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Blacksmiths still burning bright

April E. Clark
Post Independent/Kara K. Pearson
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CARBONDALE – An older man dressed in denim – a navy blue handkerchief stuffed in his back pocket – tends to a blacksmith’s fire. He sprinkles Borax over the glowing orange-hot coals, moving them around with a metal poker. Smoke rises up the forge’s hood as the man, James Honig of Hondo, Texas, flips on a fan switch.An age-old tradition was still burning strong at the Rocky Mountain Blacksmithing Conference XVI in Carbondale.

“I’m guessing most of you are here because you’re against the mainstream culture of the production of goods,” said speaker Peter Ross during his presentation on 18th century tool-making methods Thursday afternoon. “For some people, the more irregular (the tool), the better. That’s a reaction against industrialized society.”Blacksmiths and metalsmiths from across the country are converging on the Colorado Rocky Mountain School campus to learn more about the craft, share experiences as artists and even compete a little.”They’ve come from all over the nation, but we’ve got a number of blacksmiths from Colorado,” said Gordo Stonington, an organizer of the event. “We do this everysummer.”A blacksmith artisan and teacher from Virginia specializing in historic restoration and reproduction work, Ross showed his technique in iron forging to the docile crowd of 60. He spoke of learning from blacksmiths who were old-time compass makers.

“The old guys I talked to, they were compass makers. I bet they made a 100 a week, easy,” he said.Pinging resonated in The Mountain Forge blacksmith barn as Ross shaped hot metal with a wood-handled hammer on an anvil to make his own compass. Outside, raindrops dripped lightly and sporadically, keeping the temperature cool inside the soot-peppered space.”I use a lot of mild steel and raw steel because these were materials used 200 years ago,” Ross said. “The stuff we’ve made (at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation) is typical small-town farm tools, small trade tools, everyday tools.”

Stonington, who has taught blacksmithing at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School for 27 years, was eager not to miss Ross’ presentation during the three-day conference. The annual event is dedicated to Francis Whitaker, Stonington’s mentor, teacher and friend who died in 1999, and for whom the Colorado Rocky Mountain School’s blacksmith school is named. He was a famous blacksmith in California before moving to Aspen and becoming the school’s artist-in-residence in the ’80s.”My relationship with Francis Whitaker was he was like a second father to me. He wasn’t like a second father to me – he was one,” Stonington said.Along with a large color photo showing Whataker hard at work forging, his hand-crafted iron work is displayed in the school’s gallery. A clean white, pink, brown and orange quilt sewn by Whitaker’s wife, Portia, a master seamstress, hangs next to an iron cross behind one of his classic fireplace sets.Listen long enough and you might hear the ping of his hammer on iron.


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