Posts Tagged ‘school of restoration arts’

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.


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!


A thousand words

Monday, November 19th, 2012

… Or perhaps just take a picture?

We’ve been taking a course on photography at school.  Its all very interesting stuff.  The instructor, in addition to being an accomplished professional photographer, is also one of those urban-explorer types.  He’s been showing us some excellent photographs he has taken of some very cool places.

I don’t think I’ll ever have the artistic ‘eye’ for taking pictures that one would mistake for being a professionals – but I still think I got something out of it.  Hopefully my photography will improve as a result.

One thing is for sure, I’ve got to start carrying a camera around with me, instead of just my iPhone.


Photo of my class, taken by Jonathan Castillino (our photography instructor)

As you can see from this group photo, its far better than anything I could take.  My class mates and I all agreed, this is one of the best group photos any of us had been in … we thought it would make a great album cover.

Ahh, finally – blacksmithing!

Friday, November 9th, 2012

I think, perhaps, some of them finally understand…

tf-img-097My poor class mates, have had to hear me drone on and on about blacksmithing on too many occasions.  But only one of them had ever smacked at hot metal before, so I don’t think any of the others could appreciate my enthusiasm.  That is until yesterday and today.  We’ve just had two days of Intro to Architectural Metals and a basic blacksmithing course.

As someone with a bit of experience (not to mention having extra equipment to loan the school), I had the privilege of assisting our instructor, Lloyd Johnston, for the two day blacksmithing course.

Overall, I’m very happy.  The course was very time-constrained, and so the other students only got a taste of coal smoke – but we’ll be having more later in the year.  A number of them seem really pumped, and have asked if they can do some extra-cirricular smithing with me in the meantime.

The instructor, Lloyd, was fantastic, and I learned a lot from him in a short time span.  I hope he’ll be the one the school brings back in the spring for our next session.  Two days was far too short.

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Timber framing

Friday, October 26th, 2012

Two days is nowhere near enough time to explore the art of timber framing – but it’s enough to know that I’m hooked!  I can’t wait until we have an extended session of it next year.


One of my class mates apparently has quite a bit of experience doing this.  I may have to recruit his help, and build that new smithy in the spring.  I also see some tool-making in my near future.  The ‘tools of the trade’ for timber framing are wonderful – large framing chisels, slicks, etc.  The tools the instructors brought were all very well made, and of high quality (read, “imported” and “expensive”!).

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Of course, as an aspiring blacksmith I’m obliged to make my own… Actually, I think that could be a rewarding add-on part of this schooling for me.  As I’m exposed to these different, sometimes obscure trades, I’ll have to try making some of their specialized tools.


Ghetto forge

Monday, October 1st, 2012

There is a bit of a rumour going around at school – that the long-term viability of the forge program may be in jeopardy.  The issue, is that Willowbank doesn’t have it’s own blacksmith’s shop.  Students were previously travelling to the instructor’s studio (a good few hours drive away).  This year, the size of the student body has doubled, making the logistics of that a bit more difficult.

Ideally, we would have our own shop at the school, large enough for 10 or more students at a time.  The issue with that, is the expense. To equip a large shop that would only be used a few days a year…

So one of the second year students and myself, decided we’d try to build a prototype small, inexpensive forge, that would be suitable for the light work that the students do in their introductory level courses.  Something along the lines of the ‘break drum’ forges that a lot of hobbyist smiths start with.

This design is modified from a Popular Mechanics article that I found online.  It uses a stainless steel kitchen sink, lined with clay; and off-the-shelf plumbing fixtures for the tuyere.



It may not be pretty, but it works quite well.  We’ve got about $60 CAD in materials, and a couple of hours of work into building it.  The blower is an old hairdryer.  The stand is a cheap portable/folding work bench.  The tuyere is made from 1 1/2″ black pipe.  It’s a floor flange, two 4″ nipples, a Tee, a cap (for the ash dump) and a 12″ nipple that the hairdryer attaches to.  Inside the forge, above where the floor flange enters the sink, we used a cast-iron floor drain cover set into the clay.

We didn’t have any coal on hand, so fired it with charcoal to test it out.  Not the ideal fuel for a bottom-blast, but it got fairly hot.  The small hairdryer provided a surprising amount of airflow.

I’ve no idea if anything will come of this.  But I enjoyed building it, and we have shown (in theory at least) that we had to, we can build something that would get the job done, on a tight budget.

A rock and a hard place

Friday, September 14th, 2012

Far… Too… Much… Stone…..

So apparently, building a dry stone wall involves moving a substantial mountain of heavy rocks by hand.  Who knew?


My class mates and I just spent two days having a crash-course in building a dry stone wall; with instructors Dean McLellan and Evan Oxland.

I’m tired, my hands are wrecked, and it’ll take a week to clean the mud off of my boots (we got rained-on the second day).  But despite all that, I’m thrilled.  I learned a tremendous amount in a very short span of time.

Photo by Dean McLellan

Photo by Dean McLellan Stonework

Doing physical work with a new group of people is also a great way to start building friendships too.  Hey, it works for the military – where you get very close to people, very quickly.  But the most important part, is that I’ve now helped to construct something that should still be standing generations from now.  And that’s awesome!


Monday, September 10th, 2012

And so it begins… my life as a student!

The School of Restoration Arts at Willowbank

The School of Restoration Arts at Willowbank

I must say, I’m a little bit apprehensive, as it’s been so many years since I was last in school.  When I was first looking into Willowbank, I was told that I was their ‘typical‘ student – an adult looking at starting a second career.  However, when meeting my class mates today, I realized that I probably have 10 years on the majority of them.  Well, at least there are a couple of others who are in my age group.

We’ve been given our schedule for the first term, and have a number of interesting courses coming up.  We’ll be jumping right in this first week with a dry stone walling course.  Sounds like my idea of fun!

While not directly blacksmith-related, I’ll be blogging a bit about my school experiences.  And so I’ve added a new category for those posts entitled “Student Life”.