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Wednesday, 01 February 2006 00:00

The art of forgery: Jackson County blacksmiths learn the art of their business and the business of art

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By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

Deep in the mountains that surround Jackson County’s Tuckasegee community, the sound of metal on metal rings out with a sharp ping as blacksmith David Brewin begins to shape a steel rod.

The rod, heated in a propane power forge, glows red, its tip approximately 2,000 degrees. Brewin deftly raises and fells his hammer, steel bending around the anvil’s curved edge and forming a graceful curl.

It’s but a small sample of his work. Brewin has been at his trade in a professional capacity for 30 years, his first forays in the medium dating even farther back.

“I’ve just always been fascinated with blacksmithing ever since I was a kid,” Brewin said.

Brewin’s grandfather was the president of a shipyard. The sheer quantity of steel and machinery and boats, matched with an old blacksmith at the yard, grabbed Brewin’s attention. He put his metalworking fascination to use after seeing the film version of “Moby Dick,” learning how to make harpoons in the backyard — a pastime he doubts his parents knew much about.

As a grown up, Brewin first tried to make it with a more traditional occupation, teaching and working as a school guidance counselor in Elizabeth City Schools near the North Carolina coast. He hated it, and soon seized on the opportunity to head across the state to the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown to take a class on blacksmithing.

Brewin’s work earned him the position as the school’s resident blacksmith. However, the majority of his training came within a six-week period spent in Colorado with master blacksmith Francis Whitaker, who himself had studied with the famous Philadelphia art smith Samuel Yellin and Germany’s Julius Schramm.

Brewin started his own shop in 1972, going on to do work for the Newbold-White house in Hertford, one of the oldest houses in the state, forging 18th century style hardware for several private homes and creating custom andirons and fire tools for the Western Residence of the Governor in Asheville. He also partnered with blacksmith Joseph Miller to create the spring and stream garden gates at the N.C. Arboretum in Asheville.

After spending nearly three decades as a blacksmith, Brewin began contemplating a career switch and enrolled in a Mountain Microenterprises Fund small business development course with friend Deiter Kuhn. The plan was for the two to open a brewery together. It was in that class that Brewin met young designer craftsman, Owen Hutchinson.

A native of New Mexico, Hutchison came to the area after learning about the Campbell Folk School and the Appalachian Center for Craft in Tennessee. He had previously studied under the tutelage of a Texan metalsmith, spending 70 hours a week working for room and board.

Hutchinson hoped to open his own forge in North Carolina, first getting into graphic design to raise the funds and creating logos for Sylva businesses Spring Street restaurant and In Your Ear music store.

With their similar interests, Hutchinson and Brewin had a sort of peripheral knowledge of one another, but the small business development course brought them together and Brewin out of contemplating retirement.

Today, the two use a barbershop analogy to describe their blacksmithing co-op Plum Orchard Forge. Brewin owns it, and Hutchinson essentially rents a chair. They work together on large, custom ordered projects, but also have the freedom to explore their craft independently. For example, Hutchinson plans to launch his own furniture line within the next couple months.

But the duo’s most lucrative projects are those that are custom made, such as fireplace screens and stair railings.

“A lot of what we do has actually got to serve a function,” Brewin said.

A majority of their work comes from the Highlands-Cashiers area, and Lake Toxaway. Referrals come by word of mouth.

“You’ve got more work than you can deal with or you’ve got nothing,” Hutchinson said of the load. “If their stocks aren’t doing real well, then they get nervous and don’t buy big fancy iron work.”

The problem is that today’s steel is more difficult to use than previously. About 90 percent of it is recycled and may not be mixed well, resulting in different textures and levels of hardness within the same piece of metal. And as most of the steel comes from overseas, shipping costs have driven up the purchase price.

Blacksmiths once worked with wrought iron, a relatively softer material, but now there are few who know how to make it. Historically, the blacksmithing guild has been one of the more closed, secret societies. Members were sworn to protect the guild. But for at least one unlucky blacksmith, his loyalty cost him the ultimate price.

Upon the creation of the hardware for one of the doors at Notre Dame cathedral in France, church leaders noticed that each of the rivets bore an identical rendering of a face. The church leaders demanded to know how the blacksmith created the identical faces, but sworn to guild secrecy, he would not tell them. In turn, the church leaders accused the blacksmith of practicing witchcraft and burned him at the stake.

The reality was that the blacksmith had created a mold with the impression of the face, into which he could hammer his iron.

Now, the blacksmithing trade is one of the most open in terms of crafters sharing their processes, Brewin said. Such sharing helps facilitate the learning process, an important part to continuing to develop one’s work.

“You can’t stop learning,” Brewin said. “I couldn’t live long enough to know everything about this I need to know.”

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