Blacksmith artists mold steel like clay

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SHERIDAN — Blacksmith artists create functional artwork such as ornamental architectural iron work, knives and horse equipment such as bits and spurs. The limit to what can be made from a piece of metal is only limited by the artist’s imagination.

Unlike machinists, who cut things out of metal, blacksmiths heat steel in a forge, move it and manipulate it like clay. They start small and expand by adding to it by forge welding. The shape of the metal is changed by using heat to distribute the mass into different directions.

Basically, whatever you can do with a piece of clay you can do with a heated piece of metal, it just means you have to figure out how you are going to move the metal to make it do what you want it to do, Bomar Blacksmith, Inc. owner Duane Bomar said. Planning is a large part of the process.

Kristin Magnusson | The Sheridan Press
Duane Bomar uses coal to heat metal for his forge welds.

Bomar has made sculptures using knots and architectural hand railings with twists along the railing so your hand doesn’t slip. In addition, he forges knives using different sources of metal, including a large mine machinery bearing or a railroad spike.

Kristin Magnusson | The Sheridan Press
Kevin Willey uses an antique forging hammer to flatten a piece of steel.

KAW Rawhide & Steel owner Kevin Willey said heated steel is manipulated with different styles and sizes of hammers, and is held using different sizes and styles of tongs. The tongs are vital to hold the hot steel securely so it can be hit and moved around.

Willey has four antique forging hammers, each standing more than 7 feet tall and differing in the size and weight of the ram that mash the steel. They range from a 250-pound ram to a 25-pound ram. Each hammer is set up for a specific purpose. He also has a hydraulic press that moves iron differently than the hammers.

“I can move from one to another without having to make changes each time,” Willey said. “I have them set at different heights and weights for certain operations I’m doing.”

Both artists create things, especially knives, with Damascus steel, which is pattern welded, layered steel with designs in it. Multiple alloys of steel are stacked in layers and then forge welded together. The different alloys in the steel, such as carbon or nickel, are manipulated to create designs.

The layered billet, created by welding the layers together, is heated, stretched, cut, stacked or folded depending on what the result will be. The layers are manipulated by hammering, twisting, grinding, cutting and pushing through the layers then re-forging, distorting them to create a desired pattern. The pattern can be random or a very controlled mosaic.

The final product needs to be either acid etched or heat blued to bring the pattern out, otherwise you can’t see it. Bomar said he uses ferric chloride for etching.

Etching uses an acid that eats the different layers of steel away at different rates. Some layers have a higher carbon content or a higher nickel content so they etch at different rates. The same way if you heat blue them, they color at different rates, showing patterns in blues, purples and golds. The patterns revealed can look like snowflakes, feathers, animal hair, ladders or whatever the imagination sees.

Both artists found their interest in metal working in high school. Bomar took welding classes in high school and Willey worked in a machine shop.

Bomar said he took welding classes at Sheridan College and became friends with his instructor, the late Lloyd Rummel, who introduced him to forging by teaching him to make his first knife.

Bomar enjoys blacksmithing for the satisfaction of accomplishing something; building something using a piece of raw metal that is manipulated into a functional shape. He also enjoys the opportunity to meet people from all over the world and learn new techniques. As a member of Artist Blacksmith’s Association of North America and the American Bladesmith Society, he has traveled to England and all over the United States for conferences and classes.

Bomar and some friends have started a group called Wyoming Artist Blacksmiths. They get together periodically to do forge work, and participate in demonstrations to make people more aware of what forge work is and to teach techniques.

Willey got his start fixing broken farm machinery, such as harrows, broken axles and bent shafts. After high school, he bounced from ranch to ranch all over the country helping with brandings or filling positions for a cow camp man. He started making his own bits and other piece of horse equipment because he knew what he wanted and how he wanted it to work, but had trouble finding someone to make it for him.

He moved from South Dakota and worked for Joe Lytton of Sheridan Iron Works until Lytton retired. At that point, Willey decided to open his current shop, where he works to create unique pieces, including his specialty one-piece Damascus bits and spurs.

By |April 13th, 2017|

About the Author:

Kristin Magnusson grew up in a rural town near Louisville, Kentucky. In 2003, she moved to Denver to earn a bachelor’s degree in multimedia studies and broaden her horizons. In 2009, Kristin moved to Sheridan , where she worked in video, as a ranch hand and veterinary assistant. In April 2016, she started a new adventure at The Sheridan Press.

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