Archive for the ‘Tidbits’ 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!

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!

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?

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.


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, 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.