The hip Belltown neighborhood of Seattle is an eclectic mix of old and new, where the last remnants of seedy bars and artist enclaves are uncomfortably tucked between new high-rise luxury condos and trendy restaurants. While the streets are becoming lined with high-priced boutiques, one particular alley of Belltown still retains its former bohemian allure.
Nestled amongst spray-painted murals and dumpsters is a purple door with a wrought iron gate. Above it perches a rusted metal skeleton pounding on an anvil. In the doorway a massive Rottweiler sits sentry, while the strains of Hank Williams’ lonely croon float in the air, mixed with the clink and ring of metal on metal. You’re at Black Dog Forge, where an ancient art is practiced in the middle of a city famous for cutting-edge technology.
The Forge, in its current incarnation, consists of blacksmiths Louie Raffloer and Mary Reid Gioia. Raffloer started the Forge in 1991. Originally a photographer, Raffloer was out one day drumming up work when he stumbled across a neighborhood blacksmith’s shop. He was instantly hooked. Most blacksmiths would agree that it’s an art that chooses you, rather than the other way around; Raffloer took a job in the shop, where he learned the foundations of his current profession. He eventually opened a few small forges before finally settling down with Black Dog.
Smithing goes back to ancient times, yet was almost rendered obsolete during the Depression as many big clients of blacksmiths went broke. The rise of mass-produced objects pounded another machine-made nail into the coffin. After languishing for decades, blacksmithing began a national resurgence in the 1960s and 70s, when artisan-made objects became fashionable, and grew steadily through the 90s as clients (many of whom made their fortunes in the tech boom) began to get more money and a taste for exclusively made items.
Gioia picked up smithing much the way Raffloer did. Originally a custom upholsterer and sewer, she too first watched blacksmithing and became entranced. She wrangled herself some time at Black Dog, trading labor for time and instruction at the forge, and hasn’t looked back since.
When asked about her initial attraction to working with metal rather than material, she laughs, “I liked that you could make really evil-looking stuff! Besides, it’s sexy as hell.” (Raffloer concurs, “It’s a good conduit for a hyperactive ego because you have access to things other people can’t do — it’s romantic.”)
Which isn’t to say it’s without a downside. “We bleed or burn on every job we do,” says Gioia, although not without a teeny note of pride.
Since she began working with the Forge in 1993, Gioia’s devotion to her craft has yielded a portfolio of work both functional and decorative, ranging from full bed frames entwined with sinuous black metal vines and leaves, to art-deco-meets-rock-and-roll iron necklaces, and, with Raffloer, even a huge iron railing for a castle in Mexico.
When discussing their training, both Gioia and Raffloer say the same thing: it’s a job that’s learned only by dedication and plain trial and error. “You really kind of teach yourself. Everyone learns as they go along and no one ever stops learning,” says Raffloer.
A typical day at Black Dog might include a consultation with a client. “Obviously, handcrafted is more expensive than something at Restoration Hardware. But often people not only want the exclusivity of something handmade, they also enjoy the experience of working with an artisan to create something unique for their home,” says Gioia. She might visit a client’s house to gain insight into the client’s tastes or to spy design elements that could be used in the commissioned piece. She then does three different sketches and lets the client choose one or decide if it should be modified.
Once the design is set, the actual forging of the piece starts. Materials are picked up, and often a template is drawn on a piece of wood to check for accuracy, especially if there are multiple elements that need to exactly match. In the case of, say, a curtain rod with decorative finials, Gioia also makes the brackets used for installation, and might use a jig (a forming tool) to ensure that measurements and angles are the same on each bracket.
Sound intriguing? Want to try it yourself? “In all honesty, you could set up a shop for under $1,000,” says Raffloer. “Basically you need a hammer of any kind [Raffloer has been known to even bust out an occasional claw hammer to get the metal to do his bidding], a hunk of good steel over 100 pounds to act as an anvil, and a heat source.” You can make a forge using firebrick, and Raffloer recommends using propane or natural gas to keep the fires burning: “Coal is romantic but impractical.”
Any other advice for the budding blacksmith? “Yeah, get a significant other with a good job!” says Gioia jokingly. “There is a big learning curve, but it could be a good hobby, especially if you already have experience with metalworking.”
Perhaps the most rewarding aspect, beyond creating the work itself, is the idea that it will exist long after you do. Gioia says, “Theoretically, everything I make could be around for thousands of years. I’m making the antiques of the future.”
» Black Dog Forge: blackdogforge.com