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Forging on the River Young artisans revive an ancient craft at the National Ornamental Metal Museum Story & Photos by TONYA THOMPSON


T’S A COLD DECEMBER DAY NEAR THE RIVER, BUT inside the smithy at the National Ornamental Metal Museum, Timothy Shaeffer’s forge burns at 1,800 degrees

Fahrenheit so it’s safe to say he’s not feeling the chill. Picking through the dark rock, his hands dusted black, Shaeffer explains the secret to getting metal hot enough to bend and twist it. “Instead of gas we use a high-grade type of coal,” he says with a distinct Midwestern accent. “Think about wood and charcoal—wood has all the water and impurities and doesn’t burn that hot, but once you have charcoal, it burns 10 times hotter. Same thing here.” The forge that Shaeffer is operating burns a coal known as coke, and it looks more like black rock than the typical charcoal found at a backyard grill out. This fuel is almost completely carbon and burns as hot as 3,000 degrees. Schaeffer places a four-sided, elongated piece of metal across the flames and

Missouri, where the nearest Wal-Mart was an hour-and-a-

waits patiently for the metal to heat, checking it periodically

half’s drive away. “My dad was a machinist and growing up on

to note its color. First red, then orange, the metal at its peak

a farm, you’ve always gotta’ fix stuff,” he says, while striking

temperature would turn yellow then finally white, although

the hammer against the glowing metal in a decided rhythm

for this piece, Schaeffer removes it somewhere between

without missing a beat. As it turns out, he made the hammer,

orange and yellow. “Our temp working range for steel is

too. “I like a lot of traditional type work like Colonial work

around 1,500-1,900,” he says, while moving the glowing piece

and tool making. You just make your own tools as you go and

quickly to the anvil. “Anything hotter than that and you start

sometimes you make a tool that no one else has.”

damaging the steel.”

At 25, Shaeffer is part of a growing trend of young craftsmen

Part artist, part craftsman, Shaeffer credits his interest in

seeking to revive an old craft that seemed to die out as

metalwork to his experiences growing up on a farm in rural

everything turned digital. The old way of doing things might not be the easiest, but according to this young artisan, it’s still the best. “You learn to look at something, really look at it, at all the different angles, and focus on details.” Shaeffer is one of three ‘artists in residence’ at the world’s only museum of contemporary metalwork with rotating exhibits. Located on the banks of the Mississippi River just a few miles southwest of downtown Memphis, the museum was opened in 1979 and built on the grounds of the old U.S. Marine Hospital that was, by then, a dilapidated property that the City of Memphis was happy to lease out. Since that date, the museum’s buildings—including several exhibition spaces, a smithy, and a foundry—have housed classes, master metalsmiths and apprentices, all dedicated to the craft and art of metalwork.

18 JANUARY 2015 | Click magazine

Profile for Click magazine

Click magazine | January 2015  

Click magazine | January 2015