September 5, 2013 | Vol. 117 -- No. 20

Keeping alive the long lost art of blacksmithing

John Huffstutter has found a soft place in his heart for hardened steel.

Paul Delaney
John Huffstutter gets a piece of steel during a recent show he did at Cheney’s Craft Stampede.

The Cheney-area resident is a blacksmith in his spare time away from his 9-5 job as the budget director for the Community Colleges of Spokane. The 51-year-old first discovered the craft at a very young age he said.

“When I was about five I went to Colonial Williamsburg for the first time, then about 30 years later I went back,” Huffstutter said. “I saw these guys working in the dark with glowing metal and I thought that might be cool to try sometime.”

When Huffstutter’s prior career in the U.S. Air Force moved him to Fairchild from his assignment at the Pentagon, his wife allowed him to realize that dream by purchasing a blacksmithing lesson from a smitty in Portland.

“I suddenly realized there were guys out here doing this,” Huffstutter said. “There’s actually quite a few of them,” associated either nationally with the Artist Blacksmith Association of North America or the regional version, the Northwest Blacksmiths Association.

They were turning out some amazing art, Huffstutter said. “I got hooked.”

It’s a hobby but a serious one for Huffstutter who takes squared off shafts of steel and turns it into intricate art.

“You don’t realize how you can work metal, especially solid metal,” he said. “When you heat it up it almost becomes like plastic. You can push it with a hammer and mold it just like modeling clay.”

The mild steel he uses comes out of the fire at 2,000 degrees.

“You can make it flow and be graceful as opposed to the sharp angles a lot of people associate with metal,” said Huffstutter, who crafts all kinds of art, and more, from his business, Quailside Artisans.

Ideally, Huffstutter would use wrought iron. “Wrought iron doesn’t exist anymore; nobody makes it except as a specialty item,” he explained. “Something that’s 100-years-old, it’s probably wrought iron.” Wrought iron is an iron alloy with a very low carbon content.

Huffstutter is a blacksmith, but not a ferrier, or a horseshoer, he explained.

“Being a ferrier is kind of a subset of blacksmithing,” Huffstutter said.

In the old days the blacksmith would have been the ferrier. “Everything, he would have been working with the cabinet maker, the gunsmith,” he said. “With anything that needed metal he would have been the one producing it.”

Nowadays blacksmithing tends to be more specialized. “I like to make cabinet hardware and the decorative, useful items,” he said.

“I’ve found that smashing, or smooshing, a crescent wrench and folding it up on itself makes a kind of a cool candlestick holder for the man cave for emergency lighting,” he said.

Corkscrews are fun to make because he uses a 3-pound hammer, a 200-pound anvil and a 12-inch long hunk of steel all to make something that looks so delicate when it’s finished.

“I just turn one end into a wire and harden it and it becomes a corkscrew,” he said. Huffstutter usually uses a piece of steel long enough where he does not need tongs to hold it.

The other end he can decorate with leaves, spirals or whatever. The process takes 45-90 minutes.

At shows, such as the recent Cheney Craft Stampede Huffstutter had groups of people stop by his booth and watch the process of heating, pounding, cooling and starting the process all over again.

When Huffstutter is at shows he uses coal to heat metal. That’s more for looks rather than efficiency. “I use that at shows because people like to see the fire.”

“Ordinarily I use a gas forge which is nothing more than a fairly simple burner but a large one,” Huffstutter said. “Those things heat up to 2,500 degrees or so.”

Coal is a more localized heat, he explained. It heats a smaller portion of the metal, which is good because a blacksmith can only work so much of the metal at a time.

While blacksmithing is a craft something Huffstutter would like to see as many people do as possible, finding the essential tools presents a challenge.

Anvils are like hens teeth to find, he said. “There are people who collect them and hoard them; then there are those of us who collect them and use them.”

But once a budding smitty locates the tools “It’s easy to get hooked on,” he said. “And it opens up a world of possibilities.”

“Blacksmithing is as much mental as physical,” Huffstutter said. “The smith has to visualize what he wants to make then reverse-engineer every bend and blow, planning how to put it together like a complex 3-D math problem.

With a variety of modern steels, bronze, copper, aluminum, even titanium, smiths get technical quickly. “It used to be get it hot and hit it hard, but now there is a strong element of hit it smart, too,” Huffstutter said.

Paul Delaney can be reached at pdelaney@cheneyfreepress.com.

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