Author Archive

Preparing to launch…

Monday, August 24th, 2015

This is a big decision that’s been a long time in the making.  I am finally going to make the ‘big jump’ into the world of the professional smith.

I am currently working with a group of skilled craftsmen, that I have been talking to off and on for the past 3 years, to develop a small line of custom tools for them.  This will likely start off as a part time venture, as I’m still committed to doing the stay-at-home dad bit for the next couple of years (until the twins start school); but its a start.  In fact, I already have more work than I can find time for, and need to retool my shop a bit in order to work more efficiently.

But the bottom line being, I’m giving it a go, and it’s very exciting for me.

Wish me luck!

SFN Stone Festival

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015

For the third consecutive summer, my mind has been on the subject of stone – dry stone.

Early this spring I was invited to participate in another Stone Festival; this time being hosted by the Saugeen First Nation #29 located near Southampton, Ontario.

For the past two years, the SFN has had a crew of apprentice dry stone wallers working under the guidance of master waller Dean McLellan, working to rebuild a massive stone amphitheatre that had fallen into disrepair.  The amphitheatre originally took ten years to build, and contains a whopping 900,000 tons of stone!

This stone festival was to help draw attention to their project, and the amazing work being done by this small crew of First Nations craftsmen.  Part of the festival involved the (partial) building of a large stone roundhouse.  As with Willowbanks forge studio, the roundhouse wasn’t completed during this single weekend – I believe they intend on finishing it at a subsequent event (next summer, perhaps?).  It is my understanding that the roundhouse is based on archeological evidence of similar iron age examples.  A very, very cool project that I’m looking forward to seeing completed.

Just like the previous stone festivals I’ve attended at Willowbank, the same cast of characters were in attendance – which happens to be some of the most talented wallers there are from Canada, the USA and from as far afield as the UK!

In addition to the building of the roundhouse, there were workshops being held to teach dry stone walling to both members of the Saugeen community, and the general public.  There was also an introductory stone carving course being taught by world-class stone carver Nicholas Fairplay.

And of course there was also me, blacksmithing …. a bit anticlimactic I know.  I find it wonderful that I keep being invited to these stone-related events.  The working relationship between blacksmiths and stone masons is one of the oldest amongst all of the various trades.  In medieval times, if the blacksmith was absent from the worksite of even the biggest stone projects, all work wold stop after 2-3 days as the masons’ tools became dull and unusable.  Of course, in the modern age with advanced tool steels and carbide, they don’t really need us as much.  But it’s nice to rekindle that ages old relationship, and to sit and admire each others work.

Outside of my days spent demonstrating at the event, most of the rest of my time was spent talking to the masons and wallers about tools; as I’ve been doing for 3 years now.  And one thing has become painfully obvious – nobody is making the tools they actually want.  Some of these folks have told me that many times over the years, they have contacted their various tool suppliers, making suggestions and asking for changes to the existing product line. Nobody seems interested in listening…. Well, I’m listening.  I think the time has come to give this a proper go.

Anyways, more on that soon enough.  I want to say a huge “Thank You” to the Saugeen First Nation for inviting me to your (first annual?) Stone Festival.  I hope to be back to see that building finished!

Out of the blue

Monday, July 27th, 2015

I received an unexpected email and phone call last Friday…. Was I available to do a blacksmithing demonstration at an event the following day?

Um, okay. Why not!

Apparently the blacksmith that usually demonstrates at the Happening at the Forty event in Grimsby, ON had something come up at the last minute (I’m not sure exactly what, but is sounded like an injury).  One of the big parts of the event was an encampment of War of 1812 Reenactors, and they were quite disappointed that they may not have a blacksmith in their camp.

Despite the short notice, and a bit of a scramble to gather together tools, etc, it made for a very enjoyable day out for me.  I’m surprised (being from the Niagara region) that I’d not heard of this event before – it was fantastic!  Will definitely have to attend with the family next year.


photo courtesy of Tom Elgersma, Encore! Photography,

This was my first time being amongst period reenactors, and I found them to be a very friendly and welcoming group.  It amazes me how much time and effort they put into it. Researching the historical accuracy of the wide array of ‘stuff’ they have (uniforms and civilian clothing, tents, camp gear, etc).  I was particularly interested in the Surgeon’s tent.  He had a table full of replica surgical tools, many having to do with amputations.  Every one of the tools was something I’d enjoy trying my hand at making.  Time to stock up on some wrought iron and get researching.

I’d love to do more of this sort of reenacting thing myself – at some point in time.  Although I’m not quite sure how to go about putting together a period-specific traveling forge set-up…. Again, time for some more research.

My friend Mike ended up coming out for a portion of the day, to help talk to people and also to be a striker for me.  Despite the fact that we haven’t worked together in a while, we quickly found our rhythm as a smith & striker, and pounded out a nice cooking utensil for one of the reenactors.

Anyways, I wanted to pass along my thanks to the event organizers.  I had a wonderful time.  I’d also like to wish my fellow smith, Rob, (who I filled in for) a speedy recovery from whatever injury it was that kept him from working the past weekend.

Lastly, I’d like to thank professional photographer Tom Elgersma for giving his kind permission to use the above photo of me.  As usual, I was so busy working all day that I forgot to take any photos myself!

Shanty town

Saturday, July 18th, 2015

Over the course of this summer I had the opportunity to lend a hand to some of my former Willowbank classmates, in working on the restoration of a small but important heritage building from the early 1890’s.

Lock Tender's Shanty

This unassuming building, looking very much like an oversized garden shed, is the last remaining Lock Tender’s Shanty from the Third Welland Canal (1887 – 1932).  This shanty is located next to Lock 1 of the 3rd canal, and would have provided shelter to the canal employees who operated the lock, collected fees, and kept records of the ship traffic as they entered and exited the Lake Ontario side of the canal at Port Dalhousie.

I was surprised by how much original material was left of the building, after it had undergone some past restorations in 1989 (done by high school students), and again in 1999.  The biggest issue the building had, as is common with many buildings, is water.

The site is very poorly graded for drainage, with water running directly into the side of the building.  Over the years the level of the ground has raised putting the bottom of the walls in direct contact with the ground.  Grounds maintenance people have not always been careful when operating string trimmers (‘weed whackers’), causing additional damage to the wood near the bottom of the walls; and lastly carpenter bees had drilled many, many perfect holes in the wood too.

The restoration work involved cutting the bottom of all of the walls and installing a skirting board. Replacing a few rotted or missing boards and battens, and repairing others.  Ensuring the building was properly weatherproofed (flashings, caulking, fresh paint).  A few missing architectural details were also reintroduced based on historic photographs.

My role was quite small, a little wood working, some caulking and painting.  But it was nice to be able to get hands-on with a heritage building again.  I’d missed that sort of thing after leaving Willowbank.

It was wonderful to see my good friend (and recent Willowbank graduate) Mike Barneveld of Square Peg Restorations working in his new element, as the lead-hand and acting project manager on the restoration.  He did the vast majority of the work, and did an amazing job.  Well done Mike!

Here we go again

Monday, July 13th, 2015

Hello folks,

For my mystery readers of this blog (I see you in the web traffic statistics, but still have no idea who any of you are…), I’m back!  I apologize for not being very active as of late.  Between the full time stay-at-home dad thing, and also working a bit here and there for a contractor friend of mine, my free time has been very limited.

I do have a half dozen posts which I started over the winter & spring and never got around to publishing, so will be finishing those off and getting them posted soon.

It’s shaping up to be a busy summer for me as far as the blacksmithing goes. I have a couple of public demonstrations booked, and a backlog of projects which should be interesting.

Stay tuned!

Abandoned projects, revisited

Saturday, April 25th, 2015

I can only imagine that for the professional smiths, you have little choice but to press on and complete any projects you start, and do so in a timely manner.  That’s (fortunately / unfortunately?) not the case for the hobbyists amongst us.

I can only speak for myself, but I assume others find themselves in a similar situation.  I have a long laundry list of projects that I want to make ‘at some point’.  I’m forever saving photos of things I want to try making, and have friends, family, etc. constantly asking me to make things for them.  On occasion I’ll start a project and it gets set-aside before I’m finished.  Perhaps it was something too ambitious for my current skill level, perhaps its more time consuming than I anticipated.  Sometimes I’m just too tired to work at the anvil for too long after a full day working at another job, or (being in a residential area) I have to be considerate of how late I can keep making smoke and noise before upsetting the neighbours.

Whatever the reason, some projects get abandoned.  If this happens to you as well, I’m going to urge you to revisit some of those projects on occasion.  This is the story of one such project…

A couple of years ago, when I was a student at the Willowbank School of Restoration Arts, Lloyd Johnston (who teaches the short introductory blacksmithing course there) was kind enough to give me a little bit of wrought iron to try working with.  I tucked that bit of bar away in my toolbox, intending to save it for a special project.

In the early stages -just  roughly forged to shape

In the early stages -just roughly forged to shape

Fast forward a few months, and I was doing a demonstration at Willowbank’s open house.  Someone asked me the differences between steel and wrought iron, so I pulled that bar out and decided to give it a go.  I had no real project in mind, but squared up a length of the bar, and drew it out to a long taper.  Ah ha!  I’d always wanted to make a set of dividers – this would be perfect.  So I cut off a length, and did the same for the other half.  And that’s the point at which I ‘hit the wall’ (energy, time and skill wise).  I had no idea what to do as the next step.  So back in the toolbox those two pointed bits of wrought iron went.  And there they stayed, for the next two years.

Between then and now, life happened.  I had to leave school and go back to work.  Smithing was put on the back burner, as I lacked time to do much.  But one cannot escape the smithing bug.

A couple of months ago, I reopened my garage and sparked up the forge.  As I was going through my tools, I found that wrought iron and thought to myself “I should really get those dividers finished”.  I came back in the house, looked up some examples, printed some photos and ordered myself a copy of Peter Ross’ instructional video.

It was at this time that I also realized that my former Willowbank classmates were quickly coming up on their graduation.  I was out for dinner with a couple of them and they were discussing getting a thank-you gift for our carpentry instructor, to give to him at graduation.  Well, that was all the motivation I needed.  Instructional video or no video, I had to get these done in time for graduation.  Three evenings later I had a completed set of dividers.

They’re not perfect, but I’m quite pleased with them. I ended up splitting the top of one piece to make the two-leaf side of the hinge.  It was only afterwards that I saw the Peter Ross video, and learned that he forge welds his.  I may try that on the next one.

After discussing the dividers with several people, I decided not to rivet them but rather to make a stove/carriage bolt with a knurled nut to allow the end user to easily adjust the tension.  I’m not sure it was worth the extra effort and will likely rivet the next pair, but it was a valuable experience.  I don’t have a lathe so those parts were forged to rough shape, then finished with files.  A lot of filing.  I now understand the old whitesmiths adage that an extra 10 minutes at the anvil can save an hour at the bench.  Each and every part (except for a spring washer) is made by hand, from the wrought iron.

tf-img-267The most difficult and time consuming part was that decision to go with a nut & bolt vs a rivet.  Filing one of the holes in the two-leaf half of the hinge from its drilled round hole into a square (without damaging the drilled hole on the opposing leaf) was quite the daunting task.  Perhaps there is an easy way of doing that. If there is, I’d love for one of you to share it.

My first attempt at making the knurled nut was also way off. It was far too large in scale, and so it took quite a bit of extra work to get it smaller in diameter, and half its original thickness.  Again, all with files.


There really isn’t much more to tell about the project itself.  What I really wanted to talk about in this article, is the idea of revisiting those half-done projects some of us have sitting on the shelf.  I have found that the act of finishing these off, has given me a real boost in energy and motivation.  It’s rekindled that spark in me, to get back out to the shop (tired from work or not).  Now to start tackling some of those other projects on the to-do list.

This post was also published in the Spring 2015 issue of the Ontario Artist Blacksmith’s Association newsletter ‘The Iron Trillium’


2nd Annual Stone Festival

Monday, September 15th, 2014

It’s hard to believe that a full year has passed since Willowbank’s inaugural Stone Festival, but here we are again…

This years event was a little bit different, and slightly more low-key than the first one.  The Canadian Stone Carving Festival, which held its annual event together with Willowbank last year, returned closer to home this time. Their event was held in Ottawa several weeks ago. Which is very understandable, as many of the carvers are people involved on the restoration of the Parliament Buildings.

In any case, without the stone carvers, the Willowbank Stone Festival was primarily focused on the art of dry stone walling.  A sizeable group of wallers from Canada, the USA and Great Britain were in Queenston working to complete the ‘Forge Studio’.  There was also a 2-day dry stone walling course on the weekend, followed by a DSWA certification day on Monday.  There was some stone carving happening, with several individuals taking a 1-day introductory stone carving course.

On Sunday, a group of master wallers participated in a friendly walling competition.  It’s absolutely amazing to see these highly experienced craftsmen at work.  I’ve no idea how they can do such quality work so quickly.

For my part, I had the privilege of teaching an introductory blacksmithing course to a group of dry stone wallers.  The students all happen to be from the Saugeen First Nation, and who have been working on the restoration of a large stone amphitheatre.

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Just like last year, I was blacksmithing in the rain.  Note to Willowbank: I’d like some dry weather for next year, please.

The students were all very keen, and did quite well on their first attempts at blacksmithing (all things considered).  A 1-day introductory course is far too short… at least for first-timers.  Just as soon as you’re starting to get the hang of working with tongs, your day is over.  Perhaps next year they’ll come back for more.

The absolute best part of the weekend, was that the stonework on Willowbank’s new Forge Studio is now complete!  Now its just a matter of getting the roof done, sealing up the gable ends, and building all of the windows and doors.  Hmm, okay so perhaps it’s not *that* close to being done. But I have faith that it’ll at least be done enough to keep the rain off me by next Stone Fest.

I don’t have too many photos of the Forge Studio at the moment (was getting late on Sunday by the time I packed up); but will post some soon.  In the meantime, here are some other shots from the event.  Stay tuned for more…

Dry Stone Forge Studio at Willowbank

Why do I do it?

Monday, August 4th, 2014

Sunday evening before a holiday, I’m rummaging through my workshop trying to find all the bits and pieces I’d need for doing a public demonstration; trying to cram too much (very heavy) stuff into the back of my truck – all on my own.  As a piece of steel stock drops through the holes in the bottom of a milk crate, darn near breaking my toe, I ask myself “why am I doing this?’.

I mean, it’s not like I have the time to take on many paid projects, even if someone were interested.  Nor do I have the time to build up an inventory of forged items to sell as a vendor at one of these events.  But here I am, yet again, preparing to go stand outside all day doing a demonstration, not entirely looking forward to it.  But the following day, at the event, I got my answer…

It’s because of the people.

You really do meet some tremendously excellent people when you’re out and about in public, demonstrating this craft.  Some are just amazed by the process of manipulating incandescent iron.  Others have an interest in antique tools, machinery, etc and really appreciate seeing how it was all made. Many have a story to tell about some relation that was a blacksmith or farrier.  But virtually everyone that comes by takes some interest – and that’s rare these days.

It’s really neat for someone my age to be told, by a senior, that I remind them of their grandfather.  And its amazing to see kids take an interest in anything that’s not on their iPhone!

The kind people you meet along the way really does make it worth the effort to drag several hundred pounds of equipment out and back to do a demo.  I think its something every smith should do at some point.

Thank you to the Niagara Historical Society & Museum for inviting me back to their Past is Present event this year.  And thanks to all the nice folks who stopped by for a chat. It made for a very enjoyable day out!

Maker of smoke and noise

Sunday, June 1st, 2014

Well, this miserable winter and late start to spring are finally behind us; and our family is slowly emerging from the long hibernation that parents of preemies call the ‘lock down’.  Over the past few weeks I’ve been able to clean up my workshop a bit and start on the backlog of blacksmithing projects on my to do list.

To kick things off I did my first public demonstration of the season today at the Willoughby Country Fair (Willoughby Historical Museum, Niagara Falls).  it was quite a fun event – and you couldn’t ask for better weather.

Unfortunately, my blacksmithing demo was not quite as successful as my previous ones…

All started well.  I’d loaded the truck up the night before, to give myself an easy morning. Grabbed a coffee, and arrived at the event nice and early. Off loaded the truck quickly, and was set-up in less than 20 minutes.  I lit the forge about an hour before the event was scheduled to start (letting the green coal smoke away before too many people were around). Again, all was going well.

Then about an hour into the event, my arch nemesis showed up – antique blacksmithing equipment.  Why do I keep falling for these quaint looking antiques?

Following in the footsteps of my old portable forge, and the fire pot on my large coal forge – the blower on my current small forge decided today was the day to pack it in.  It started with a horrible rattling/grinding noise whenever I would let go of the crank handle.  Previously, it would go another 2 turns on its own and coast to a stop, but today it started grinding to a halt a half-turn after letting go. Not good.  I managed to do some field surgery and keep it working (well, sort of) for another hour. But that was all it had in it.  It got just too bad and I thought that I had better stop before I do some permanent damage to it.

So apart from chatting with a lot of friendly folks who stopped by, I didn’t accomplish much useful blacksmithing today.  I think in the three hours I was able to keep the forge going, I only made it through a dozen or so hooks and a few leaf keychains (I had no intention of even starting a more ambitious project with the forge acting up).

I spent more time nursing the equipment than forging.  At least I was able to make a bunch of smoke and noise. That’s got to count for something…

I can handle it

Monday, May 5th, 2014

A good friend of mine from Willowbank, Mike, is becoming quite the maker these days.  Considering he was an ‘office guy’ in his past life, the stuff he’s producing is really quite good (but don’t tell him I said so, it’ll go to his head).

Along with his friend and creative partner, Julie, he’s been building a lot of things using old reclaimed lumber and such – much of it in the ‘industrial’ or ‘vintage’ style.

In any case, we’ve decided to collaborate whenever it seems appropriate to incorporate metal into their projects.  And have just finished a first small project together.


Mike had made this tray from old reclaimed floor boards, which was quite a beautiful piece on its own.  But they felt it needed handles. I agreed, and came up with some.  Not a very big or complicated project for either of us, but I think we’re onto something.  Hand forged steel and old wood just look right together.  I hope we have the opportunity to do more of this.

Besides, getting together to work on a project is as good a reason as any for a beer call with a good friend!