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The hammering man

Blacksmith Ryan Landworth in his Bainbridge metal shop. He’ll give an exhibition at the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum Sunday.  - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Blacksmith Ryan Landworth in his Bainbridge metal shop. He’ll give an exhibition at the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum Sunday.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

Island smith Ryan Landworth demonstrates his craft Sunday.

The hand-forged nails blacksmith Ryan Landworth holds are little more than a tapered iron spikes with a crudely flattened heads.

For pioneer families hammering out a life in a place like Bainbridge, far from the closest general store, the nail was a homemade essential. The nails were so valuable that a settler would sometimes burn down his house before moving to collect them from the ashes.

Landworth says the simple utility of the nail sums up a spirit of pioneer self reliance he sees lost today.

“I think it’s important to be self-sufficient in period of time when we’re not very self-sufficient,” he said. “It makes you connected and aware of your surroundings, it keeps you focused.”

It’s a concept Landworth hopes to drive home at the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum on Sunday, when he gives an exhibition of metal working. Landworth will fire up his forge for visitors and demonstrate both modern and traditional techniques.

He said he relishes the chance to introduce children to the craft, but just as important, he wants to make adults rethink those things they take for granted, like the bucket of machine-made nails they buy at the hardware store.

“Showing kids is really great,” he said. “But I think it will be neat to show adults because they are so deep in their daily lives that seeing something this old school might really inspire them.”

At the time the West Coast was settled, the blacksmith’s craft was not taken lightly.

Each ship that sailed Puget Sound would have had its own smith on board Landworth said, hammering away in a shop in the foc’sle. Many pioneer families did their own smithing, forging the tools they needed for farming and house building.

In his Bainbridge shop, Landworth shows how a carpentry nail would have been fashioned. It began with a piece of stock iron, usually about a half-inch thick, which was heated and pounded to a desired taper, with edges left flat.

The spike was cut to length with a rap on the sharp edge of a “hardy tool” fixed to the anvil. Then the nail was slid through the hole in a hand-held nail header that held it in place as the end was flattened with glancing blows from a hammer.

A skilled smith can pound out a nail in minutes but for pioneers it could be a tedious chore.

“It’s something they did in the evenings. It could take a month to make all the nails you needed for a project,” Landworth said.

As farming and logging communities formed, smiths were central figures, forging out the plows, axes and wagon wheels that kept the industry moving. The Museum displays hand made axes from the island’s logging era.

In his own shop Landworth melds old and new techniques. He keeps a coal-fired forge and makes many of his own smithing tools but he also runs a gas fueled forge; one side of his shop is dedicated to a row of electric saws and grinders.

He’ll use the gas forge on Sunday, rather than the traditional unit, so he can spend more time talking to visitors and less time tending his fire.

Landworth studied metal work at the Center for Metal Arts in New York as an apprentice for renowned Israeli smith Uri Hofi.

Hofi also blended old and new, pulling elements of many blacksmithing traditions to develop tools and techniques that emphasized ergonomics and efficiency.

Landworth points to his anvil as an example.

It’s based on a Czech design and is narrower than most, which allows the smith to be closer to his work. While most anvils are fastened to wood blocks, his is attached to a metal stand with a layer of epoxy, which gives it more spring.

Today Landworth makes custom metal pieces like gates, furniture and light fixtures and draws on natural elements as inspiration for his design. Test pieces of metal are spread across in his shop, scalloped, feathered or twisted in intricate spirals. With a few simple tools, Landworth shapes his sense of self reliance.

“Our jobs have leaned more to the intellectual rather than the physical, and now it’s easy to go to the hardware store and get the things you need,” he said. “With that the art of blacksmithing has fallen to the side. I want to bring it back.”

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Anvil envy

Ryan Landworth demonstrates blacksmithing from 1-4 p.m. March 16 at the Historical Museum’s outdoor exhibit structure. Tickets are $3 for adults, $5 for couples, $2.50 for students and free for museum members and children under 12. Reach the museum at 842-2773.

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