Forging a Link to the Past
January 19, 2016
Text by Lisa E. Harrison Photography by Trevor Reid
Keeping the craft of blacksmithing alive is a passion for the husband-and-wife team who own Hammersmith Studios.
On an autumn day outside the workshop of Hammersmith Studios, modern life proceeds apace. Office workers and creative types mill about on lunch break, Starbucks in hand and smart cars parked nearby. Inside the charming, single-story, cinderblock studio, another story unfolds. It’s a tale that takes us back in time and stars a craft practiced by our early American ancestors.
It’s here that blacksmith team Carl Close, Jr. and his wife, Susan, ply their trade, transforming strips of metal into works of art that will be around for generations to come. They relish their role, their relationship with the past. And, in fact, not much has changed since the craft’s heyday. The trade, the tools, the techniques—“You’re working in the spirit and style of a time,” says Carl. “We work to preserve and keep the tradition alive.”
The two wear jeans and work shirts; earplugs to dull the sound of hammer on steel dangle around their necks, and a layer of fine black dust covers their hands. At the far end of the studio, Carl is on deadline. He’s finishing hinges, push plates, and door pulls for a church set to open in a few weeks in Illinois. He’s already logged hundreds of hours, from the initial sketches and samples submitted to the architects, to the fabrication.
The process takes patience. Lots of it. First, he textures the metal with a hammer, giving it a nice, aged feel. To make it malleable, Carl heats it to a blazing 1,800 degrees in a coal-fired forge that he made himself. “That’s what’s cool about blacksmithing,” he says. “You can make everything you need. There’s a sense of self sufficiency.”
Once a section of the metal is red-hot, he has forty-five seconds to shape it before it cools. “It’s a constant dance in and out of the fire,” he says. The anvil sits near the forge, and tools—chisels, tongs, punches, pliers—hang within arm’s reach so that he can make every second count.
Carl’s interest in blacksmithing dates back decades; when he was eight years old, he’d watch his father, who learned the trade via his job at a sawmill. To further his education, Carl read books from the 1890s and 1900s. He worked as a welder after he got out of the Navy, then pursued blacksmithing full-time. He and Susan started Hammersmith Studios in 1993.
On this day, Susan pieces together an exterior vent grill, as decorative as it is functional, for a Boston-area home. “She does her thing and I do mine,” says Carl. “Then we bounce ideas off each other because each eye sees things differently,” Susan says.
The Closes split their time between restorations and new commissions, working in copper, mild steel, bronze, and sometimes aluminum. It’s common for them to have three or four projects going simultaneously and to log seven-day workweeks. New works range from tables, chandeliers, and staircases to exhaust hoods, railings, and lighting fixtures. Restorations include gates from the Malden Public Library, a cross from the Society of St. John the Evangelist, and a gate from Harvard.
Restoring ironwork is not an easy task. Most of the great artisans considered the tricks of the trade proprietary. Secrets were passed down in families, “and many people died with those secrets,” says Susan. “You have to get inside the heads of these craftsmen and see how they made it,” adds Carl.
Their ability to do just that has racked up many accolades for them, including a 2012 Lucy G. Moses award from the New York Landmarks Conservancy for work on the Hamilton Grange National Memorial, a 2015 award from the Connecticut Trust for Historical Preservation for restoration of the Saybrook College gates, and a 2014 Bulfinch Award from the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art, as well as recognition from the Cambridge Historic Preservation Commission for a balcony railing for the Harvard Lampoon building.
It’s not just technical prowess that’s led to this level of success; it’s passion. On their honeymoon, the couple visited Samuel Yellin, in Philadelphia, the twentieth-century’s foremost iron artisan. And they’ve never stopped studying. They continue to
hone their craft, refine their legacy. “The masters of the past haunt us—in a good way,” says Susan. “We are carrying on a tradition,” adds Carl, who says he often asks himself what some past master would think of his work. “It keeps the bar high.”
And it keeps an important link to the past alive and thriving. •