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What Time Has Wrought : Blacksmiths Enjoy Revival Thanks to Boom in Interior Design

June 09, 1997|ESTHER SCHRADER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANAHEIM — On a street of high-tech companies, blacksmith Gary Benson is an anomaly--hammering away at a profession that predates computers and rockets by more than a millennium.

Benson and the handful of area blacksmiths are not the old men bent over hammer and anvil of yore. With their craft enjoying its biggest resurgence since the machine age relegated most blacksmiths to shoeing horses, today's smiths are using modern technology to revitalize an ancient craft.

From New England to California, blacksmiths who supplement the traditional anvil and forge with power hammers and arc welders are making everything from chandeliers and coffee tables to gates and stairway railings for celebrity estates. Nationwide, there are about 3,000 full-time blacksmiths working today, up from just over 100 two decades ago.

And with interior design stores as big as Pottery Barn and Crate and Barrel selling the hand wrought curtain rods, headboards and other furnishings that blacksmiths create as fast as they can order them, blacksmithing somehow seems less quaint than it used to.

"The old days of blacksmiths being the person every farmer and every town counted on are of course over," said Jim Wallace, director of the National Ornamental Metal Museum in Memphis. "But blacksmithing is really being revived as an art form and as a design business. That's where it's really taking off."

For Benson, a lanky 49-year-old ex-hippy, that means a booming business fueled by recent commissions for Oprah Winfrey and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. It means getting so much work he recently had to buy a computer and teach himself how to use it to track new orders. It means flying to Hawaii to create a metal stair railing for a millionaire client.

But it also means long days spent hammering and working white-hot metal into fantastic shapes, and the joy of knowing he is practicing a craft whose greatest masters worked in the 1500s.

"There is a freedom and a power to working with a piece of metal and making it go where you want it to go," Benson said in his workshop, a furnace behind him heating strips of iron to a malleable 1800 degrees Fahrenheit.

"It's kind of like being in love with something and you've always been in love with it. I like the way it looks; I love hammering it and shaping it. I just love it, like something I always loved and always will."

Benson fell into the profession in the '60s, an era when folk arts of all sorts were being reborn. In those days the few remaining blacksmiths in the United States were by and large older men making a living shoeing horses. Most blacksmiths had long ago gone out of business, victims of mass production.

With architects and designers enamored of wood and stainless steel and sleek lines, there was little call for the fine wrought ironwork that had elevated blacksmithing into the prestigious profession it once was. The art of blacksmithing, learned mainly by apprenticeship, was almost entirely lost in the United States.

It was then that Brent Kington, an art professor in Carbondale, Ill., began the classes that in 1973 grew into what today is the only master of fine arts degree program in iron working in the country. That same year a dozen craftsmen created the Artist-Blacksmiths Assn. of North America. Today the organization has more than 13,000 mostly-hobbyist members.

In California, amateurs began studying with the few older blacksmiths still around, learning how to curve and shape hot iron into the forms that had gone out of vogue. Many had begun their careers as sculptors or jewelers; they had to start from scratch when they turned to the anvil.

"People thought the blacksmiths had all died off when people started playing with it again," said John McLellan, a Sacramento smith and president of the California Blacksmiths Assn. "It took 30 years from when folks started coming back into the profession to now, when what we make is not only available but in demand."

"It's still a hard proposition to make a living at this, now that blacksmiths are basically artists, working on commission," he said. "But it at least is a viable profession again. Ten years ago you couldn't pay people to haul ironwork off. Now everyone wants it."

A high school dropout from Redondo Beach, Benson started by sweeping floors and wiring light fixtures in a blacksmith's shop when he was 16, in the modern day equivalent of a colonial era apprenticeship.

Ten years later, back from a stint in the army, Benson bought a workshop--full of old blacksmithing equipment with a $1,500 loan and went to work.

Sleeping on an army cot in his office, Benson taught himself draftsmanship and design. For years he survived on his wife's salary. Now his business brings in about $330,000 a year, allowing Benson the luxury of paying himself about $60,000. The rest goes to keeping he business running and paying his half-dozen employees.

Today Benson's operation, just a few blocks from a Boeing factory and down the street from a computer disc manufacturer, is a wild mix of ancient and 20th century.

Instead of a coal furnace and the huge leather bellows, once staples of every blacksmith shop, there is a sleek gas furnace and rock music blasting from a stereo.

An anvil, shiny from years of use, stands next to a row of welders and machine-powered drills. A 60-year old electric-powered hammer shares space with a drill press from 1910. While one man hammers a rivet that could be straight out of colonial times, another is shaping a steel frieze for a modern artist's creation.

"It's a romantic field, there is some magic to it. You are working with very basic elements--fire and water and hammers," Benson said. "And to be able to take that and create something is really awe inspiring."

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