Metal forging is just cool. You get to light an intensely hot fire, melt metal until it’s dripping and moldable, and then transform it into a completely different shape with an altogether distinctive function. And did I mention fire?
That’s what Mike Garrett of Black Hammer Forge, Inc. does, and he enjoys every minute of it. Self-taught before the age of how-to video clips, Mike makes a living changing metal into something beautiful, functional, or both, creating a new story from the raw material.
He stumbled onto this passion accidentally. Needing a job, he started working for a metal fabricator in West Allis, WI, and from there grabbed a forge and some smithing tools. He taught himself how to light a fire and began changing metal into different forms and absolutely fell in love with it.
“Most of the old-timers were gone, the people who forged for a living. There was nothing on the internet yet, so I learned by trial and error. Took a class here and there, learned through doing.”
After it began as a hobby, 18 years ago Mike started a full-time venture in Helenville, WI, with his wife, who handles the business side of things. They don’t have a website, their Facebook page is bare. His social media presence includes a vintage-looking business card that he printed himself on his home computer that includes the name of his business, an address, and a phone number. How does he get work?
Mike gravitates towards smaller to medium pieces like intricate railings or fireplace tools, all hand-forged. The correct noun for a person forging metal is “smith”. Iron is a metal that turns black when heated, thus the term “blackmith” came to be used. But smiths, (or smithys) also work with steel and tin. Mike is a real- life smithy, and looks the part (think Sam Elliot, mustache and all). While forging, he mostly listens to older country and western like The Charlie Daniels Band or maybe some John Prine- music that lends itself to strong fire and melting metals.
Like any artisan worth their weight, Mike knows a lot about what he’s doing. He’s a wealth of knowledge about different forging techniques and tools, the variety of metals and what they’re best for, the history of metal arts and style trends.
“In the past, anything steel was highly prized, wrought iron was considered more primitive, crude. Now it’s in high demand, it’s what everybody wants. They’ve refined the process for making mild steel, a workable metal, with a lower carbon content, for bridges, cars, beams.”
He buys his metal from old lumberyards or from local metal suppliers, and has a contagious low-grade enthusiasm about finding the perfect piece of metal for a project.
“The selection of sizes is infinite, that you can find something at the iron store that’s close enough and hand-forge it down to size. You can change it so it’s unrecognizable, but the same essentially.”
Mike will be live at Heritage October 24 forging small pieces. Demonstrations begin at 4:30, along with a happy hour and a blues band. Open to the public.