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Dave Martin - Irons in the Fire: Our Village Blacksmith
Systems Engineer Dave Martin is, to paraphrase Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, our Village Blacksmith. Twenty or so years ago, he needed to bend a part for his 1963 Harley. “I made a forge out of an old truck brake drum, an electrical box, and a fan from a junkyard, plus some miscellaneous plumbing. I am still using that forge today,” explains Martin. He then became active in various blacksmith guilds and schools. He is fond of the Touchstone Center for Crafts in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, which Martin believes has “the best smithie or blacksmith shop in the country as well as many master blacksmiths.”

According to Martin, “Blacksmiths are some of the friendliest people in the world. Blacksmithing needs patience so blacksmiths are always willing to stop and talk.” Martin explains that “blacksmiths don’t have storefronts so you don’t see them. But it is still an in demand craft especially for very nice homes, churches, and community halls.” In fact, there is an annual gathering of thousands of blacksmiths in Ohio.

No doubt due to his engineering background, Martin says, “I like to make nice looking, functional objects. There is definitely an engineering side involving structure and function. But there is also an arts side too. Most blacksmiths try to marry the two. For now, my engineering side is better than my arts side.” The engineering side does have limits. Explains Martin, “At NASA, from drawing to end, everything is controlled down to the milliinch. In blacksmithing, you don’t have to worry about everything in every step being perfect. In the end, you can always do something to make things fit.”

Martin has made such objects as curtain rods, garden gate latches, towel racks, door pulls, book ends, table legs, and lots and lots of hooks. He does not have a favorite piece.
Dave Martin at work at his anvil
Dave Martin in his blacksmith shop in his backyard. Credit: D. Martin
“Every piece,” says Martin, “has certain nice things about it – the extremities, the negative space, the symmetry – every piece is my favorite piece.” As an example, Martin’s towel hook has a surprising twist. The hook is a long, wavy tail, but the top is a dragon’s head based on his dog’s head.

Two of Dave's creations - a hook with a dragon's head and an ornate lamp. Two of Dave's amazing creations -- one is a hook that sports a dragon head and the other is an ornate lamp. Credit: D. Martin

Martin uses the three classic blacksmithing tools: a forge, anvil, and post vise. He also has many jigs, or molds, of negative shapes used to make particular shapes such as leaves. Says Martin, “When steel gets to a nice cherry orange temperature, it basically becomes the consistency of clay so I practice with clay first. The order of how you do things is very important for shaping; otherwise your later step deforms your earlier one.”

Every time he enters his shop, which is in a shed he built in his backyard, he has a project in mind. First, he sets up a coal fire. “Each session lasts a minimum of three or four hours. It’s not for immediate gratification,” explains Martin. He adjusts the amount of coal in the fire pot and the air speed from the fan under the pot to control the amount and location of the heat.

A table created by Dave Martin› Larger image
Dave's creation. A beautiful table with iron legs. Credit: D. Martin
Modern blacksmiths use steel, not iron. While he welds some pieces, he carefully hides any welds and hammers all the surfaces. Interestingly enough, says Martin, “If you want a round shape, you start with stock steel that comes as a square rod. If you want a square shape, you start with stock steel that comes as a round rod. That way you hit every surface.”

He further explains that steel can burn. “The smallest piece at the end gets hottest the quickest. If you’re not careful, it will burn right off. You can tell the heat by the color of the steel. After bright yellow is white or forge welding heat. Just a little above that, it’s gone.”

Blacksmith pieces are understandably expensive. “Not to worry,” says Martin, “I’m happy to make you a blacksmith piece if “you marry into my family. Making presents for family and close friends keeps me busy.”

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Elizabeth M. Jarrell
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.