Local blacksmith bangs out traditional designs
by Maria Reidelbach
We are so lucky to have a blacksmith in our valley! When I was creating a group of small sculptures for Homegrown Mini-Golf two years ago and I needed 13 metal armatures, who else could I call? Jonathan Nedbor is a real, live, village smithy in Alligerville. Jonathan took my sketch and created 13 identical steel stick figures for me to sculpt upon.
When Chris Hewitt asked me to interview Jonathan, I jumped on the chance to find out more about a craft that is both essential and, these days, almost extinct.
MR: I know that your practice is making stuff out of metal, but why is it called “blacksmithing”?
JN: There are silversmiths, tinsmiths, goldsmiths, etc. Iron is the “black” metal and “smithing” is the hammering or forging to shape. Iron and steel are a lot of fun to forge because they give you a long heat to work and are not as fussy as gold or silver. Steel and iron allow a very immediate, spontaneous experience. I work with wrought iron and steels—various alloys—as well as brass, copper, silver, gold, and titanium. Depends on the job or my inspiration. I also make objects with a mix of materials, non-metallic as well.
MR: How hot do you have to get the metal to work it?
JN: Steel and iron are forged anywhere from 1,100˚ to 2,300˚F. I weld steel and iron in my coal fire, the traditional way. I also do all types of modern welding—we say modern to mean gas and electric, though they are both easily 120 plus years old.
MR: How did you learn your craft?
JN: The hard way, making every mistake many times till I learned how to avoid it or work around it. The metal will teach if you pay attention. I started in the early ’70s when there was not much of a smithing community or information that we could find. The “old timers” had just about disappeared and we were all out scouring the hills, libraries, bookshops, and museums, trying to learn all we could. I did take a couple of classes after a few years of trying on my own. That helped a lot, as well as attending conferences all over the country.
MR: What kind of things do you make?
JN: Most of my work is commissioned, so it is what the customers request. I do a lot of fireplace glass doors, screens, fireplace tools, andirons, cooking utensils. House hardware is another large part of what I do. I have studied historic hardware here and in Europe. I do all types of door hardware and house ironwork. My favorite work to do is Dutch Colonial Ironwork, quite a bit of which is still found in the Hudson Valley. I find the historic Dutch work more robust and exciting than the early English work on the East Coast. The list of what I have made is very long; it includes furniture, lighting, brackets, pot racks, trellises, gates, railings, special tools, and antique car parts.
MR: Why does a town need a blacksmith in this day and age?
JN: What’s not to like? Just kidding. I do all types of custom work, anything a person might need, exactly as they want it. They don’t have to settle for some standard item made in China that will maybe do the job. What I do is specific to each customer’s desires, and it works and it looks beautiful—or I did not make it right. I am also available for repairs of all kinds. I do welding and soldering on all types of metal and have saved many people from throwing something needed or loved out by making it whole again.
Plus the shop seems to attract people. Rarely does a day go by that there are not a few people in here talking about all sorts of things. A friend stopped by to show me a couple of antique Japanese bamboo shovels. They are beautiful forged shapes with great wood handles. Then someone else stops in to show me an ancient piece they found metal detecting. Kids stop in because they are curious—for that matter so do a lot of grownups. In the warm weather the door is wide open.
MR: What is your favorite part of your work?
JN: I prefer to spend my time hammering and researching historic ironwork styles and techniques. But running a business requires a lot of other supporting tasks to keep it all going.
MR: What do you aim to achieve with your work?
JN: That it looks good, regardless of its function. I put care into each piece so that it works well. If I have done that job well then all the elements will be in balance and it will also look beautiful. It is a very demanding process that requires much thought and observation.
MR: Why do you live and work in the Rondout Valley?
JN: This is a beautiful area with lots to offer, all the great outdoor activities, as well as the cultural diversity.
MR: Have you ever caught your hair on fire?
JN: People always ask if I ever get burned. The best answer is “if you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.” Yes I have gotten burned, not often though. Plus I have developed a high tolerance for the heat.
MR: Hah—you aren’t kidding! I remember, when I was finishing those sculptures you helped me with I was using Chris Kelder’s torch to bend the arms and legs. Because I don’t have your experience, I burned a nice square spot on my knee with hot pliers.
MR: What do you like to do for fun?
JN: Seems that much of my fun is wrapped up in my interests in the history and art of blacksmithing. I collect old tools and especially love handmade objects. Travel is also high on my list, learning about new places and the life there. I am looking forward to ski season.
Maria Reidelbach is an artist, author and creator of Homegrown Mini-Golf on Kelder’s Farm. You can recognize her by the square brand on her knee.