Made In America – Forging Ahead

Working on a different project, Nick is a skilled craftsman himself. The shirt says it all!

Working on the Prospect project allows me to meet all sorts of people from varied walks of life. Some are engaging, and some not so much. The majority are of the first kind – like the workers of Jefferson Mack Metal – who are wonderful people.

Augustine,  a blacksmith at the shop and Kathy’s husband (the general manager of Boulevard) is taking on the project of constructing hand forged chandeliers for the restaurant’s interior.  Pumped for the chance to document the creation of these handmade pieces of art, I couldn’t wait to begin.

I arrived early for my meeting with Ravi and the guys, and poked my head in to the shop.  I was in photographer heaven with what I saw:  Tools, dirty and gritty looking stuff everywhere, this little shaft of natural light to accent the guys working, crazy looking machinery that, I swear, sounded like Mumra The Ever Living (I have waited so long to get in a Thundercats reference in!) when it beat down to shape molten iron at will.  I could hardly contain myself.

Before we could begin, Augustine had to go over a few of the safety issues first.  “Always watch where you are going.” he trumped in his accented voice.

Beautiful to listen to, he is the Antonio Banderas of blacksmiths.

Looking serious and ready for work, Augustine is a master craftsman.

“Right,” I thought to myself, “no problem when I’m looking through the viewfinder of my camera trying to frame a shot up, not paying attention to where my feet are headed.”

“Don’t touch the furnace.  It’s at a temperature of about 2800 degrees Fahrenheit.”  He nodded over to the red-hot beast.

“Got it.  Note to self.  Don’t melt flesh off body.”  Mentally tallying the ways I could die.

“Also, don’t put your hands near anything that’s moving or looks dangerous.”  he said with finality.

“OK,” I thought, “don’t mess up just this one time.  Don’t touch anything, ask questions, obstruct their movement, say anything offensive, or be a general pain in the ass in any way, shape, or form.”  With the final instructions, we started to walk over to begin. Then we stopped short.

“I almost forgot,” he said with his pointer finger in the air, as if a trick question almost fooled him, “you need safety glasses.  Here you are.”  As he handed me these ocular plastic shields, I had to laugh a bit.  It wasn’t attune to wearing a helmet while skydiving, but it felt pretty close.

Ready for forging, these slugs will be pounded into the outer perimeter of the chandelier.

With the furnace glowing red-hot, Augustine pulled out some round iron slugs that would momentarily be pounded into the rough shape that would form the outside of the chandelier.  As he found the correct tool for picking up the red hots, I shimmied here and there to get some photos while clearing myself of any danger.

Augustine dialed in the zone, hammering away.

Standing eerily in the corner and painted red, as if to warn ignorant souls of its power, a belt driven hammer was turned on with a flip of a switch.  This machine has been crafting metal and scaring young children for over a century. Impressed and intimidated, I gave the machine (Mumra) room to spare.  As Augustine transported the readied metal and began to work, I was amazed at how quickly and effortlessly he turned, pulled, and tweaked the metal and machine.  Feathering the amount of pressure via foot pedal, Augustine skillfully pounded, shaped, bent, and warped his medium into a discernible form.  Happy with the outcome, he repeated this step over and over.

Using a century old belt driven hammer, Augustine's idea takes shape.

Now that all the pieces were roughed out, they had to be re-heated and bent into shape.  How do you bend a piece of metal to the exact shape you want it? Well, you have to build a one of a kind template and tools to get the job done. Heading over to the table with a red-hot piece of forged iron, Augustine laid the metal down, grabbed a hammer and vice like tool, and with the help of a few others, bent the metal into its pre-formed shape.

Using manpower alone, this piece of metal was bent into its proper shape.

Super-heated metal, being bent to form.

Once the pieces are bent into shape, they get re-heated again, and sent over to a hydraulic press to really flatten them out.  When the press touches down and lifts off them again, the rush of oxygen produces a flame that looks pretty cool. Timing it right wasn’t as easy, but I managed to get one sequence off without a hitch.

The press stamps out any imperfection, and really flattens the piece out.

It seems like the routine of the day was as follows:  Forge, fire, press, hammer, bend, repeat.  I have to say I had a blast in the shop.  Even Prospect’s architect came by to chat about the design and take a gander at the progress.  I think for Ravi and everyone involved, it was fantastic to see ideas start to become reality.

Augustine and Ravi talk shop.

As the day was coming to a close, I slowed down to look around.  I wanted to cover some details.  I just love all the hidden little stories that float around. There’s so much history in this shop, and here are two of my favorites.

This set of tools is well-worn, but they seem alive, just waiting to help make something grand.

A close up of a metal saw. I took this image only a few inches away from the blade with my macro lens. It's so fine you can see the shavings!

Both of these images were from my 100 mm macro lens.  I can print these images up to around 24 inches (2 feet!) wide and they would still be around 240 DPI (dots per inch.)  That would be incredible sharp and realistic.  I could go even bigger, and I still wouldn’t worry about sharpness.

Doing a mental checklist of the images I wanted to capture, I felt satisfied.  I had met fantastic people, and had a great space and light to work with.  There’s not much more a photographer could ask for.  Packing up and heading out, I heard something.  It was almost evil.  As I looked back, Mumra was at it again. I raced back to capture Augustine hammering out a last round of slugs, but this time I chose to focus on the old set of tools.  It’s a nice juxtaposition of old verses new.  The end result is still the same, and after all, nothing says blacksmith like an anvil.

One last look at the big red machine and its master.

I hope you enjoyed the blog.

See you down the road.

-Todd

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