than transient decor.

"Basically, what you're dealing with is imagination," says Linda Quinn of Quinn's Creations in Costa Mesa. "Working in metal is just another means of expressing creativity and ideas. I am an artist. Whether it's a wall-piece, a staircase, a bed, a chair, iron is just the material I use to express that love of detail I find in handcrafted work."

Blacksmiths have always drawn inspiration from nature, twining iron vines, flowers and trees around everything from weather vanes to cathedral gates.

Quinn's signature touch is delicate vines entwined with hundreds of leaves. She kept a vine bedpost she created for a designer showcase home because she says she couldn't part with it. The bed took her two weeks to make and would have sold for $3,500.

The price of a piece of metalwork will vary based on the amount of time it takes to create and install it. "I'd say an average price range for a staircase would be about $100 to $200 a foot," says Quinn. "But it could go as high as $400 a foot depending on certain factors."

She said the price of an average gate would start at $500. A contemporary metal and crystal lamp sells for $600.

"People who come to me could go to a hardware supply house and buy a perfectly serviceable hinge or gate," says George Martin, a metalworker based in Santa Monica. "But they don't. They want the details of their home to be more personal, and more beautiful than that.

"When you heat iron you can bend it to very sinuous shapes; but when it cools it becomes rigid and strong again," he says. "Nothing else will work quite as well. With clay you work in masses--you can't extend the line. Glass will break. Only iron will stretch."

Blacksmithing is hot, dirty, even dangerous work to learn. To be worked, iron or steel must be brought to "yellow heat," between 1,400 and 2,800 degrees Fahrenheit. At those temperatures, iron (or "mild steel," the material commonly used by blacksmiths) becomes malleable for a few minutes. It is in that brief span of time that the blacksmith can make his or her mark.

"The spontaneity of it is great," says Quinn. "Since metal has to be worked hot, decisions have to be made right away. And there's risk involved, but there's always room for unexpected pleasure as well. It's sometimes a surprise how lovely things come out unexpectedly."

Some purists hold the opinion that technology robs a blacksmith's work of its integrity. However, most modern-day blacksmiths embrace new tools that help them create new forms and textures.

The air hammer, for instance, which hits accurately and with great force, can wrestle with chunks of metal that would be beyond the strength of a single blacksmith. The plasma cutter, which uses gas and an electrode to cut metal, allows a blacksmith to make clean freehand cuts.

"No matter what new tool a smith adds to his or her repertory, he's still basically doing the same thing," says Gary Benson of Anvil Arts, a metalwork design firm in Fullerton. "Maybe it's a little faster or done more easily, but he's still shaping hot metal."

Quinn says she can sometimes see a difference between a woman's touch to metal and a man's. "Sometimes, I'll be explaining how I want a leaf pattern to go, and I'll come back and an assistant will have it all finished. And it looks heavy to me, but he thinks it looks great. When he leaves, I'll go in and quietly redo it, with a lighter touch. Probably it has something to do with my wanting it to look delicate."

The craft of blacksmithing is at least 3,000 years old. The blacksmith was once a critical member of society; without him there would have been no plows, axes, kettles or nails.

As societies became more complex, blacksmiths became more ingenious, working cast- and wrought-iron objects, such as the Hector Guimard entrances to the Paris Metro or the lacy balconies of New Orleans.

By the 20th Century, blacksmiths had fallen on hard times, victims of mass production. Handwork was replaced by work produced by machines. Blacksmiths closed up their forges and the craft, taught mainly through apprenticeship, was almost entirely lost.

In 1969, Alex Bealer--a lawyer and an amateur blacksmith--wrote "The Art of Blacksmithing," a valedictory salute to the vanishing craft. It was his book that brought about the revival of American interest in blacksmithing. Unlike the United States, European blacksmiths have maintained their metalwork traditions even through the Industrial Revolution.

In 1972, the Artist-Blacksmiths Assn. of North American was formed.

According to today's artist-blacksmiths, the early years were marked by more enthusiasm than skill. In fact, many began their careers as sculptors or jewelers; they had to start from scratch when they took up the hammer and turned to the anvil.

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