Archive for the ‘The Journey’ Category

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!

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…


Sunday, May 4th, 2014

This may or may not already exist.  To be perfectly honest, I haven’t done a whole lot of research into it:

~ The Society for the Protection of Old Tools ~

So here’s how it happened. I’m spring cleaning my workshop (my late father-in-law’s garage, aka Aladdin’s Cave). And as mentioned before, this building is crammed full of ‘stuff’. You name it, he had it.  Strange, obscure tools and things that I still don’t know what they are or where they came from.

In any case, a few of the items I found were old, rusty and just very neglected.  I very nearly threw some of these old tools away. And then I had a bit of an epiphany. I’m a blacksmith. Blacksmith’s are tool makers.  If I can make a tool from scratch, surely I can fix most tools that cross my path. And so that’s what I set out to do.

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The pliers pictured above, were completely encased in a crusty, rusty casing and fused solid. I thought they were beyond hope; but I was determined.  It *must* be easier to fix these, than to make new ones.  And so with the application of some heat, oil, and some good old ‘brute force and ignorance’ – I got the jaws to move.  And after about 30 minutes of working on them, I had a perfectly serviceable tool. Perhaps not the prettiest tool – as it’s showing some deep battle scars. But the jaws work perfectly, the teeth on the jaws were restored with a file, and even the wire cutters are sharp and working (with one nick just a little too deep to file out).

I was thrilled by the results – and inspired to continue…

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Next came a carpenters square. Followed by another pair of pliers, tin snips and another square. All started rusty and virtually useless, and are now some of the nicest tools in my shop.


The more I think about this, the more it makes sense to me.  I strongly believe that this little side project is very relevant to blacksmithing. We are the tool makers. Who better to care for old tools, and restore them to working condition?

It also occurred to me that, as a tool maker, I don’t make things with the intention of them becoming ‘wall hangers’. No tool is made to be a decoration. I cringe when I walk into a restaurant and see a beautiful old tool – with extra holes drilled through it – hanging on a wall as decoration. Tools are meant to do work.

The tools I restore, are not meant to be collected as ‘antiques’ or interesting decorations. I’m bringing these objects back into full working order, so that they can continue to do the jobs they are designed and built for.

Of course, really old or rare tools do deserve some extra respect. Nothing wrong with semi-retirement for them, so long as they’re kept in working order and are used on occasion. They don’t have to be your ‘daily driver’.

Yes, I’m now a man on a mission. I want to find more old, abused tools; rescue them; and return them to service as useful, working objects.  Semi-retired tools – just like you’d find in any grandpa’s garage or workshop.

… So is it yard sale season yet?

Taking up knitting

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

This is shaping up to be one long, cold, dark, miserable winter.

With twin preemie babies at home, our family is hibernating.  Some preemie parents actually refer to this season as ‘lock down’ – and it really feels like it!  With my propane tank freezing up on me every time I go to work in my uninsulated, unheated workshop (the result of needing a bigger propane tank); and with our household operating on a 24 hour schedule (babies don’t sleep); I’m looking for some quiet activities to do in my basement workshop.

And so I’ve decided to take up knitting – blacksmith style!

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Okay, I think those who make maille generally refer to it as weaving rather than knitting. But you get the idea.

Anyways, it’s a lot of fun.  It certainly fits into the quiet / busywork category that I was looking for.  I’m not sure I have the patience or attention span to tackle any larger maille projects right now – but I now have some very cool looking coasters and trivets.  Had I picked up this hobby sooner, I likely would have made myself a Christmas stocking. Oh well, I’ll do one in time for next year…

Spiked again

Thursday, December 19th, 2013

Spikes, spikes, everywhere there’s spikes….

My friend Mike, an avid woodworker, has been making some Christmas gifts for his family this year (luckily, none of whom read this blog).  He’s made some absolutely beautiful cutting / cheese boards from old reclaimed wood.  And so we thought some hand-forged knives would be a great accompaniment to go with them.

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These are primarily Mike’s handiwork, with a little guidance (and a few swings with a sledge hammer) from me…

Oh, to clarify, the sledge was to help draw down the spikes – not to ‘encourage’ Mike.

It’s nice to see some of my friends taking an interest in the craft.



Thursday, October 17th, 2013

After a 135 day stay in the neonatal intensive care unit of McMaster Children’s Hospital – my tiny little Rachel is finally home!

For the first time today, I have my entire family under one roof – and I have no need to pack them all into a van and rush off somewhere.  And I can only describe this situation, as awesome!

As for the story of Rachel’s home coming, I’m a little too sleep-deprived (not to mention a little bit short on my amount of free time) to do a good job of it. Luckily for me, the story has been recounted by several others recently…

Not long after the girls were born, it was suggested to us (by many people), that the story of their birth was news-worthy, and that a lot of people may be interested in hearing about it.  The trouble with such tiny babies, is that you don’t want to ‘jump the gun’ on such a story. As I’ve mentioned before, in those early weeks, their survival (particularly Rachel’s) was by no means assured. The usual etiquette is apparently to wait until the baby has been discharged from hospital.  And so, with Rachel’s discharge date coming up fast, my wife contacted someone she knew from a local newspaper and asked if the girls birth was something they’d be interested in doing.  It was.

The Monday before discharge (Thanksgiving here in Canada), a reporter from the St. Catharines Standard came to the hospital to interview us, along with someone from from the hospitals public relations office.  The following day, the  public relations person was back along with a local TV news, and Hamilton’s local newspaper.

That evening, we began receiving messages from friends & family saying they’d seen Rachel on the news.  We figured there were a lot of people who read through the entire paper to find some small article somewhere. It wasn’t until we were on our way home from the hospital, with both twins, that we realized why we’d been getting so many messages – Rachel was the headline on the front page – along with a life size photo of her!

I had managed to maintain my composure through most of this adventure, right from April on to their birth in June, and all the way through their NICU stay. But seeing my little girl on the front cover of the newspaper was almost too much.

I really don’t think I could tell the story any better myself, so here are just a few of the news items that have been spreading their way across the web over the last few days,  All I can really say is that the reporters all did a tremendous job, and that I’m overwhelmed by the level of interest this has generated. Wow!


McMaster’s tiniest baby to go home to Falls
St. Catharines Standard – Tuesday October 15, 2013
Grant LaFleche


Smallest baby ever born at Mac goes home
CHCH Evening News – Wednesday October 16, 2013
Lisa Hepfner & Phil McLaughlin


Mac’s tiniest baby beats the odds and heads home
The Hamilton Spectator ( – Wednesday October 16, 2013
Joanna Frketich


Hospital’s tiniest preemie ever thrives and is now home
CBC Hamilton – Thursday October 17, 2013
Kaleigh Rogers