Fire & Brawn

It was blacksmiths who forged the first weapons and tools from metal millenia ago. Today, blacksmithing is an art form.

By Joohee Muromcew ∙ Photography by Cole Buckhart

Just for full disclosure, during our interview at his shop in Hoback Junction, master blacksmith and artist Steve Fontanini gave me a little gift. I admit this up front because I am totally charmed by it: It’s a small steel leaf the size of a half-dollar coin, with the subtle detail of a center vein and the stem a tad curved. In the past, Fontanini has made hundreds of them at a time for decorative detailing on yards of gatework and railings. He smithed it for me while we talked, firing up his gas-fueled forge. “This makes noise,” he softly warned before a thunderous blast of sound, heat, and light had me touching my eyebrows to make sure they were still there.

A rod of steel sourced from Idaho Falls went into the forge until the end to be worked turned a bright orange, indicating a temperature of about 800 degrees. Just “hot” would be a dull red, and veteran blacksmiths like Fontanini can judge the temperature simply by color. I nearly dropped my notebook and pen when he picked up the “cooler” end with his bare hands. Having just burned my hand while picking up a hot saucepan over the holidays, I winced at this otherworldly tolerance to pain. “It’s not that hot,” he gently protested.

“This makes noise,” he softly warned before a thunderous blast of sound, heat, and light had me touching my eyebrows to make sure they were still there.

The rod was dipped in water to slightly cool, and then Fontanini began pounding it against an anvil. It was really loud; many of the shaping tools can easily weigh more than your average bowling ball. The rod was returned to the forge, and after four more rounds of heating, hammering, and shaping, a leaf shape began to emerge. With a smaller hammer, he tapped in the curved stem and the center vein. Fontanini polished it with an oil finish. And then, a delicate aspen leaf appeared in my palm, a little talisman of hard work and artful creativity. The artist Michelangelo said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” Fontanini discovered an aspen leaf inside a rod of black steel and a roaring fire.

He explained that some in the trade merely cut patterns out of sheets of steel or “customize” prefabricated products with hammered or machined textures. But true blacksmiths work with a raw material and shape it with the power of fire and brawn. His shop is filled with mid-century and older machinery that looks like it’s out of the Industrial Age, some of which he uses to produce anvils for other blacksmiths.

Fontanini’s work for clients mostly entails making gates and railings, fireplace accessories, and some furniture. His creative work is currently represented by a gallery in Cody, and he was the 2010 recipient of the Best Artist—Metal award at the Western Design Conference.

Despite technological advances in so many other parts of the building trade and arts, blacksmithing is having somewhat of a revival, and Fontanini’s face lights up when he talks about how he’s kept that fire burning.

Every commissioned project begins with a long discussion and, ideally, a visit to the client’s home. Fontanini gets a feel for their aesthetic and for the scale of how his work will fit into an existing or potential space. He sketches. Clients stop by to see examples of work. And then, by any definition, it is a feat of extraordinary artistry and strength to forge even small-scale projects. When I visited, a massive gate-and-railing project for a client in Kansas was taking shape in his shop—more than thirty-five feet of railing and three gates, every post, newel, and joint smithed by hand.

Fontanini is one of those soft-spoken people who can make themselves heard without shouting, even over the deafening pounding of his industrial hammering machine. He spoke about his early days as a farrier, traveling around the world to shoe racehorses, and recalled the many apprentices he’s trained over the years. Despite technological advances in so many other parts of the building trade and arts, blacksmithing is having somewhat of a revival, and Fontanini’s face lights up when he talks about how he’s kept that fire burning.

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