A Season of Stuff is a writing challenge that I will be doing for the length of Spring 2016. The plan – to pick some object from within my personal possessions each day and write about it – its history, its significance, etc. Come on in – check out my stuff.
From 2006 through the beginning of 2012 I worked for a company called Red Star Ironworks, a small local custom ornamental ironwork company. I was the “office manager”, working in the office handling phone calls, finances, ordering, scheduling, human resources, etc. Basically I did a bit of everything, including being called into service to help carry heavy pieces of ironwork, help do the occasional installation, and other shop related work. For the most part I stayed out of the shop but the great thing was that my boss was totally cool with me using the tools there and encouraged me to learn some basic blacksmithing and welding skills.
One of the first times I got to work in the shop was when Red Star was supposed to make a handful of awards for Bike Pgh, an organization we had worked with extensively in building their iconic Three Rivers bikeracks. My boss Peter kept putting it off until they were almost due and finally it was coming down to when they needed them. I told him “We need to get these things done. We’re gonna come into the shop at night and you’re going to show me some skills and we’re gonna knock these things out.” And we did, making a handful of trophies that were tiny versions of the Three Rivers bikerack. Bike Pgh still gives these as awards but the newer ones look like they are just lasercut out of sheet metal. That original batch were full-on blacksmithed, so if you have one of those, consider yourself extra lucky.
One of the projects that I wanted to do when I started was to build my own new railing for the front steps of our house. I drew up a design and made a full-size drawing of it. I spent a couple nights at the shop with Peter and he showed me a little of what was necessary to get the railing built. I bent some of the necessary pieces, did some cutting and then those pieces would sit in the back of the office for years and never get completed. Looking back on it, that’s probably fine because the design was a little overdone.
During one other nighttime session when I was trying to learn some skills, I got to work on some forge work, which means getting the steel red hot in the forge and then manipulating the steel either by bending it or hammering it. The photo above is one of the pieces I worked on that night. It has no specific function but it was my first time really heating up a piece of steel and banging it into a shape. It now hangs out by our front door and is used as a sometimes doorstop.
Over the coming years I would get to learn a lot more about working with metal culminating in my largest project – a run of 100+ of these keystone coathooks. The original batch were all hand cut out of steel bar, but the major run of about 100 of these were lazer-cut out of sheet metal. The final assembly of the hooks still required some countersinking of the holes using a drill press, smoothing the sharp edges off using an angle grinder and then welding the hook and back piece together using a MIG welder.
Angle grinders are scary. I’ve worked with lots of power tools over the years – circular saws, table saws, nailguns, etc, but angle grinders are probably the scariest thing i’ve ever used. I had the displeasure of seeing a couple angle grinder accidents during my time at Red Star, including seeing one guy take a grinding wheel to the face. Not pleasant. Luckily I kept my head about me and had no major accidents to my name.
Welding is a pretty fun skill to learn. It takes a bit of time but there is a certain meditative nature that comes with it once you get in the groove. At the end of doing 100+ of these hooks, I felt like I finally was getting the feel for it, just in time to never use the skill again probably.
Unfortunately since leaving that job I no longer have access to these tools and metalworking is not something that most of us can set up and do in our own home. Chances are my metalworking days are done, but if you get the chance to do some blacksmithing or welding, I definitely recommend giving it a shot.