Archive for the ‘Student Life’ Category

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!

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

Lloyd & Co.

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

Lloyd Johnston was back at Willowbank this week, teaching the new group of first years.  Seemed a good reason to venture out to Queenston for a visit.


I think the school is slowly but surely figuring out the logistics of blacksmithing with a group this size (the new forge studio, when complete, will obviously go a long way to addressing this).  At one point they had seven forges going this session.  I believe they gave up on one of the small forges after a time – but were managing well with six.

It’s always fun to see who Lloyd has brought with him.  Every time he’s come in the last two years, he’s brought another smith with him to assist.  And they’ve all been just great!  I’d sure like to meet more of Lloyd’s smithing friends, and hope he continues bringing new people with him when he visits.


The best laid plans…

Monday, September 30th, 2013

Ever notice there is a proverb or idiom for pretty much any situation? Well, the phrase “The best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray” has been stuck in my head as of late.  You see, today has been a bit of a rough day for me. It’s become necessary for me to ‘pull the plug’ on my grand experiment.

We (my wife & I) decided this past weekend, that I had no choice but to give up my studies at Willowbank.  With the birth of our twins, and all of the ups and downs that has accompanied that, its all become too much for us to handle. Something had to give, and that something was the idea of me dedicating three years to being a full-time student. It was always a long-shot, but was fun while it lasted.

I started off this morning as a student. I end the day as just another unemployed guy looking for a halfway decent job. Such is life.

If my luck improves any, and the stars align just right, I’m hoping to find work that will allow me to keep my hand in either smithing and/or built heritage. Maybe, just maybe, I can revisit the idea of school again some time in the future.  But for now, I need to find a way to keep a roof over my family’s head and food on the table.

I’ve no idea what’s next for me, but stay tuned…

Forge Studio – Part 1

Sunday, September 22nd, 2013

This past Friday, my (2nd year) class at Willowbank along with the 3rd year class, erected the majority of the substantial timber frame that will become Willowbank’s new blacksmith shop (which they’re calling the ‘Forge Studio’). The 3rd year class have actually been working on this frame off and on for the past three years, including solidly for the past two weeks.

As mentioned in my previous posts this shop consists of a sizeable timber frame which is mostly heavy white oak, with lighter spruce for the rafters and sill plates; combined with a dry stone wall. It will eventually have a slate roof too.

This building has taken a tremendous amount of work to get it to its current point – but is now on hold for a while.  As Willowbank is a school, the primary purpose for its construction is the educational experience of building it for us students. And while we could bring in a paid crew to just push to get it finished at this point – that would sort of defeat the purpose.  And so the dry stone walls will wait to be completed during next years Stone Festival and dry stone waling classes, and the remainder of the timber frame will likewise wait until next years timber framing classes.

Its a little hard for me to wait that long, as I’m just itching to get into this building, get it set up and equipped as a blacksmith’s shop, and get hammering on some hot iron in there.  But I wouldn’t have a lot of time to do that until I’m in my 3rd year at school anyways. So for now, I just have to be patient.

Here are a bunch of photos of the construction process, which I’ll let speak for themselves:

















Stone Festival

Monday, September 16th, 2013

This past weekend was the inaugural Stone Festival for Willowbank – an amazing weekend long event, the likes of which I’ve never seen before.

Apparently, there is a bit of a tradition among stone carvers of having events like this.  The idea is for these carvers to get together as a community, enjoy interacting with each other (with perhaps even a bit of friendly competition), while promoting their craft to the wider public.  They each start off with a block of stone, have a limited time to carve whatever they like, and at the end their pieces of work are auctioned off with the proceeds going to charity.

What an awesome idea!

The stone carving portion of the festival was organized by Danny Barber, a banker mason whose company Smith & Barber does a lot of work in Ottawa; and who is also our masonry instructor at Willowbank.  He had organized this type of festival before, but this year decided to partner with Willowbank to do something a little bit different.

And of course, Willowbank being the type of place it is, couldn’t just do what had been done before. We had to up the game, and what we did ended up being very special indeed.

You see, stone isn’t just good for carving, or cutting into blocks and sticking it together with mortar to build with. It can also be simply stacked up, without mortar, to build with too. And that’s where some of the world’s best dry stone wallers came into the picture…

For the past couple of years, Willowbank students have been working on the construction of a substantial timber frame building.  It was originally going to be a ‘chipping shed’ for our masonry classes. I believe the idea was just an open frame with a roof to keep the elements off us.  But someone seems to have come up with a much better plan for that structure – a Blacksmith’s Shop (which they’re calling the ‘Forge Studio’).  And even better than the re-allocation of space for smithing, is the decision to add walls. Stone walls.  Dry stone walls, to be precise.

Yes, Willowbank is getting a heavy (mostly oak) timber framed blacksmiths shop, which will be one of only a handful of dry stone buildings in North America.  And the dry stone portion of that building, was substantially built this past weekend during the stone festival.

I’m nowhere near good enough at writing, to effectively express how totally awesome this building is, or how excited I am about this shop being built.

The Stone Festival had (I believe) 24 or 25 carvers working all day Saturday and Sunday, carving some really amazing things. Meanwhile, Willowbank’s dry stone walling instructor Dean McLellan, along with a few Master wallers from Great Britain (from the DSWA), taught dry stone walling courses while a team of 15 wallers worked on the new building.

While all of these highly skilled masons plied their crafts, there were other festival-like events filling out the schedule for the weekend. We had a ‘Flea’ going on Saturday, where several vendors were selling cool ‘stuff’ (antiques and such), a bunch of kids were being kept occupied with face painting and other activities, while some tasty food and beverage was being sold – and yes, some of that beverage was of the alcoholic variety ;-) .

On the Saturday evening, sleepy, quiet little Queenston came alive with a street dance of all things. Probably the most activity it’s seen since the war of 1812. Okay, that’s an exaggeration – but not much of one.

Sunday evening was the ‘Stone Festival Party’, where all of the carvers work was auctioned off. This is where I came in. You see, this event had an ‘elemental’ theme to it. They wanted to showcase stone, glass, wood, iron and the like. And so when this was being planned out, I was asked if I would be willing to do a blacksmithing demo as part of the evenings entertainment.  I was happy to do so, but wasn’t going to set up all that equipment for just a few hours.  Instead I set up early Saturday morning, and forged all weekend (along with one of our new 1st year students, Tyson, who is also an avid blacksmith).

Saturday was the longest single stretch I’d ever forged for. I was set-up around 7:00 am and went straight through to almost 8:00 pm. There was such a large crowd around me the entire time  that I never found time for a break. At one point Tyson went on an epic quest to find us some food.

Sunday was a slightly later start, but was also really busy. The real excitement was Sunday evening during the party.

During most of the weekend, I was busy at my forge, the carvers were busy at their benches, and the wallers were busily working at lifting and stacking very heavy things to make us a smithy!  There was this great sound as we were all hammering and chiseling away at our various projects. But as the carvers finished, and the wallers ran out of daylight, I finally got to meet all of these fantastic people as they started wandering towards the forge.

What I didn’t realize before, is that most of us who enjoy smacking at things with a hammer, have a lot in common. And the mason’s all seemed to love the blacksmithing. At one point I probably had 20 or more of them crowded around. Many of whom said they ‘always wanted to try this’ (smithing), and so of course I had to oblige them.

By 9:30 Sunday night, I was standing around in the pitch black, under a tree (in the pouring rain) talking a bunch of masons through making their first basic smithing projects. Despite the late hour, and less than ideal weather, I was having the most fun I’ve ever had working at a forge.


I’m going to need a few days to recover, as I’m exhausted, but would do this all over again in a heartbeat.  I’m really hoping that this first Willowbank Stone Festival, is the first of many!



Sunday, September 8th, 2013

For better or worse, I am about to head back to Willowbank for my 2nd year of the 3 year diploma program.  Going back for another year was not a ‘given’ – and has been something I’ve been debating all summer.  I absolutely love this program, and feel that if I can get through it, it’ll be for the better.

That said, I’m still not convinced that taking a 3 year break from my adult life to go to school full time is/was the best decision.  In fact, it’s turning out to be really, really tough.  Not the school work itself – that’s all fine and dandy. It’s just the logistics of it, not to mention the cost.

When you figure in tuition, expenses and the loss of income from not working full time; post secondary education really costs a person anywhere between $30-40,000 a year.  Not at all an easy decision.

I have to wonder if this grand experiment of mine is complete folly…

The School of Restoration Arts at Willowbank

The School of Restoration Arts at Willowbank

Demo man

Monday, August 5th, 2013

Coming off the success and popularity of my demo at the Open House, Willowbank asked if I would represent the school at an event at the Niagara Historical Society & Museum in Niagara-on-the-Lake.  And so I’ve just chalked up my first real ‘public’ demonstration – outside the comfort zone of an educational institution.

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Once again, I was amazed by just how interested people were in the smithing.  I was so steadily busy all day, that I didn’t get chance to take a break to eat, and didn’t get chance to take a photo of my setup.

In the photos above, you’ll see my son William (who is the very model of a modern Major General), and if you look very closely you can see me working in the background.

All I can say, is that these demos are fun, fun, fun.  I’m usually a bit of an introvert and avoid talking to crowds of people. But while standing at my anvil, hammer in hand, it doesn’t seem to bother me.

Open House

Monday, April 22nd, 2013

With the first year of school behind me, this weekend was time for Willowbank’s annual Open House.

The open house is an opportunity for students to showcase their work, for friends and family to see what goes on here, and for prospective students to come get a feel for the place.

Early in the planning process for this years open house, I’d offered to bring my forge and do a blacksmithing demonstration.  Had I known how cold it was going to be, I’d have volunteered to give tours of the house instead.

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The toque  – not very fashionable, but necessary.  Surprisingly, a forge doesn’t keep you that warm!


This was my first time doing a public demonstration (outside of friends and family coming to my workshop), and I really enjoyed it.  I’m amazed by how many people were drawn over to the display, and how long they stayed watching.  There must be something about incandescent iron that appeals to people!

I have a feeling that, if one stays active in blacksmithing for long enough, public demonstrations will inevitably become part of what you do.  I’d certainly be happy to do another. Preferably in the summer…

Stone – Part 2

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

We’ve just completed the much anticipated second session of stone carving classes with Danny Barber (of Smith & Barber).

What an excellent, excellent class!  I’m just loving working with stone.  I wish I’d had time to forge myself that set of tools before now, but that’ll come soon enough.  This is certainly something I want to do more of down the road.

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This class has been a great way to cap off the school year!

Bring on the Willowbank Open House!