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These days, the work of blacksmiths ranging from artistic to utilitarian

| Saturday, April 27, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Blacksmith Jymm Hoffman, 53, of Ambridge works on making nails for a canon carriage being made for the historical Fort Meigs in his forge in Ambridge.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Blacksmith Jymm Hoffman, 53, of Ambridge works on making nails for a canon carriage being made for the historical Fort Meigs in his forge in Ambridge.
Bob Wessel cleans off a tool bit at the Wessel Tool & Mfg. Inc. in Espen Wednesday, April 17, 2013.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Bob Wessel cleans off a tool bit at the Wessel Tool & Mfg. Inc. in Espen Wednesday, April 17, 2013.
Bob Wessel straightens a tool bit at Wessel Tool & Mfg. Inc in Esplen Wednesday, April 17, 2013.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Bob Wessel straightens a tool bit at Wessel Tool & Mfg. Inc in Esplen Wednesday, April 17, 2013.
Bob Wessel straightens a tool bit at the Wessel Tool & Mfg. Inc in Esplen Wednesday, April 18, 2013.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Bob Wessel straightens a tool bit at the Wessel Tool & Mfg. Inc in Esplen Wednesday, April 18, 2013.
Blacksmith Jymm Hoffman, 53, of Ambridge holds nails he made for a canon carriage being made for the historical Fort Meigs in his forge in Ambridge.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Blacksmith Jymm Hoffman, 53, of Ambridge holds nails he made for a canon carriage being made for the historical Fort Meigs in his forge in Ambridge.
Artist Chris Holt of Sewickley hammers out a steel mushroom at Steel Welding in New Sewickley.  She was making a customized piece.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Artist Chris Holt of Sewickley hammers out a steel mushroom at Steel Welding in New Sewickley. She was making a customized piece.
Artists John Steel of New Sewickley and Chris Holt of Sewickley hammer out a steel mushroom at Steel Welding in New Sewickley Friday, April 19, 2013.  The two were making a customized piece.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Artists John Steel of New Sewickley and Chris Holt of Sewickley hammer out a steel mushroom at Steel Welding in New Sewickley Friday, April 19, 2013. The two were making a customized piece.
Artist Chris Holt of Sewickley heats up some steel in a coal forge at Steel Welding in New Sewickley Friday, April 19, 2013.  She was making a custom piece.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Artist Chris Holt of Sewickley heats up some steel in a coal forge at Steel Welding in New Sewickley Friday, April 19, 2013. She was making a custom piece.
Artists John Steel of New Sewickley and Chris Holt of Sewickley create a customized piece at Steel Welding in New Sewickley. Friday, April 19, 2013.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Artists John Steel of New Sewickley and Chris Holt of Sewickley create a customized piece at Steel Welding in New Sewickley. Friday, April 19, 2013.
A watering can compost bin made by Chris Holt of Sewickley and John Steel of New Sewickley.  Taken Friday, April 19, 2013 at Steel Welding in New Sewickley.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
A watering can compost bin made by Chris Holt of Sewickley and John Steel of New Sewickley. Taken Friday, April 19, 2013 at Steel Welding in New Sewickley.
Artist John Steel of New Sewickley, Beaver County, and Chris Holt of Sewickley make steel mushrooms for a custom piece in John Steel's welding shop in New Sewickley, Friday, April 19, 2013.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Artist John Steel of New Sewickley, Beaver County, and Chris Holt of Sewickley make steel mushrooms for a custom piece in John Steel's welding shop in New Sewickley, Friday, April 19, 2013.
Artist Chris Holt of Sewickley creates a steel mushroom at Steel Welding in Freedom Friday, April 19, 2013.  She was making a custom piece.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Artist Chris Holt of Sewickley creates a steel mushroom at Steel Welding in Freedom Friday, April 19, 2013. She was making a custom piece.
Compass Inn will offer live music, children's games and cooking and blacksmithing demonstrations during the Ligonier-area Free Museum Day on May 6. Here, Dave Byers of Ligonier Township works at the forge during a 2012 blacksmithing demonstration.
Tribune-Review
Compass Inn will offer live music, children's games and cooking and blacksmithing demonstrations during the Ligonier-area Free Museum Day on May 6. Here, Dave Byers of Ligonier Township works at the forge during a 2012 blacksmithing demonstration.
Larry Wessel puts a head on a pin at the Wessel Tool & Mfg. Inc. in Esplen Wednesday, April 17, 2013.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Larry Wessel puts a head on a pin at the Wessel Tool & Mfg. Inc. in Esplen Wednesday, April 17, 2013.
Bob Wessel trims off an end piece of a tool bit at Wessel Tool & Mfg. Inc. in Esplen Wednesday, April 17, 2013.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Bob Wessel trims off an end piece of a tool bit at Wessel Tool & Mfg. Inc. in Esplen Wednesday, April 17, 2013.
Blacksmith Jymm Hoffman, 53, of Ambridge holds a degree in museum studies, specializes in historical blacksmithing and is currently working on a carriage for a canon being made for Fort Meigs in Perrysburg, OH.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Blacksmith Jymm Hoffman, 53, of Ambridge holds a degree in museum studies, specializes in historical blacksmithing and is currently working on a carriage for a canon being made for Fort Meigs in Perrysburg, OH.
A watering can compost bin made by Chris Holt of Sewickley and John Steel of New Sewickley.   Taken at Steel Welding in New Sewickley Friday, April 19, 2013.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
A watering can compost bin made by Chris Holt of Sewickley and John Steel of New Sewickley. Taken at Steel Welding in New Sewickley Friday, April 19, 2013.
Blacksmith Jymm Hoffman, 53, of Ambridge carries steel rods into his forge in Ambridge on Wednesday, April 17, 2012.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Blacksmith Jymm Hoffman, 53, of Ambridge carries steel rods into his forge in Ambridge on Wednesday, April 17, 2012.
Blacksmith Jymm Hoffman, 53, of Ambridge works in his forge in Ambridge on Wednesday, April 17, 2012. Hoffman got into historical blacksmithing once he got involved historical reenacting around 1975.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Blacksmith Jymm Hoffman, 53, of Ambridge works in his forge in Ambridge on Wednesday, April 17, 2012. Hoffman got into historical blacksmithing once he got involved historical reenacting around 1975.
'It really comes from a love of history,' says Jymm Hoffman, 53, of Ambridge, on his path to becoming a historical blacksmith. Some of Hoffman's tools lay on a table at Hoffman's Forge in Ambridge on Wednesday, April 17, 2012.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
'It really comes from a love of history,' says Jymm Hoffman, 53, of Ambridge, on his path to becoming a historical blacksmith. Some of Hoffman's tools lay on a table at Hoffman's Forge in Ambridge on Wednesday, April 17, 2012.
Blacksmith Jymm Hoffman, 53, of Ambridge, is silhouetted against the forge and window in his Hoffman's Forge in Ambridge on Wednesday, April 17, 2012.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Blacksmith Jymm Hoffman, 53, of Ambridge, is silhouetted against the forge and window in his Hoffman's Forge in Ambridge on Wednesday, April 17, 2012.
Bob Wessel cools off a tool bit at Wessel Tool & Mfg. Inc. in Esplen Wednesday, April 17, 2013.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Bob Wessel cools off a tool bit at Wessel Tool & Mfg. Inc. in Esplen Wednesday, April 17, 2013.

Blacksmithing in the 21st century remains close to what it was when it was mentioned in the Book of Genesis.

“It is hammer, an anvil and fire,” says blacksmith and fabricator John Steel of New Sewickley, Beaver County.

But the job and results are far from the work of the village smithy.

Steel's work focuses on art, such as a wall hanging now under design that will be iron pages of a book depicting the owners' lives and interests. He also recently completed a copper baptismal font for Greensburg's Blessed Sacrament Cathedral.

James A. (Jymm) Hoffman creates historically accurate Colonial pieces from the carriages of cannons to items as simple as nails and tent stakes. He will appear at Fort Ligonier's Colonial Culture, Customs and Craftsmen celebration May 5.

Larry Wessel makes wrenches, railroad uncoupling devices, heavy jackhammer bits and asphalt cutters at his Wessel Tool & Mfg. in the city neighborhood of Esplen.

Red Star Ironworks started in Oakland in 1999, moved to Millvale in 2006 and now has operations in West Virginia and Mexico, doing what founder Peter Lambert calls “architectural-design metalwork.”

Notice no one is doing horseshoes. In the 19th century, farriers began to specialize in horse work, leaving other iron jobs to blacksmiths. Blacksmithing has changed from when the smith not only made shoes, but also pots and pans, hinges for doors and gates for property.

But interest in it has not. The Touchstone Center for the Arts in Farmington, Fayette County, gets 80 to 100 students for twice-yearly series of classes teaching smithing from the basics to high-level, ornamental work, says Adam Kenney, the site's director.

“The process is really compelling,” he says of shaping iron with heat. “There is a great, physical element to it, and the return is pretty immediate.”

There also are 275 members in the Pittsburgh Area Artists-Blacksmiths Association, which Steel formalized in 1988. It covers smiths in the tri-state area.

Modern blacksmithing sometimes resembles the classic work of the village smithy, but can be greatly different, too. Red Star's Lambert, for instance, says “blacksmithing is just part of what I do with metal.”

Wessel's industrial work comes close to the practical jobs handled in the old shops. Asphalt cutters, for instance, start as a 4-inch cylinder of steel before a flattened nose is pounded out.

Sometimes old-style work needs equipment the same age. Wessel uses a 1900-era Hossfield Bender to put the curve in railroad uncoupling hooks.

“Why would you put stress on your back when you have machines?” he says with a grin.

Modern technology has little place in this craft that some historians date to before 450 B.C. Such tools as the Hossfield Bender and a lathe from 1938 in Wessel's shop are more common than his digital read-out that gives precise measurements for drilling or an induction heater that can crank up to 1,850 degrees of heat in 47 seconds.

But those tools are more for his industrial-aimed tasks. Smaller jobs are centered on the area Steel compares to the “work triangle” in a kitchen. Instead of the stove-sink-prep area, this one is the anvil-fire-vise space where the blacksmith can move from one task to the other.

Steel's shop has that triangle, but it also is filled with equipment that can help him do finer work such as creating simulated record albums for the wall-hanging.

He is sure Hoffman, whom he considers an “excellent” blacksmith in the classical sense, would not even consider him one. Hoffman agrees, but says Steel is a much finer fabricator than he is, so Steel can tackle projects Hoffman would have to pass.

“I'm a lousy fabricator,” he says.

The focus of these craftsmen determines their clientele.

Steel, for instance, says he deals mostly with individuals who are searching for pieces of art or iron fencing for a property. He says he and business partner Chris Holt, a designer who also is a smith, then try to create something “site-specific.” Their products range from $250 to $30,000 or more.

Holt is a retired art teacher from Shadyside Academy in Fox Chapel and does most of the design work for the firm. But she has learned to work at the forge, too.

Steel and Holt also do some commercial work such as the baptismal font or a fireplace door at the Porch restaurant in Oakland that is meant to look like a blast-furnace door from a mill. The door won a gold-prize award from the National Ornamental and Miscellaneous Metals Association, a Georgia-based trade association.

Meanwhile, Hoffman's clients are places such as Fort Ligonier, which he calls his biggest single client in the past 10 years. He also has done work at Fort Pitt and now is working on a gun carriage for Fort Meigs near Toledo, Ohio.

Hoffman got involved in metalworking in shop classes in high school in Ohio and went to what is now Salem University in West Virginia for a degree in heritage arts, a program that would let him shape his forge work, he says. The field of study was changed into a more-academic-sounding museum studies, but it all helped him meld history and blacksmithing work. He spent two years working at Old Fort Niagara north of Buffalo as interpretive program manager and opened his Ambridge forge in 1999.

John Steel came into smithing and forge work after more than 25 years as a union iron worker, first at a mill in Monaca and then as a member of Local 3 of the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers. He heard about the work of the Artist Blacksmiths Association of North America and took his work that direction in 1986, also forming his own artist-blacksmiths' group.

He says he was one of the first members of his family to leave farming near Freedom, where they settled before 1830.

Blacksmithing and forge work run a direct line through the Wessel family. Larry Wessel's grandfather, Albert, came from Germany and opened a forge first on a barge in the Allegheny River and then next to it on the ground near where the David L. Lawrence Convention Center is.

He then moved the shop to the Perrysville area of Ross. Larry's father, Elmer, opened the current forge work in 1962 in the South Side, and Larry moved it to Esplen in 1984-85.

From creating historical replicas to jackhammer bits, blacksmithing seems to offer its practitioners a career they find comfortable. Steel remembers his days in the Monaca mill.

“I said, ‘There must be something else in life other than welding coal bins,' ” he says.

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bkarlovits@tribweb.com or 412-320-7852.

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