Clear
23°
Clear
Hi 53° | Lo 30°

Metal Comes To Life

Barnard Blacksmith Inhabits Two Worlds

  • Blacksmith Greg Clasby pounds a piece of iron to make a bottle opener with a leaf ornament in his Living Iron Forge in Barnard Thursday, October 3, 2013. Clasby, who defines himself as a nerd, got interested in blacksmithing as a kid going to rennaissance fairs and eventually tried his hand at making his own knife.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Blacksmith Greg Clasby pounds a piece of iron to make a bottle opener with a leaf ornament in his Living Iron Forge in Barnard Thursday, October 3, 2013. Clasby, who defines himself as a nerd, got interested in blacksmithing as a kid going to rennaissance fairs and eventually tried his hand at making his own knife.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

  • An order of drawer pulls still to be finished sits on the work table of blacksmith Greg Clasby in Barnard Thursday, October 3, 2013.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    An order of drawer pulls still to be finished sits on the work table of blacksmith Greg Clasby in Barnard Thursday, October 3, 2013.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

  • "Making presents from the past for the future," has been written by Clasby on the rack that holds his hammers and other tools in Barnard, Vt. Thursday, October 3, 2013.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    "Making presents from the past for the future," has been written by Clasby on the rack that holds his hammers and other tools in Barnard, Vt. Thursday, October 3, 2013.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

  • A recently completed dragon bottle opener sits next to another in progress in Greg Clasby's Living Iron Forge in Barnard Thursday, October 3, 2013.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    A recently completed dragon bottle opener sits next to another in progress in Greg Clasby's Living Iron Forge in Barnard Thursday, October 3, 2013.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

  • Blacksmith Greg Clasby refines the detail on the head of a dragon that will adorn one of his bottle openers at his Living Iron Forge in Barnard earlier this month. "I make antiques, because I want whatever I make to still be here in 500 years," said Clasby.  <br/>Valley News - James M. Patterson

    Blacksmith Greg Clasby refines the detail on the head of a dragon that will adorn one of his bottle openers at his Living Iron Forge in Barnard earlier this month. "I make antiques, because I want whatever I make to still be here in 500 years," said Clasby.
    Valley News - James M. Patterson

  • Blacksmith Greg Clasby pounds a piece of iron to make a bottle opener with a leaf ornament in his Living Iron Forge in Barnard Thursday, October 3, 2013. Clasby, who defines himself as a nerd, got interested in blacksmithing as a kid going to rennaissance fairs and eventually tried his hand at making his own knife.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • An order of drawer pulls still to be finished sits on the work table of blacksmith Greg Clasby in Barnard Thursday, October 3, 2013.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • "Making presents from the past for the future," has been written by Clasby on the rack that holds his hammers and other tools in Barnard, Vt. Thursday, October 3, 2013.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • A recently completed dragon bottle opener sits next to another in progress in Greg Clasby's Living Iron Forge in Barnard Thursday, October 3, 2013.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Blacksmith Greg Clasby refines the detail on the head of a dragon that will adorn one of his bottle openers at his Living Iron Forge in Barnard earlier this month. "I make antiques, because I want whatever I make to still be here in 500 years," said Clasby.  <br/>Valley News - James M. Patterson

In his Barnard shop, lit by fire from his forge and by autumn sunlight pushing through his window, Greg Clasby is building a dragon.

He’s preparing to, at any rate, pulling a steel rod from his gas forge, walking it over to an anvil and pressing the rod’s orange-hot end to it. The forge blasts on, filling the shop with a persistent, vacuum-like whine. Clasby, a stout guy with a shoulder-length ponytail and gray hairs that run through his beard like cracks in pavement, holds a hammer at head-level.

He pounds the rod. Flecks of steel crack and split off.

This — the garage-style shop, the 150-year-old anvil, the array of old-school techniques — is Living Iron Forge, Clasby’s name for his one-man blacksmithing company. He has worked out of his shop, tucked away on a dirt road in Barnard, since 2009, when he moved to the area from upstate New York.

The dragon, when finished, would be added to the wares Clasby sells at farmers markets, objects such as crafted knives and rose-shaped pins, all made with an eye toward a medieval blacksmith’s technique. Even if Clasby takes some shortcuts in his crafting — using an electric grinder instead of a hand crank grinder, for instance — he said a blacksmith from 500 years ago could look at his work and understand how it was done.

“In my world, it’s kind of about what the overall piece requires,” Clasby said, noting that some throwback blacksmiths are much more traditionalist than he is.

Business-wise, Clasby’s love for old instruments and methods works in his favor, as he said people are looking for hand-crafted fences, gates, champagne buckets and more, perhaps as a pushback against the cyber-everything of today. It’s a rebellion against material conformity similar to what occurs during periods of industrialization.

On this recent afternoon, Clasby had just returned to Vermont after a trip up to Portland to help a fellow blacksmith and was building his stock back up. Several finished drawer pulls sat on his workbench, with a large pile of unbent metal nearby, ready to be turned into more pulls.

Not all of his projects are small, farmers market offerings; in fact, he said, while displaying his wares at a recent Bethel market, those events are more for networking than selling. Much of Clasby’s business comes from contracting jobs, building fences, railings and gates, all with his own personal touches. Dragons figure heavily into his work; so do leaves and other organic material, all cast from metal.

Three years ago, not long after Clasby touched down in the Upper Valley, he hooked up with Joann and Larry Ference, a Barnard couple who were building a house. He ended up forging them wrought-iron railings, a bracket for a hanging light and, last winter, a wood rack for the side of their garage.

“He’s incredibly artistic, has a lot of really great thoughts about how to solve unique issues in a creative way,” Joann Ference said. “He has ways of making function look beautiful.”

Blacksmith’s Beginning

Clasby had pounded the metal rod into something beginning to resemble a dragon’s head, and then cut the piece off by hammering it atop a wedge that fits into the hole in the anvil. The featureless dragon was, suddenly, just several inches long.

“This one’s ready to go into the vice,” Clasby said, strapping it in and hammering an awl into its head to form eyes.

He’s made countless versions of these dragons in his smithing career, which started about 13 years ago with a simple, ingrained love of all things historical, specifically Renaissance Faires. He’d gone for years as a patron — and gone to Williamsburg, Va., and watched old war movies with his family when he was young — until one day he decided he wanted to harness the spirit of that period to make his own dagger.

“So I made my own,” he said. “Just like that.”

He did have a background in working with materials, but not necessarily blacksmithing. He was drawn to it, though, as it’s one of the only trades that can make its own tools. He made his own tongs, and then a forged a Scottish dirk knife from mild steel.

When he started, he realized he had found his vocation, a trade that connected with his deepest interests .

“All these childhood memories came back,” he said.

Within a few years, Clasby became the blacksmith in that same New York fair he used to frequent. In 2006, the TV show American Chopper visited; he ended up constructing fender stays for a motorcycle that appeared in an episode.

He had long wanted to move to Vermont, though. In the late 1990s Clasby had attended Goddard College in Plainfield, Vt., where he fell in love with the state.

In 2009, he set down roots in Barnard with Secoya, his Norwegian Elkhound.

He’s since been in network-building mode, meeting local builders and craftsmen and contributing work to various projects. Some of his work is on sale at Unicorn in Woodstock, and he’s set up at the Bethel Farmers Market, Mt. Tom Farmers Market in Woodstock and the Fable Farm CSA pickup in Barnard.

Back in the shop, it was time to make the dragon’s mouth, so Clasby grabbed a decidedly modern-looking hacksaw. The tool wasn’t something that an old-time blacksmith would necessarily have access to, he said, but his method would achieve the same effect.

Clasby cut the gas on his push-button forge, and the sounds of public radio leaked into the shop. He worked the saw. Then he took the dragon out of the vice and brought it around the workbench to his electric grinder.

“Why do I use a modern grinder?” he said. “Because I can.”

Sparks flew. After a few seconds, the piece was changed to Clasby’s satisfaction. He put it down, and retreated to a side room.

He returned with a hand-crank grinder. “This would be the 19th century technology,” he said.

He walked over to a rack of hammers and other tools. “All the way back to the beginning of metalworking, there’s the file,” he said.

A hardcore traditionalist might chisel a file, then use the file to make a knife, but Clasby said he doesn’t feel the need to use such methods if he can get the same hand-crafted result with a slight technological upgrade.

“It’s just a different level of insanity for me,” he said.

Forging Ahead

Last winter was the first one Clasby was able to spend as a full-time, self-employed blacksmith. It was the first time since 2000 he didn’t have to get a separate winter job, say, operating a forklift or doing warehouse inventory. Business was slow and money was tight, but he made it through.

He’s planning to continue the trend this winter, when people largely stop thinking about construction, by taking overflow work from his blacksmith friend in Portland as well as working on a few other projects. Perhaps he will use extra time afforded to him by the slow season by forwarding his own dreams, such as an anvil-shaped motorcycle sidecar that could unfold into a small, operational blacksmith station for live demos. The idea has been kicking around in Clasby’s head for the past 15 years. He has a drawing of it on his shop wall, near other “random neural firings” drawn on pieces of paper.

Spencer Lewis, a musician and stonemason who lives in Barnard, recalled building steps for a client and having Clasby build a railing for it. He said Clasby had a sort of “seat of his pants” operation that nevertheless produced a satisfactory final product.

“There was never a minute that I thought that he didn’t know exactly what to do, that’s for sure,” Lewis said.

Clasby’s intimate knowledge of his trade comes out quickly, as does his familiarity with seemingly tangential parts of it. He can trace the lineage of one of his anvils, which was built in the mid-19th century, and describe how, exactly, it was put together. He can give a remarkably detailed explanation of the printing press, and how the German blacksmith Johannes Gutenberg came to invent the transformational machine.

The dragon’s face was taking shape.

“Now I’m going to open up this guy’s mouth,” Clasby said, placing his chisel in the dragon’s mouth and hammering it, then bending the head with a pair of pliers. “That should open beer.”

Clasby bent the metal away from the head, forming a squiggly tail. He applied a generous layer of paste wax, giving the dragon a bit of a shine, and set the completed bottle opener on his workbench.

Jon Wolper can be reached at jwolper@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.