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September 25, 2003

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• Meet a modern-day blacksmith

Meet a modern-day blacksmith

By Sheryl Lechner


Behind the facade of a warehouse-like building on Route 7, John Graney is keeping alive the art of blacksmithing.

This is the home of John F. Graney Metal Design, the ironwork business he relocated to the Berkshires in 1998. Along with his four full-time employees, Graney designs and creates ornamental and architectural works out of steel, from candlesticks to railings and driveway gates.

The atmosphere in the workshop is what you might expect: loud. The men heat steel in two forges, one propane and one coal, before shaping it and adding detail. And while machines are involved in the process -- a large power hammer, for instance, that adds textural markings to the metal -- much of the work is still done using age-old techniques and the blacksmith's most basic tools, hammer and anvil, and a strong arm.

Graney's creations are a far cry, however, from such ironworking basics as hooks and fire pokers. Photos in the shop’s small display room show some of the pieces Graney and company made for the Mohegan Tribal Housing Authority in Connecticut, a two-year project. The highlight is a spectacular metal staircase railing with 36 plants and 28 animals, all indigenous to the tribe’s native lands and important to their culture, and all formed from steel. Fish swim near the bottom of the stairs among cattails, vines wind through the middle along with beaver, rabbit and otter, while at the top an eagle spreads its wings with meticulously sculpted feathers.

The project also included the creation of a massive 26-foot entrance gate, complete with a 14-foot-tall tree that divides in the middle when the gate is opened. A wavy line of metal that scrolls across the bottom of the gate was taken from a motif found in tribal beadwork.

But the high level of crafting is equally apparent at the small scale.

Showing a visitor around the shop, Graney picked up a pine cone sitting on a table. It's not until you look closely that you realize the cone is made of steel. Graney described how it was created from a long rod of steel, with each seed fashioned individually in a row, then the whole wound together in a circle to form the cone.

Virtually all the company's work is by special order and custom-designed; there is no walk-in retail business to speak of. "We’re called architectural blacksmiths," said Graney. Their products include gazebos, trellises, railings, gates and fences, and smaller items such as fireplace tools, end tables and chandeliers.

Roughly half their customers are from the Berkshires, said Graney, with the rest from the New York and Boston metropolitan areas, Catskills, Connecticut and Long Island. His clientele is frequently well-to-do, but not always. One area couple renovated their kitchen and ended up with an awkwardly-shaped space above their cabinets. Graney said he was able to build them a hanging pot rack "for not a whole lot of money" to make the space useful.

The company also does welding and repair work for local metal sculptors and for antiques dealers, who sometimes need repairs on pieces such as Art Deco wrought iron. "Most of the stuff that we do, you can't even find the right tools for. We have to make our own tools," Graney said.

Graney likes to pull out books on well-known metal artists of earlier eras to make a point or show how a style has influenced him. The books, filled with photographs of glorious wrought iron gates and balconies and railings on building from centuries past, show his own connection to the history of a craft that has a very long history. In one book on French blacksmith Edgar Brandt, Graney points out the acorn and pine needle motifs that he has incorporated into some of his own designs. While men like Brandt may not be household names outside the fields of blacksmithing or architecture, the art, at its highest levels, compares favorably to the Renoirs on display at the Clark Art Institute.

Graney said he got into the blacksmithing field by a "total fluke." "I was heading off to be a scientist or a plant pathologist," said Graney, 50, who lives in Great Barrington with his wife and two children. A New Jersey native, he studied agriculture at the University of Wisconsin, and after graduating in 1975 took a job at an orchard.

"All the machinery broke down that fall, and they sent me to welding school," where, Graney recalled, he saw a copy of a blacksmithing newsletter called "The Anvil's Ring.” That captivated him more than the welding, so he sent letters to the 300 or so members listed in the newsletter, seeking an apprenticeship. Graney traveled around the country learning the trade from shops in Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon and other states. Some were industrial shops, while others were run by "art student graduates who were trying it out.” One place specialized in metal work for churches: crucifixes, hinges and candlesticks.

By the fall of 1976 Graney landed "15 miles from where I started" in Wisconsin working for a blacksmith named Bob Bergman, a transplanted New Yorker and former film student who had himself bought a shop on a whim from an old blacksmith who taught him the ropes.

"It took me about three years until I was confident in what I was doing," Graney said. After a failed attempt to start his own business, and another apprenticeship in Texas, Graney finally got his own shop off the ground in Wisconsin. "By now I could shape animals and craft leaves,” he said, and make a living on the craft fair circuit. He made mostly housewares like hooks, lamps and paper towel holders; his biggest client, a store in California, ordered $40,000 a year of merchandise.

But the interest in wrought iron home accoutrements had also gotten the notice of the huge home store chains beginning to thrive in the 1980s. Said Graney, "By '86 the writing was on the wall," with home stores mass-producing the small-end products more cheaply than an individual blacksmith ever could.

Graney decided to seek a different niche. He set out to learn more about engineering and construction so he could build gates and stairs. In 1987 he landed a journeyman's position with Artist Blacksmith Association of North America, a national trade association, which sent him to study in Europe for a year. Upon his return Graney became an artist-in-residence at a New Jersey craft center, teaching and arranging workshops by master craftsmen.

"They let me hire anyone I wanted from around the country," so Graney had the chance to further his own learning. Five years later he struck out on his own, and soon landed his first $100,000 contract for custom work on a private New Jersey home.

Graney relocated to Sheffield in 1998; ironically, this South County town is generally thought to have been named after its namesake in England, best know for its steel factories.

Since coming to the Berkshires, Graney has moved into mostly high-end custom work, although they do still make hearth tools, like their fireplace pokers adorned with the heads of rams and stags. On one recent day, blacksmith Rich Wansor was working on a large gate with acorns and oak leaves. The gate is being made using all 19th-century techniques, with mortise and tenon joinery instead of welding. Wansor repeatedly heated a steel bar in the coal forge -- the pungent smell of the coal smoke wafting through the high-ceilinged shop -- then hammered it on an anvil, heat and hammer, trying to achieve the perfect size openings for gate's metal pickets to slip through.

Nearby, Sherwin Victor burnished a large brass handrail with an electric grinder, spraying a cascade of sparks. The whir of ventilation fans, grinder motor, clanging of metal hammer on steel and the FM radio station all melded into a noisy but somehow pleasing blend.

Victor has been with Graney for nine years, relocating here with him from New Jersey. The staff is rounded out by his brother, Sheldon Victor, and Marc Palumbo; Palumbo and Wansor are both design school graduates.

"They're the ones that put it all together," Graney said of his staff. His role is largely sales, design and making prototypes, often sculpting design elements in clay.

Most pieces produced in the shop begin with 20-foot-long bars of steel stock, three tons of which -- in different thicknesses and shapes -- fill one wall from floor to ceiling. Some components are pre-cut, like oak leaves that Graney designs and has cut by a shop with specialty tools. The blanks can then be shaped and detailed to fit a given job.

In all cases, the crafting begins with heat. The steel (which is the element iron, refined with other metals) is heated to temperatures that Graney described by the color of the hot metal: dull red is about 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit, while bright yellow-orange is up to 2,200 degrees, a few hundred degrees below its melting point.

"When we work at the temperatures that we do, it gets very plastic," he said. And dangerous. "Oh yeah, I've got a nice scar on the side of my chest” from a burn, Graney said.

But the allure of creating things from steel is great. "The idea of taking this cold steel, and making it into something" with a tangible connection to his customers' lives is part of what makes the business exciting, Graney said. For one couple that wanted a fireplace screen, for instance, he incorporated into the design metal replicas of leaves from trees they had planted in memory of their late parents.

While there are no other large-scale commercial blacksmith shops in the county, there are many individuals who are trained in blacksmithing and practice it on a small scale or as a hobby.

William Senseney of Williamstown, who has been coordinator of the blacksmith program at Hancock Shaker Village for 30 years, helped found a regional blacksmith group called Berkshire Blacksmiths. The group, said Senseney, has more than 300 members in Western Massachusetts and neighboring areas, both hobbyists and professionals. It meets regularly at varying shops and also serves as a referral network for smith work (Graney will be hosting an upcoming meet). Senseney also runs an extensive, ongoing series of blacksmithing classes at Hancock Shaker Village, including classes for young people (for information on classes and Berkshire Blacksmiths contact Brian Emery in Chester, 354-9656).

Graney, too, does outreach with young people, working with 4-H clubs, ninth-grade students at Rudolf Steiner School in Great Barrington, and taking on the occasional apprentice.

Staying in touch with the community, said Graney, is critical, "because it's what will provide the next generation of blacksmiths, and the next generation of customers."

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