Thursday, December 4, 2014

You know...You really are an asp.

A while ago, I was a member of an art collective.  I was asked to join though I don't consider myself and artist in the contemporary sense.  I am more an artist in the there were guilds and apprenticeships and decades of training leading to work for royalty and the church sense.  Like Michelangelo.  The stone carver.  Or maybe like Lorenzo Ghiberti.  Only less bronze....and other stuff.  The thing is, most artisans didn't sign their work so I can't give you an exact example. 

Anyway, once a year the collective, which turned into a center to enhance somebody's resume, had a juried members show.  I was a member.  I paid my dues.  I entered the shows.  My piece was usually chosen to be included in the show.  I have a theory about why this was, but that is another story.  Sometimes my stuff, or work in the vernacular, doesn't strike the amateur art critic as art. 

I had a show in a government rotunda once, and during the opening reception some guy asked my parents what made my stuff art.  Naturally they called  me over so he could ask me directly.  I told him it wasn't.  Yeah.  Now that I think about it, that was graceless. 

Really though, the things I make don't belong under Plexiglas shields.  They should be used and touched and held and.....used mostly.

Okay, so back to the juried show at the art collective which no longer wanted me once it became a center.  Again it was at the opening reception...I overheard a guy tell his companion that the only reason I made the type of things I make is that I am not capable of figurative work.  -------------------------------------------  I can see now that I should avoid opening receptions.  

The next juried member show I entered this.

Forged steel finger

I can comment on the human condition as well as the next guy.  I can't actually sell it, however, because it has no use except maybe as a reminder that no matter what you do there is always someone who thinks it isn't a conscious choice.  That you do what you do because you can't do what you really want to do.  Actually, sometimes this is true. 
My model.  Isn't she beautiful?

This time I made a conscious choice to do something figurative.  I actually think it made the choice. I just did what the metal asked.  Yeah I know .... whooo whooo

When I first started out trying to smith, I didn't think pipe could be forged in basically the same way as solid bar.  I had a buddy, who is a fine smith, and he encouraged me to try it.  ( He's still my good buddy.  I knew you were worried. )  It made me incredibly happy to find out that you could move tubing in the same way that you moved solid bar.  This revelation created new possibilities.  Larger diameter with less weight.  It also created a solution in  this case.  I don't know if you know this but, just like clothing fashion, home fashion has fads.  The result is leftover materials.  I have a pile of 1/2" pipe ends.  Less than 6' long.   

I was holding a 30 some inch length and trying to figure out what I could do with it when I decided to go all figurative.  I would make a snake.  Really, I think it wanted to be a snake.   

Got its head in a vice

I started by fullering the neck to make the head.  I drew out the taper up to the jaw and then I shaped the head.   

You really don't want to touch the snake

Then I let it sit there for several weeks while I did other stuff.  Believe me when I say, half formed snakes are annoying.  In that time, though, I realized that a snake would be as useless as a chunk of pipe.  It would become a cane. 
Needs a little more cleanup

Carving the eyes and jaw came next.  I used a chisel to rough the form and then I went back in and dressed it with a die grinder. ( Sorry all you purists.  What can I say. )  Once the head was where I wanted it, I formed the handle and drew the tapered tail. 

Snake head cane handle

 I cleaned it up and waxed it.  It's a simple but useful thing.  I kind of like the way it turned out.

34" snake cane

Now back to work


Friday, November 21, 2014

The artistic soul of a railroad spike

Have you ever known one of those people who has a luminous artistic soul.   You can see it under the soul crushing upbringing and layers of equally soul crushing life choices.  Each encounter makes you wish there were a way to free that inner force.  Perform an existential transformation.  With people that isn't possible.  The artistic soul is trapped.  Even a Disney marathon can't free it.  This is not to say that one can never break free of these constraints, it just takes self awareness and courage, and maybe a soupcon of confidence.  Not something that comes from without.  So the sad crushed artistic soul ends up searching desperately for an external salve for that internal yearning, and we look away...
...because there are things that we can transform.  Railroad spikes for instance.  Yeah, I know.  You wondered where I was going with that.  Listen, I try to give a little insight into the human condition with my tips and techniques.  Heavy on the human condition.  Light on tips and techniques.

Anyway, railroad spikes have an artistic soul.  This is in spite of the crushing they have endured at the hands (wheels) of trains.  At this point I must remind you that all railroad spikes no matter where you find them are the property of the rail companies.  So don't go running out to gather them like asparagus in the spring just so you can free their inner beauty.  That my friend is a crime.  Also, no pennies on the tracks.  THAT IS NOT FUNNY.

Can you see the inner beauty?
I had some spikes that came from a railroad on Mars I'm pretty sure.  Because Union Pacific doesn't own those.  They were given to me by a spiky haired Martian.  His name was Buck.  Anyway, they were begging me to free them.  So I did.

Martian spikes from Buck

There are, I suppose, a couple of things that you should know about railroad spikes.  First they are a very low carbon high carbon steel.  They are tool steel generally.  Particularly if they have a HC stamp, but you can do a spark test and tell if they are high carbon.   The other thing is that they all belong to the railroad companies.
The reason the carbon content matters is that the higher the carbon content to a point, the longer the edge will last when properly heat treated.  Lower carbon tool steel won't hold an edge for very long, but railroad spikes are so darn romantic that nobody cares that they actually make crappy knives.  Until you move in together and find out how dull they can be.  Also they never clean up after themselves.  What is that?

Mid process
Bringing out the beauty of a spike is fun.  It is one of those pleasures that is hard to articulate. You need raw power to hammer out the blade and if you let your hammer sing, the blade takes on a life of its own.    It forms itself.  It reveals its luminous artistic soul.  The handle hints at its desires as well.  The spike will guide you and reward you for your effort.  It naturally finds its form.  Truthfully, it is an easy blade to polish as well, because it is just barely tool steel.  With most blades, heat treating is somewhat complicated and, if you do it in a forge, fraught.  Railroad spikes are relatively easy to temper and don't need a lot of annealing.   

I wonder about the pictures I take sometimes.

Fun and satisfying.  
What more could you want.  
Ya know, except for maybe longevity.

A slightly more prettier picture.

Back to work


Sunday, November 9, 2014

Timeless love and other conundrums

This is the note I received in my in box.

I was curious if you might be able to help me with something…

I’m looking to get a simple iron ring custom made, with a small catch: the goal is to use only metalworking/blacksmithing processes available during the Roman Empire (to the greatest extent possible). I would imagine this takes things like machining off the table, but I’d like to maintain that clean/precise shape. I was thinking something along the lines of a non-brass-brushed, narrower version of this.

If context is of any use… the ring is for my girlfriend (and likely fiancĂ©-to-be). She was a classics major and thus Roman history buff. It was an early Roman tradition to give a pair of engagement rings: one iron, to be worn in private, and another gold, to be worn in public. Since we’re currently working on opposite sides of the country, I figured it would be a sweet gesture to bridge the gap until we’re back under one roof and I go for the gold… ring, that is.

Let me know if it sounds like a project you’d be interested in!


Apparently I like a challenge, and am willing to leap wholeheartedly into love projects without thinking about whether I even have the knowledge necessary to make an informed choice.  So, of course, I took this project.  The problem is, it probably really required more research than it was worth.  So rather than be pedantic, I decided to go for the spirit of the idea.  Because, my hunch is, they didn't have oxy/acetylene torches or propane forges during the early Roman Empire.  And I wasn't about to go dig up bog iron or hunt down a meteorite.  I'm pretty sure we don't have those around here anyway.  Also coal is heavy and smelly and there are only certain things the coal forge gets fired up for.  A lot like me, now that I think about it.  So as the song says, I did it my way.  

Do you ever think about how we got here as a species.  this is probably what makes people major in classics and be Roman history buffs.  I understand that historically all technological advances come from trying to develop better weapons, but how did someone decide to smelt swamp debris to make a weapon?  Also bread.  Did you ever think about that.  Who figured out how to put yeast in it so it was less like a rock and more like something you can't stop eating.  And since I'm totally off the subject, I do not think the greatest invention was the water wheel or the trebuchet. (Did you see how I did that.  Clever no?  I used the trebuchet font on trebuchet.  And yes, I do know what one is.)  Well maybe the water wheel.  I think the greatest invention was the washing machine.  Go ahead, imagine your life without one. 

Anyway back to the subject of .... can you hear me screaming...endlessly

I was going to be a smart ass there, but instead I am going to learn you about the ring I ended up making.  I make different things using different techniques.  I think I've said this before.  I'm really  not a purist, but for this I needed to be more a purist than usual. 

I have some chunks of pure iron.  I picked them up at a conference.  They are salvage from some old building in the Midwest, I guess.  The company that sells it gives away bars at the conferences.  I have only had success forging pure iron in a coal forge.  So this ring would be made of regular old low carbon steel.  I have tons of that piled around.  Seriously there are tons.

End of pure iron bar

I decided to use the oxy/acetylene torch.  Propane forge would have been overkill. 

I heated the end and smoothed with a rasp.  Then I used a cutoff hardy to nip a little chunk of the bar off for the ring.   As you can imagine it's a little tricky for me to take pictures while I am working. In order to cut with the hardy, you heat the bar where you want to cut it to orange and use the hammer to drive the stock into the hardy.  For this piece, because it was so small I flipped it and drove it onto the cutter from both sides.  When I could see the line of the cut I used the vice to hold the little end and tongs to work it back and forth and off.  

Bar end hot in vice

Small bit still hot after cutting

The next step was to forge the nib into an oval disc. 
Heated and formed into a disc

 I then used a chisel to slit it in the middle the long way.  
I want there to be the same amount of metal on all sided of the slit.

Next I used a drift to make the hole round.  
First the hole is rounded

Next the metal is stretched to make the ring

I then used the tip of the horn to stretch it to size and clean up the edges.  I also used a file to remove a small burr.

Smoothing the edges on the horn - this is done hot

Finally I brushed and waxed it.
Ring on the mandrel - not a great picture

Overall, I think I was true to the original request.  I used some modern tools but only ancient techniques.  The end result was a really nice looking ring.  Of course, good work and good intentions are no guarantee of  getting the gold or ending up under one roof for that matter.  I did my part.  The rest is out of my control.

c'est la vie

Better go make something.  Next I believe I will be taking you through the making of a weapon.


Thursday, October 30, 2014

Kicking ass .... or ..... not

Recently I did a mud run.  Apparently I'm not dirty enough on any given day.  It's really hard to tell how you are doing during the run because the starts are staggered and I was just trying not to end up dead.  Basically the race is  just this mass of humanity gasping for air and staggering through muddy obstacles for ... either glory or hours depending on your perspective.  Anyway, they put ( or you do ) a chip on your shoe so eventually you can find out how you did.  Unless, of course, you lose the chip in a mud puddle.  The results are posted on their web site.  Age, sex, overall place, place in age group, place in sex.  All the information and more than you could possibly want on a web site.  It turns out I came in 2nd in my age group ( a ten year span that I am right in the middle of ), 56th overall, and 21st in my sex.  I kicked ass.  And yes there were more than two of us in my age group and 328 total participants.  So there.  Pllllttt.
For pictures.  See if you can figure that out.

What, you say, does this have to do with anything?  Aaah, I'm glad you asked. 

Competition is an incredibly healthy and good thing under the right circumstances.  I'm not convinced, however, in spite of my previous admission to watching Project Runway, that it has any place in design. (wow, that was a messy sentence.) This is analogous to my feeling that figure skating is not a sport.  I'm sure the skaters are athletes, but face it there is never an argument about whether the person who came across the finish line first won.  

For the designer, the hazard of being judged in a competitive way, is that it creates a distraction that diverts attention from a very personal evolution.  This is also the hazard of dealing with galleries to sell your work.  The judges have biases and the gallery owners have very specific goals.  Both are often in conflict with what is best for the designer/artist/....

I realize that I also have biases.  After all, I would rather be the mad potter of Biloxi George Ohr
George Ohr

 than Damien Hirst

Damien Hirst

 or Jeff Koons

Jeff Koons

Seriously.  I can live without the accolades and the cash, if I can end life knowing that I made some things well.   Made some things that were visually interesting.  Made some things that gave joy or comfort.  Art needs to make a statement about the human condition.  Design doesn't.   So maybe it is unfair to compare Ohr to Hirst or Koons, but not really. 

What is not fair is to compare one blacksmith to another.  To compare the accomplishments and the craft of one to another.  There are far too many variables and far too many possibilities.  We should find ways to admire the work of others, and to understand that we are searching for the same answers and reaching for the same goals.  

I was thinking that since I came in second on that mud run without training, that I should train and go for first.  I don't know if I will, but I do know that I will keep working at my craft.  I may never be the best, but I will always try to be my best.

Back to work