Archive for the ‘The Journey’ Category

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


Thursday, August 29th, 2013

Railroad Spikes.  Why, oh why, are people so attracted to these things?

There is an ongoing discussion amongst the blacksmithing community about this. Many believe that it’s because they’re “recognizable”. You can readily see that the item is made from something else.  I suppose reclaimed / repurposed / recycled stuff is all very popular these days.  Etsy and Pinterest are full of these kinds of things.

Whatever the case, they (RR spikes) are popular – and so I’d better get used to the idea.  One of the most requested items I’m asked for, are RR Spike knives.  For a long time I resisted making them.  Knife making just doesn’t interest me that much.  And frankly, spikes aren’t the best steel for knives even if that were an area of interest.

However, I was asked by a fellow Willowbank student, and so I caved and agreed to make some.

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And I have a confession to make.  I enjoyed it.  I actually enjoyed knife making, and didn’t mind working with the ubiquitous RR spikes.


The biggest challenge, was finding “legal” RR spikes.  Some people collect loose ones they find laying along side of railroad tracks.  *This practice is not legal*.  The railroads generally frown upon people trespassing on their property, and take an even dimmer view of people collecting up their scrap iron.

Luckily for me, I’d already found a local supplier of new rail (see my post about my Crane Rail Anvil).  That same supplier also carries fasteners, straight from the spike mill.  And with a supply of brand new spikes at my disposal, I can jump on the band wagon and make some of these things.

In the end, I was quite happy with what was both my first knives, and my first RR spike project.  I can certainly see doing more of these in the future – particularly now that I have a supplier, and went to the trouble of making new tongs to hold the things.

Can you make this?

Sunday, August 25th, 2013

So despite all that I’ve had going on with hospital visits, etc., I’ve still managed to work on some interesting blacksmithing projects this summer.  The first and biggest of these so far, started with a simple enough question – “Can you make this?”.

In June, Willowbank’s dry stone walling instructor Dean McLellan got in touch with me. He was working on a very cool water-feature for Reif Estate Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and the clients had an idea for adding a decorative element that required a blacksmith.  Dean knew that I was big into blacksmithing, and asked if I’d be interested in taking a look. Which of course I was.

I met with Dean and the winery’s owner Klaus to find out what it is they were after.  Klaus then showed me a photo on his computer. It was a bow-tie shaped iron plate, set into the top of a stone wall (crossing the joint in the coping stones). The photo was apparently taken during a visit to Versailles, of a wall in the gardens. “Can you make something like this?”, he asked.  Yes, sure I can.

tf-img-151That’s when the fun began…

First came some Googleing to see if I could find out what these things are (their proper name, perhaps how they were traditionally made, if there are different styles, etc.). But I couldn’t find a thing.  So starting from scratch, we discussed how big they wanted them, and went from there.

Overall these ‘ties’ were to be 8″ long, 4″ at the ends narrowing to 2″ in the centre. And we decided on using 1/4″ plate as the material.  Then out came the modelling clay.  I determined I’d need about a 6 3/8″ length of 1/4″ plate.  I made the first prototype completely by hand – eyeballing the curvature. The results were pretty close to what we were after, and the project was given the green light.

The next step was to make a template / jig. These were not going to look right when installed, unless I could get a high level of consistency – especially in the curvature and the width of the ‘points’ (as those are what your eye would pick up on while looking down a line of them).


Once the jig was made, came a lot of hammering.  Not too far into the project, I was very worried that I may have taken on too much. And I went so far as to buy myself a bit of an insurance policy – and I had a few blanks cut the right shape – just in case.  But, I was determined to keep hammering away by hand, so kept going.

 I must say that there were a few aspects of the project that I did not completely enjoy.  Firstly, using a gas forge indoors during a heat-wave.  For several days I cooked myself in a 44 degree shop in high humidity. The gas forge throwing out a tremendous amount of heat.  On top of that, I found the radiant heat coming off the plate steel was much higher than the bar stock I have been using for most projects. It required the wearing of gloves (which I hate), and a lot of quenching of tongs.

But after a long 50 hours of ‘heating and beating’, the plates were done and ready for installation.

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The fact that my metalwork was allowed to be added into this project is humbling to say the least.  The dry-stone water feature that Dean built is, literally, a masterpiece.

tf-img-157The traditional definition of a masterpiece, is a piece of work done by a suitably experienced skilled craftsman that is then put forward to be judged by the existing Masters within that trade/crafts guild.  Only if the work is deemed to be good enough will that person be considered to be a Master themselves.  This project was such a piece of work for Dean – who is in the process of obtaining his Master’s certification with the Dry Stone Walling Association of Great Britain.

In any case, my work getting the nod of approval for inclusion into the finished project, Dean began the process of installing them.  The ‘tie plates’ were carefully laid out, and their outline carved into the coping stones to create recesses into which they were mortared.

The project was not without its challenges, but I am thrilled with the end result.  I feel that the metal work adds something (to a project that was already stunningly awesome to begin with!), and hope others will think so as well. I’m so happy to have been given this opportunity and will carry the lessons learned from it forward as I advance my new career.

If you ever find yourself in Niagara, be sure to stop by Reif Estate for a glass or two of wine and enjoy relaxing around this amazing water feature.

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For more information on the dry stone water-feature, check out this newspaper article that was written about it in the Niagara Advance: Art graces Reif Estate Winery

The Long and Winding Road

Friday, August 23rd, 2013

To anyone who reads this blog, I must apologize.  Some time ago I had posted that “I haven’t abandoned this blog”, and in retrospect, that’s exactly what I did … at least for a while.

When I started this website (intending to document my journey as I transform my hobby into a new career), I made a prediction.  I said that I was “certain of only one thing – that the next few years will have some significant challenges”. Those would prove to be some prophetic words indeed!

I am in my late 30’s, and have a young family (two toddlers when this started). This past winter, shortly after going back to school full-time on a 3 year program, my wife & I learned that our family would be growing. We were expecting a new baby.  In January, while I was on my school field trip to Ruthven Park, we leaned that we were having not one baby, but two!  Such exciting times!!!

Then came Wednesday April 10th…

Some would describe a journey like we’re currently on as being ‘a roller coaster’; I prefer Paul McCartney’s description of a ‘Long and Winding Road’.

On that day, we went to McMaster Children’s Hospital (in Hamilton) for a more detailed ultrasound than was available at out local hospital. There was some concern about an earlier blood test. What we found out from those tests, is that there was a rare and serious complication with the pregnancy called Twin-to-Twin Transfusion Syndrome (TTTS). TTTS is a condition where one twin pumps blood into the other through some shared blood vessels, starving themselves of nutrients while over-burdening the organs of their sibling. Left untreated, it is extremely life threatening to both twins. After a very brief meeting with the high-risk obstetrician at McMaster, we were quickly sent off to Mount Sinai in Toronto, expecting to have an emergency surgery that evening in hopes of ‘saving at least one of the babies’.

Unless you have been through something like this, I cannot begin to describe the emotional roller-coaster that follows this type of news.

Upon arriving at Mount Sinai, things got even more complicated. After a marathon session of scans and consultations with a team of doctors, they determined that we were not only dealing with TTTS, but also with a second almost as rare, and equally serious complication called Selective Intra-Uterine Growth Restriction (sIUGR). The big question was to what degree each condition was affecting the babies. In either case, Twin A was a relatively normal size, but had an excessive amount of fluid and over-stressed organs; while Twin B was very, very small, and essentially had no fluid. The decision was made to hold off on the surgery until one or the other caused a change in their condition. In order to closely monitor the babies, we began going to Toronto every 3 or 4 days for follow-up appointments.

On May 1st, the babies decided it was time for them to get some help, and my wife went in for the surgery on the morning of May 2nd. The medical team at Mount Sinai is one of the best in the world when it comes to treating TTTS, and performs most of these laser ablation surgeries for all of Canada (about 150 cases a year). The surgery went well, and we fell back into a few weeks of routine follow-up visits, again every 3 to 4 days. At the end of May, the team at Mount Sinai felt that the babies condition was stable enough that we could be referred back to McMaster (which is closer to home for us), and the follow-ups could be reduced to once weekly…. Well, that didn’t quite work out as planned.

Our first appointment back at McMaster was Friday May 31st – during which the doctors were quite alarmed by the babies condition.  They sent us home for the weekend with strict instructions to come back at the first hint of anything being ‘not quite right’, and to otherwise take it easy. On the morning of Monday June 3, we came in for our follow-up appointment and found that the babies had both taken a turn for the worse. And so, with no other options left, our identical twin daughters were delivered late that evening by emergency caesarian section; at only 28 weeks, 3 days gestational age.


Evelyn (Twin A, the larger of the two, and the TTTS ‘recipient’) was born at 11:17pm on June 3rd weighing 1,260g (2 lb, 12 oz) and was 37 cm (14.5”) in length.

Evelyn Blythin

Rachel (Twin B, the smaller and TTTS ‘donor’) was born at 11:18pm weighing just 330g (12 oz) and was 27 cm (10.5”) in length.

Rachel Blythin Rachel Blythin

And that is only the start of our journey.  Evelyn spent the next 70 days in hospital (51 days in the Neonatal Intensive Care at McMaster, and another 19 days in the Level 2 Nursery of our local hospital) and came home on the evening of her ’10 Week Birthday’.

Her sister Rachel is doing well, but had much further to come.  With a birthweight of only 330g, she is the smallest micro-preemie to have survived being born at McMaster in the 40 year history of their neonatal unit.  She is still in the NICU, and likely will remain there for several more weeks.

Today, is the girls original due date – which we will be celebrating as a 2nd birthday each year.  As of today Rachel is up to a whopping 1380g (3 lbs 1 oz) and her sister Evelyn is up to 2780g (6 lbs 2 oz).  Today also marks the first time that I have been able to hold both of my baby girls at the same time.

Evelyn & Rachel Blythin Evelyn & Rachel Blythin

These were not exactly the ‘significant challenges’ I expected when this all began, but such is life.

Although I regret not keeping on top of this blog, I’m sure you can understand that I’ve had other, more pressing matters to deal with.  Since this ordeal began in April, we have:

Driven 13,800 Kms to and from hospitals;

Paid $600 in hospital parking;

Spent $2,300 on fuel;

And I dread to add up what we’ve spent on coffees & meals, and how many hours I’ve spent sitting in waiting rooms or standing next to incubators in the NICU.

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…

Something ancient

Thursday, April 11th, 2013

I had a bad day yesterday. A very bad day. I won’t get into it just yet, but it was the sort of day that leaves you questioning everything  – the meaning of life, and so on and so forth.

Today, I really just needed to be among friends.

By a happy coincidence, it was the start of our next session of forge classes at Willowbank.

I don’t know what it is about fire… There must be something about this force of nature, that’s buried deep in our (mankind’s) past, that makes it very comforting to the psyche. In my opinion, there is little in this world thats as therapeutic as staring deeply into a fire.  I didn’t pound on much metal today, as I just didn’t have the concentration. But I can’t think of any better place to have found myself at this particular moment in time.


Therapeutic fire