Crafted: Forging Steel

If you’ve seen old Popeye cartoons, you’re familiar with Olive Oyle’s wobbly arms; after 1½ hours with Bruce Milan and Amy Liden from Island Forge, that’s how mine feel. We’re making a wall hook and spiral finial.

There’s a lot to learn when forging, and a lot has to do with safety: you’re hammering, chiseling and cutting metal. It’s hot. It’s loud. Burns are a major concern. It requires eye and ear protection, masks and gloves. I learn how to stand and hammer properly, not to just prevent injury, but to avoid the hammer bouncing back and hitting me in the face. Goal: keep my teeth.

Bruce opened Island Forge in 2006. Amy joined him after taking the blacksmithing program at Haliburton School for the Arts. After apprenticing with Bruce for two years, she’s been his business partner for a year.

We start with the hook. It’s Bruce’s design: a decorative scroll at one end and a curl at the other. Looks easy enough. Amy hands me a long steel rod and we pop one end into the forge, which heats it to 1700°F. When it reaches temperature it’s yellow. We remove it to a large anvil where I’m supposed to hammer the tip to a point. “Good blacksmith etiquette is to spit on your hand for a better grip,” says Bruce. We don’t.

I hammer the end, turn it 90°, then turn it back, working just two sides. “The anvil acts as a hammer too,” says Amy, “it’s doing the exact same thing on the other side.”

It’s hard work. Your arm vibrates on impact and you have to work fast; you’ve maybe 30 seconds before it cools down and you have to heat it again. “Next time, hit harder, and try to keep the hammer at the tip.’

Eventually I get a flat ‘point’. “If you look at it, you see a lot of dents. You want to hit with the flat part of the hammer rather than the edge.” Still, I’m pretty proud.

Now for the scroll. We heat the point and hammer it over the narrowest part of the anvil, bending it into a hook.  Then it’s flipped up and hammered into itself to make the curl. You’re also trying to keep it straight. It’s extremely difficult. “You rely on your eye a lot,” says Amy. “You learn about physics, where to hit, how to make it smooth.”

It takes Amy about 15 minutes to make a hook. It took me an hour.

After thinking the hook would be easy, the finial seems totally intimidating. Bruce hands me four rods about 8” long, welded together at each end. We pop that into the forge. When it’s hot, we secure one end into a vice, fasten a pair of vice grips on the other, and hammer the end while turning the grips in one direction. The rods separate and twist, creating the spiral. It’s magic. “It’s fun to work with fire and hot metal,” Amy says. Absolutely.

Note: this was written last December. Since then Bruce has mostly retired and Amy is in the process of opening her own studio in Bloomfield. For more information, visit or

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