Gary Hart is looking for people with the wright stuff.
In his spare time from his family’s plant nursery business, the Port Allen man taught himself how to be a blacksmith. When he’s not making decorative ironwork, he likes making new blacksmiths.
This spring, Hart held a two-day blacksmithing workshop at the West Baton Rouge Parish Museum barn. Using heat and hammers to reshape metal is so fundamental to human history that entire eras are named for it — the Bronze Age, the Iron Age. Even in the iPhone Age, knowing how to use an anvil and forge has a nice ring to it.
“There are a lot of … amateurs who think it’s cool,” Hart said. “They watch all those TV things, ‘Forged in Fire’ and that type of thing. … I’m self-taught. It took me five years to figure out what the heck I was doing.”
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Hart’s inspiration for taking up this hobby was Cary Long, who had an antique shop in Baton Rouge that included colonial-era iron work. The skill and beauty of it impressed Hart, who became further interested when he saw J.S. Fairchild hold blacksmithing demonstrations at the LSU Rural Life Museum.
Hart was hooked and has been for 30 years now.
The 73-year-old has traveled to Europe several times looking at ironwork for further inspiration. And he's turned his hobby into a money-maker, producing stair railings and light fixtures for interior designers.
“I look at stuff that was made between the mid-1600s and late-1800s, a 250-year span, and it totally fascinates me that they were doing all this stuff (with) hand tools, a lot of tools that they made themselves,” he said. “It’s just gorgeous stuff.”
Many of the items he’s seen, however, are too labor-intensive for him to recreate.
“My crew is me,” he said.
While Hart isn’t the area’s only blacksmithing enthusiast, he doesn’t know many others. Once, a woman called the museum wanting to donate a ton of coal that her late husband had used in his forge.
“That was a job loading and unloading it by hand,” Hart said. “I said, ‘What’s he doing with all this coal?’ ‘Oh, he was making knives.’ A lot of people like to make knives. ‘How many knives did he make?’ ‘Two.’”
That’s the same number of students who came to Hart's latest class, where they were introduced to the most fundamental aspects of heating an iron rod, hammering it flat and using a notch in the anvil to bend it. He tells them the colors they need the iron to turn — red, orange, yellow, white — to achieve various tasks.
“I like making things, so it’s interesting for me to try it,” said James Suter, 50, of Port Allen, who has visited the colonial section of Williamsburg, Virginia, where he saw a blacksmith working on a black-powder rifle.
“Since I saw that, I’d like to try to make a rifle," he said. "They said it took about five years to make one, and that’s with experience. It’s going to be interesting, once I learn this aspect, to see if I want to continue to try to do this. Otherwise, making ornamental stuff will be nice. If my wife likes it, it’s going to be fun to do.”
The other pupil was Bryce Dupuy, 17, of Central, who wants to learn how to make a knife. His father and grandfather attended the class to watch.
“He’s interested, so I’m interested,” said his dad, Chris Dupuy. “Anything that gets him off the (video) games, I’m for.”
Hart holds these workshops whenever the WBR Museum finds two people willing to learn the skills. The museum is adding a woodworking shop on the other side of the barn from the forge and hopes to find someone who can demonstrate and teach how to use the old hand tools.
“The museum is trying to get more interest in history, how it all connects with what is going on today,” Hart said. “We get a lot of kids with the cellphones. We’re trying to teach them there’s something besides TVs and cellphones.”