I am a lucky one. My luck is dispensed not through any jackpots in Lotto Ball or fortunate draws in a poker game, but rather through good grace and happenstance survival. I am satisfied with this, if not just damn happy about it. Then again, the only thing I ever won was a cake in a cakewalk, and to an 8 year old, there is nothing closer to a jackpot or sheer bliss than that.
Over the last two decades, my concept of the term jackpot has been transformed by those small epiphanies in the creation process; bliss has changed to a slag burn on my hand while I am forging; and my good fortune is being granted an ABANA scholarship that enabled me to be a journeyman blacksmith in Europe.
Over the last two years I have spent 17 months traveling and working all over Europe. In 2001 I was there for nine months, most of which was spent working in a small blacksmith shop in southern Spain owned by Sebastian Fisher. During my time working there, I made a pilgrimage to the Czech Republic to attend the annual blacksmith conference held in Helfstyn Castle and a biennial conference in Stia, Italy. It was at these two conferences that I had arranged for me more journeyman work in 2002. I say, “arranged for me” because I was fortunate to meet a Dutch journeyman blacksmith, Michael Faber. Michael is fluent in five languages, and that opens many doors. He became my front-door man and helped me secure positions in three shops. All I had to do was sit back and let Michael sing my praise. I won the cake in the cakewalk again, I would say.
I returned to the States in December of 2001. I planned to work for three months to save money for the opportunity in Prague and to digest the previous nine months in a familiar atmosphere. It took me only one month to rip some cartilage and tear a ligament in my knee. This seriously undermined my efforts to save money and delayed my plans by about three months. This was when the ABANA scholarship came to the rescue.
I limped aboard a plane bound for Prague, Czech Republic at the end of May 2002. I was going to work for Josef Muck, a master of blacksmithing, locksmithing and restoration. Upon reflection of the four months I worked there, these days were the doldrums of repetition. My fingertips would never callous from all the filing; my arm was sore from forging hundreds of nails; and my back was stiff from assuming a hunched position while cold chiseling what seemed to be thousands of leaves. I would be lying if I said I did not love my time there even if in a slightly masochistic way.
The work in Atelier Muck, not necessarily my accomplishments, is as close to perfection as a master can get. The work is mainly executed by young men from all over Eastern Europe. This is typical of the training for blacksmiths in the Czech Republic. At the age of 14, a student must decide on a career path. If that student chooses to be a blacksmith, he will study and train in all aspects of blacksmithing and metal working for the next four years. At the age of 18, the student may choose to enter a university or become an apprentice for a master smith. Needless to say, whatever the path chosen, by the time they are in their mid to late twenties, these young men are very knowledgeable in the field of blacksmithing.
The majority of the work that goes through Josef’s shop is restoration. I had the privilege of working on two completely different restoration projects, one from the 15th century and the other the 16th century. The older one was completely covered in gold leaf in an eastern European baroque design. It left nothing to the imagination, it was thick with detail, and I loved it. Most of the work on this piece was replacing deteriorated repousse’ components that were primarily floral and nautical designs. During the time, I worked on the restoration of this piece I thought about the countless hours required to create it. I can only imagine forging blocks of iron down to thin sheets and still doing all the repousse’ work.
In my mind, this work ethic contributes to the major difference between the Czech approach to blacksmithing and the approach seen most often here in the States. In general, the Czechs by necessity are much more utilitarian. Josef’s shop contains only one small power hammer used constantly by five to 12 employees. If the line for the hammer was too long, I would grab Josef’s foreman, Pavel Kunrt, to strike for me. No one needs a power hammer when Pavel is around.
More than once I had to fight my way on to the hammer in order to forge some salvaged material to a specific size because there is not much of an inventory of new materials on hand. The last consideration would be to order it. This “make-do” philosophy is an ingenious teaching method. One of my favorite chores in this shop was climbing through the 20-year-old, seven-foot-tall tetanus (scrap) pile searching for a particular piece. The materials budget is definitely much tighter than in the USA. You do not just go buy what you need, you make do with what you have and you make it well.
During my time in Prague, Josef became my mentor, and I became his driver. Most every weekend I would chauffeur him to various blacksmithing functions. Two highlights for me were the student blacksmiths’ final projects show at Turnov Art School and a show featuring the work Igor Kitzburger. We made trips to Germany for a conference in Kolbermoor and to France to take measurements for future work for a chateau north of Paris. If you think dealing with clients is difficult in your native tongue, try translating the French client’s English to the Czech artisan’s German and vice versa. All were confused by the time we left because to say I butcher a language is being nice. A butcher is a craftsman in his own right; all I can do is throw a slab of words on a chopping block, grab cleaver, and try to keep my fingers out of the way and my foot out of my mouth. All is well that ends well, and I was on to Italy before I found out if it did or did not end well.
A lot can happen in eight months, a lot did, and the ABANA scholarship money was well spent. A good portion of it paid for a two-week tool-making course taught by Alfred Habermann at Helfstyn Castle in eastern Czech Republic. There was a constant rotation of blacksmiths, young and old, and all information, from instructor and students alike, was laid on the table for general consumption. The atmosphere of the ancient castle in the height of the summer is consistently jovial and festive. Imagination can easily slip back to a time when the castle was the object of stability that offered both entertainment and protection to the people in the surrounding hills. Imagine standing around a coal fire in the dark of night forging away with people from all over Europe.
In early September, I toured Czech Republic, Austria, Italy, and Germany with two blacksmith friends from Texas, Lars Stanley and Robert Abdallah. We spent two weeks crammed into a Czech-made Skoda. I am sure most are aware of the hygienic practices of the blacksmith, but nothing compares to the smell of six blacksmith feet and their unwashed clothes in a compact car. The smiths that we visited along the way showed us the utmost hospitality by feeding us and insisting that we stay the night. In Ybbsitz, Austria the mayor gave us each a bottle of schnapps and the keys to the “blacksmith’s house”, a house solely for the use of touring blacksmiths. We finished our trip without coming to blows (no pun intended), and we each had replenished our creative drive. Lars and Robert managed to board the plane with all the tools I made in the Habermann course two hand axes and even a 75-pound post vice. Such tool junkies...
It was on this trip that I formally accepted my next apprenticeship with Claudio Bottero near Padova in northern Italy. I had been in awe of Claudio’s work since seeing it the previous year at the Helfstyn Blacksmith Conference. That year he received first prize for a forged bowl. The little bowl had a crowd around it during the entire conference with every smith attempting to determine how it was made. In 2002, Claudio again won first prize. This time it was for a sculpture forged from a plate that was three feet square by two inches thick. Just as before, there was a crowd constantly surrounding this piece, but this time Claudio did not use any tricks just brute force and a whole lot of coke. (For photos see the Hefaistos International Design 2003 book.)
It is difficult to describe Claudio, his work ethic, and his style. I would vote him to be the hardest working blacksmith in the craft. He works his people hard and always demands the best from them. His 12-hour workday stops only for an hour and half lunch during which time he would sometimes work on drawings, and I would put away as much pasta as humanly possible and then run up stairs for a siesta. The pasta and the sleep were the only things to keep me alive for the next four months. I wouldn’t necessarily call this bad, but it is not exactly easy to sling an 8-pound hammer after eating four pounds of homemade pasta.
Claudio taught me about the plasticity of steel and metals in general. I cannot describe how discouraged I was on the first critique of my work. It took me a couple days to understand that I don’t have 30 years of blacksmithing under my belt and that a certain degree of skill and logic can come only from years of practice.
I am amazed by the amount of work we produced in the short time I was there. The biggest project was a 20-foot driveway gate accompanied by a pedestrian gate and two fence panels. We finished the production work in two months and had it installed in less than 2 days. The design required hundreds of punched holes in large material ranging from 2”x4” to 1”x2”, much of which was either riveted or mortis and tenon. Many smiths have asked me why we didn’t use the giant screw press to punch the holes instead of using hand tools and sledgehammers. My reply, and I think Claudio would agree, is because it was fun, because we could, and because we are blacksmiths. Honestly, there was, and still is, a supreme sense of accomplishment after finishing a project of that scale and knowing that your hands did the majority of it. For me, there is nothing compared to knowledge gained from throwing a sledgehammer 10 hours a day.
This was my first time to work in a shop in which the boss was always there to show you exactly how he wanted the work done and usually an easier way of doing it. I learned hundreds of new tricks to make the work easier and smoother, and in the process, I developed a new best friend . . . the sledgehammer. Claudio Botero would be an excellent choice as a guest demonstrator at any ABANA conference. I guarantee you will not be disappointed.
It has been over a year and a half since ABANA awarded me the scholarship. In February of 2004, I will have been back in the United States for exactly one year. I have started a shop with a fellow smith, Erik Haglund. Business has been slow, but honestly, it has been a blessing. The fact that we have little or no work has allotted us plenty of time to make tools and set up our shop in an efficient manner. It has also given me time to develop ideas that have been brewing in my mind for the last eight years of working for other metal artists. It is good to finally vent some of these projects into a tangible form. I owe it all to you, the members of ABANA, and the wonderful organization that provides us with such a wealth of blacksmithing knowledge. Thank you.