HUNTLY, VIRGINIA – Nol Putnam forges wind from iron, his hammer metronomic at 2½ strikes a second, steel against iron against anvil. The angle of the peen and the force of his follow-through shape hot metal the way a rolling pin pushes pastry.
Putnam, 80, has been creating art from iron for more than 40 years. His hands are strong, his shoulders broad, his hearing damaged by the clang and the clatter. Flying sparks have burned constellations into his beret and shards of metal have scarred his skin, yet he awakens each day excited to return to his fire.
Hot like this, the crystalline molecules of the metal slide past one another and re-form under Putnam’s tools as delicate petals and leaves, or as soaring swoops and swirls that cantilever out over broad bases. In the sculpture garden outside his White Oak Forge in Huntly, Virginia, 90 minutes north of Charlottesville on rollercoaster roads, the 7-foot-tall West Three Wind circles back on itself three times before shooting back through all three layers and off toward the distant sky. It is part of his series Lines In Space, some of the sculptures man-sized and some small enough to sit on a table, and all inspired by the childhood books by Thornton Burgess, whose Old Mother West Wind is depicted as lines that eddy off toward the horizon.
“When you’re doing something like that you have to worry about not just the physical engineering of how it’s going to stand up and who’s going to come play on it,” Putnam says, “but then how is that negative space or the space you’ve defined going to look to the eye?”
The sculpture weighs about 400 pounds, yet Putnam made it alone, heating the metal in his 3,000-degree forge, drawing the curves in chalk on the primitive platen table and bending the metal to meet them, then pounding it with both a mechanical air hammer and his own strength and persistence. For weeks he shaped component parts, then lay each out on blocks on his smithy floor, sometimes using a crane to manipulate them into position, sometimes welding them to the bucket of his tractor in order to keep them in place.
Today he is working with pure iron imported from England – “like forging butter, relatively,” he says, using tongs to hold a finger-width rod into the fire. Pure iron has a fibrous grain like that of wood, which makes it easy to stretch and bend and shape. Add a little carbon into the latticework of the iron and you create steel, a material much stronger but also more rigid, and thus harder to transform into items of delicate beauty.
Putnam turns a rheostat that controls a fan that blows air through the hot coals, the bellows long gone. He pushes the green coal to the edges of the fire with a toothless rake and pulls more coke toward the center. The rake was the first tool he ever made, and he uses it every day, all day, its handle smooth in his calloused palm. On the side of the forge are a pair of tongs he made himself, and a pair given to him by his mentor. There’s a center punch, too, salvaged from the smithy of his best friend when he died half a decade back.
The iron glows red, itself nearing 2,200 degrees, and Putnam carries it to the anvil and begins his rhythmic pounding, each strike precise.
“People come in and say, ‘Oh, you’re such an artist,’ which is very flattering,” he says, “but what they don’t understand is that it’s about 90 percent practice and only 10 percent genius. In any profession you develop the skill by practice, and that’s what most people don’t do.”
Indeed, his former mentor would give beginners a two-by-four with an X drawn on one end, and only when they could hit the X each time with the center of their hammer were they allowed to work with iron.
Putnam strikes the end of the rod 43 times to bring it to a point, then returns it to the fire.
Both the building and the fire that is the heart of the building are called forges, although the building can also be called a smithy. This is Putnam’s seventh, the design winnowed by him from what worked in the ones that came before. There are skylights over the anvil for natural light, and broad windows that frame birds and trees and the pond that separates his workshop from his home. The chimney rises 22 feet – the higher the chimney, the better the draw; the better the draw, the hotter the fire. The Venturi effect pulls ash and smoke up the chimney and out of the shop. The floor is 4-inch-thick reinforced concrete; his pneumatic hammer sits on a massive block of wood that rests on its own 4-foot cube of concrete, set deeper than the building’s footers so that the vibration of the machine won’t set up a resonance that will crack the floors and 12-foot-tall walls.
The beam-mounted crane is 2 feet higher still, giving Putnam room to manipulate long lengths of iron without bashing lights or banging the ceiling. Hundreds of hammers hang next to the forge, the handles of his favorites smooth from use. Nearby are racks of U-shaped forms, some narrow, some wide, designed sometime along the 3,000-year history of man’s manipulation of metal. The bottom half of the form is designed to fit into a slot in the anvil; the upper form has a hole for a handle like a hammer’s. In a two-person shop the upper form is held by the blacksmith while an apprentice strikes it from above, squeezing and shaping the hot metal inch by inch. In Putnam’s shop the striking is done by his pneumatic hammer – his mechanical apprentice – a machine so brutish it can crush metal, yet with Putnam’s trained toes on the air pressure level is gentle enough to close a matchbox without crushing a corner.
Putnam pulls the red metal again from the fire and aligns it under the head of the massive air hammer. Pound after pound it flattens the metal into a lozenge, a flat lollipop on its way to becoming a leaf, its color fading from orange to gray.
“This is where it’s dangerous,” he says, holding the back of his hand over the piece to confirm. The color is gone but the temperature still hovers at about 1,000 degrees. He sticks the metal back into the fire.
Nol Putnam grew up on a farm, working with his hands. He adored three-dimensional geometry, and lived a life rich with books and music. He became a teacher of history and the creator of cultural bridges between incoming Native American students and the faculty of a western Massachusetts boarding school. He was in his late 30s when he read a library book on blacksmithing and used it and his dad’s hammer – plus a lot of self-described stubbornness – to begin his new career. In his first decade he paid his dues making hooks and andirons and fireplace tools, then standing in heat and rain and cold at craft fairs, peddling his wares.
In the next decade he turned his tools to architectural and structural work – balconies and railings and ornate iron gates of steel and copper and brass. The ideas come to him in dreams, fully formed; his job then is to awaken and capture them onto bedside paper and then to translate those sketches into something clients can understand.
For the Rockefeller family he forged brass into a 16-foot-wide gate adorned with a delicate tree. For what he called his “Rousseau Gate” he created nine leaves, 3 and 5 and 8 feet tall. For each commission he visits the site, talks with the clients about their vision, then returns later with two sketches. He could make more, but the conversations would then be complicated.
“I encourage clients to mark up the drawings, to say yea and nay, to tell me what they like and don’t,” he says. “I don’t like commission work to simply be an exchange of money. I prefer for the clients to be part of the process, even to the point of coming down and taking a ceremonial whack just to see what it’s like. Then the whole piece becomes more meaningful for everybody.”
Now he pulls the flat leaf from the fire and draws a mental line down its center, then hammers on one side of it and then the other.
“See the line down the middle?” he says. “Now I’m going to put some veins it and then whiffle it so it look like it has some life.”
He returns it to the fire.
Putnam forged 250 petals and leaves of a much heavier iron for a pair of gates that hang in the National Cathedral in Washington. The ornate Folger Gate, installed in 1995, frames the entryway to the columbarium in the Chapel of St. Joseph of Arimathea. Nearby hangs Putnam’s Brown Gate, and behind that the ashes of ambassadors and bishops, architects and musicians, but also those of Helen Keller and her caregiver, Annie Sullivan.
“It’s a beautiful building, but it’s a little overwhelming to think about being there,” he says.
He got the job through word of mouth, and began work with nothing more than a handshake. For the next year and a half he worked – 1,200 hours of forming flowers and forging the frame. The pistil on each flower and the rivets that connect the crosspieces are all different; one depicts the face of Yoda from Star Wars.
The gates had to meet specifications for how they hung in the arched entryway, and they had to open and close, and latch smoothly. Beyond those parameters Putnam was free to design to his own vision.
“I was just really fortunate – that I was given the chance and that I could rise to the occasion,” he says. “Fortunately, I think it’s some of the best work I ever did.” The gates are considered to be part of the fabric of the building, the things that give life to the structure: the stone carvings, the windows, the tapestries, the ironwork – everything that gives it texture.
He was hired by Canon Richard T. Feller, the longtime and well-known Clerk of the Works – chief administrator in charge of all construction and artwork for the cathedral, the sixth-largest in the world.
“He was a serious man who took his work very seriously and demanded that everybody else do the same,” Putnam says. “It made him sometimes difficult to work with. I didn’t particularly have a problem with it, but he held your nose to the grindstone in order to get your best work, and it was a valuable lesson.”
In the midst of that work, another office of the cathedral called. Former President Gerald Ford was ill, and if he died he would come to the cathedral to lie in state, yet all the cathedral owned were four “tacky, wobbly wooden candlesticks,” Putnam says. “They called me up, desperate, and said, ‘Please please, we need this immediately!’ ”
There are few emergencies in artisanal blacksmithing, nor can things easily be rushed. Luckily, President Ford did not die at that time, but the candlesticks, tall and simple and reflective of some of the patterns in the stonework, still stand sentinel.
Putnam pulls the leaf from the fire and holds it on the forward-pointing cone of the anvil. He taps the metal with his hammer, twisting the leaf until it looks blown by the wind. Then he positions a chisel-like hardy upright in the tool slot of the anvil, lays the leaf’s stem across the hardy’s edge and takes four solid whacks, slicing nearly through the stem. It is poor form, he says, to cut all the way through and send the hot metal shooting across the shop. Years ago a piece broke loose and whacked him on the head and knocked him out cold.
He clamps the leaf to a workbench and uses a screaming electric grinder to blunt the sharp edge, then holds the leaf and a stamp of his initials under the head of a foot-powered hammer – a tool invented in Michelangelo’s day – and stomps, impressing his initials into the stem, then buffs the leaf with a spinning wheel of wire bristles. Last, he paints it with his homemade elixir of turpentine, linseed oil and beeswax, and buffs it dry.
“Now imagine doing all those steps to every component of the cathedral gate,” he says, as he holds up the completed leaf.
“Patience is a virtue,” he says, his voice as cadenced as his hammer, “seldom in a woman … never in a man … but always in a blacksmith.”
initially published in DISTINCTION, May 10, 2014