“It’s starting to get pretty,” says Dave Curl as he examines the small piece of red-hot steel. He whops it again with a heavy hammer: quick hard hits that ring against the anvil. Then it goes back into the coal fire of a 130-year-old forge. “We’re going to need more heat in there to finish it,” he says.
There is a hiss, and steam rises as he quenches the finished part of the piece in an oak barrel of water. Now his hammer will bend, twist and flatten only the part that remains red hot.
Curl learned the craft of blacksmithing from some of the modern masters of the craft. “You think you’re a master after 10 years,” he says, “and then a few years later you think, ‘I’m a good journeyman now, and after 40 years, well, maybe.’” He lets the sentence hang, but as I examine the work in his shop, it looks masterful to me.
The shop is located in the back of beyond – in the woods of Grays River, Wash., to be precise – and it’s full of all manner of pieces of the iron and steel that he uses in his work. There are innumerable hammers, other tools and three forges. The large new one is for major pieces, but the ones he uses most are 100 and 130 years old. The oldest one was once the spark arrester – the smoke stack – of a train engine. The barrel he uses for quenching comes from a more modern source, and there is a tragic story behind it. It leaked once when it was owned by Fort George Brewery, and 50 gallons of stout were lost.
The project Curl was working on when I visited was a chandelier for Fort George, a place where you can see other examples of his work.
Curl is a member of the Columbia-Pacific Preservation Craftsperson Guild, a group of craftspeople with the skills to work on exacting preservation projects, although none of them limit themselves to preservation alone.
“The level of craftsmanship is exceptional,” says Curl. “When I first got involved, I thought I was in over my head, but now I’m doing higher-end work.”
More than 50 miles from Curl’s forge is a workshop of another man with whom Curl has a lot in common. “It’s rare today,” says Jim Hannen, “to sit down with people working in different media but whose life experience is basically the same. What we have in common is that we’re all working with our hands.”
Hannen, a stained glass worker, is also a member of the guild. He was exposed to glasswork in 1971, at the age of 19, when he went to work in a glass shop. While there he picked up a trade journal and noticed an ad for stained glass supplies, which inspired him to visit one of the two stained glass studios in Oregon. In 1972 he opened the third, and in 1975 he moved to Cannon Beach. In 1999 he moved to his present home and shop outside of Hamlet.
Despite a location at least as remote as Curl’s, Hannen has no sense of isolation. “My studio,” he says, “is the center of my existence.”
One glance at the studio informs you that Hannen is, not surprisingly, captivated by glass. There are sheets of every conceivable size, shape, color and type of glass, not to mention tools, colorants and furnaces. He shows me stack upon stack of prismatic transom glass tiles recycled from an old commercial building and about to be used in a restored home. There is iridized glass, which shines in multiple colors from the metal oxides on its surface, and “restoration glass” from old buildings, with the authentic flaws and colors of old window glass.
Hannen’s move to Hamlet was made necessary by the changing nature of his work. He’s no longer simply cutting glass and leading windows. He does casting and grinding of glass, and his architectural projects have grown more complex. “I do everything from cast glass night lights to large restoration glass on custom commission. My studio has become more of a production facility, so I can’t be in close proximity to people,” Hannen explains.
Hannen, Curl and the other members of the guild don’t have to be in close proximity to people. Because of the guild, people come to them. “If you’re looking for a place for old architecture on the West Coast,” Curl says, “the Lower Columbia is it. It’s one of the best spots if you like old architecture and want to restore it, to keep it original.”
Two of the principal reasons for the existence of the guild, according to one of the founders, woodworker Ed Overbay, are “the camaraderie of accomplished craftsmen, discussing our projects and drawing inspiration from trades and processes not our own, and the perpetuation of our crafts by passing on our skills.”
The Columbia-Pacific Preservation Craftsperson Guild was one of the results of an idea put forth by local architect Jay Raskin. Raskin approached the Clatsop Economic Development Resources (CEDR) to find a grant to see if a restoration “economic cluster” could be defined for the local area. Raskin thought there were enough craftspeople to be considered an economic driving force, in the same way that fishing or fish processing might be considered economic clusters. Soon he was joined by architectural historian John Goodenberger, Ed Overbay, the Lower Columbia Preservation Society and many other stakeholders.
What evolved from this effort was a vision of supporting local craftspeople whose skills could be used in preservation work. What co-evolved was the Historic Preservation Program at Clatsop Community College, where craftspeople can pass on their skills to students, and the notion of marketing craftspeople together as a guild.
The idea was to get local people, businesses and organizations involved in architectural preservation to work together to grow local businesses, bring more businesses and into the area, and draw more students of craft into the college. “After all,” John Goodenbeger told me, holding an ancient stone tool, “construction and hand craftsmanship have been providing family-wage jobs in the Lower Columbia for 4,000 years.”