Interview with Louie Raffloer, blacksmith

Craft & Design Workshop
Interview with Louie Raffloer, blacksmith
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I recently did an email interview with blacksmith Louie Raffloer of Seattle’s Black Dog Forge; I also visited the forge to see a demonstration of his induction forge. The shop is an amazing place, with a huge assortment of equipment, art, anvils, and racks bristling with tools – a collection that’s obviously taken years to acquire. Blacksmiths make everything – forges are built with fire brick, tools are forged in the shop, everything is very hands-on. Black Dog Forge does commission and art pieces ranging from beds, tables, and other furniture to door hinges, gates, and masks. Louie also teaches classes in repoussé, a surprisingly delicate process that creates a raised design on sheet metal and uses no heat.

Working metal is a process that takes an eye for reading the heat in the metal and a lot of finesse. There’s a certain amount of working time after you heat a section of metal that depends on a number of factors: the type of metal, the thickness of the piece, how hot it is, and your skill and speed. The act of hammering can sustain the heat – you can actually hammer a cold piece of metal and create enough heat to light a fire. Black Dog has traditionally used natural gas and propane for forging, but Louie demonstrated his electric induction forge – it can heat a metal rod to red hot working temperature within seconds. It’s really a revolutionary tool for the blacksmith – it heats very specific points on your work without heating up the whole work area, it heats FAST, and it uses considerably less energy than traditional methods. The video above shows the heating (and subsequent breaking) of a piece of pipe – you can see how quickly the small section got red-hot.

When did you start blacksmithing, and what did you like about it that made you want to learn more? How did you learn?
I began my career in blacksmithing quite accidentally in 1991. I had taken a summer off of working in what had been a marginally successful career in photography and magazine production. I had been dabbling for the previous 15 years in a variety of creative adventures that surrounded those things, and when I discovered a job that I was encouraged to get dirty, I knew I had finally found my vocational home. With a fistful of dollars that I made working on a movie set doing art department graphics, I bought my first welder. With this tool I discovered that I had little competition, even at a beginner level, to make a lot of very cool stuff that was beyond the technical reach of other artists who were still gluing stuff together. When I refer to “other” artists, I mean myself mainly. This new way opened a lot of doors, not the least of which was the door of my first metal related employment, at a blacksmith shop in a basement in Pioneer Square. Getting the job at that shop was one of the many reasons I am certainly the luckiest person I’ve ever met. Excelling at it is something that any highly motivated person with an inclination towards creativity can achieve.

Looking back, do you see things you did as a kid, or interests you had, that led up to becoming a blacksmith?
The only thing I can trace back to being a kid that applies to what I’ve become is that I was always planning things. To put it into a couple of words I’d say that the seeds of my abilities now were rooted in problem solving. Whether it was a prank, an elaborately constructed act of mischief, a way to print tee shirts, or make my camera shoot pictures around corners, or whatever; if you’re a young reader and you like figuring out how to do things, then forging metal is one of a lot of things you can be successful at.

What non-blacksmithing skills come in handy?
I guess the easy answer to that question is that all skills, intelligently executed, are good basics for the metal arts. There are a couple of skill sets that separate blacksmiths from each other though. Blacksmithing is a very science oriented art. In the same breath, I’d include mathematics as a close ally to natural sciences. With a good foundation, and true love for these subjects, a forging student will grasp onto concepts more quickly. Many good blacksmiths can be very productive with these inclinations, but it’s the smith that is an artist, a true artistic soul that really excels; these are less common. I’ve trained artists that have taken their first heats in my shop, who have gone onto being blacksmiths that I look up to because of the real beauty in their work. As blacksmiths we elevated artists to the top of our ranks, but we all share the same thrill of creating beautiful things from a seemingly unyielding material.

What do you make? Do you have favorite types of projects?
I’ve been very fortunate to have developed a reputation that keeps my phone ringing with a huge variety of projects. There is no typical project that comes through our door. While there is usually a very creative job to do (i.e., a gate, a fire screen, a mirror frame, etc), I also do functional problem solving and repairs. The quality of this work is something I’m relied on for, and really enjoy. I like to honor the tradition of the village blacksmith by taking on all jobs metal. I’m usually very busy with a creative project but consider it very important to maintain a functional existence in my community. When my friend at the restaurant down 2nd Ave. needs a pot fixed, I drop what I’m doing and help get them back in business. Using my unique skills to either get a gorgeous project out or help the frantic print shop manager keep the presses rolling are my favorite ways to work a day.

Can a kid do it? Where can someone learn?
While I do not know of any schools that offer programs to young people, I do know that most blacksmithing organizations in this country welcome families that have kids. There is a large and growing community of blacksmiths around the world that have regular demonstrations of the craft. I’ve seen parents with their wide-eyed children at these events and can’t help to wonder how the things they are seeing will influence their artistic direction. A kid seeking this information may want to google ABANA (Artist Blacksmith’s Association of North America) to find their local chapter. There is a world of information out there and a good start is checking out the internet for websites and discussion groups. I am an active member of the Northwest Blacksmith Association and find that a valuable resource.

What kind of fuel do you use?
Although the first thing a person visualizes when they think of a blacksmiths shop is a roaring open fire belching out coal smoke; the modern blacksmith more often uses fuel gases of some form. In our shop we mostly use natural gas or propane. Coal is a lot of fun and many professionals use it, but it not practical in an urban shop.

A new type of forge is currently winning popularity among smiths that have not constrained themselves to rigid standards of tradition. It is called an induction forge and works by creating a magnetic field inside the metal. It is the safest and most efficient forge I’ve ever used. Nothing gets hot except the metal and then only in the areas that you configure the machine to heat. Words cannot convey the amazement in the eyes of anyone who’s seen ours working; it’s a modern wonder. There are uses and limitations to all our methods of heating metals.

Do you use different kinds of metals? How hot does the metal have to get before you work it?
We mainly use steel but occasionally use copper, bronze and even aluminum. These metals all have ideal ranges of heat at which they can be forged. Steel is best forged at a temperature of around 2000 degrees Fahrenheit . We actually work it between 1600-2100, but it’s best to work it hotter to avoid strain on wrist and elbow joints. The non-ferrous metals (the ones that contain no iron) have more narrow ranges at lower temperatures and are fragile if those ranges are not adhered to.

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