Pat McCarty keeps his hammer swinging at Washington Forge
Pat McCarty has never met a piece of junk. Every piece of rusty iron or worn wood he comes across has another purpose. Screws from a broken chair become metal hearts for Valentine’s Day, an old bar of iron from a farm silo transforms into a leaf with bronze hues and a license plate becomes a small metal basket. It just takes the right set of eyes to see the shape the metal can take, and a skilled pair of hands, a hammer and some heat to get it there. But no matter what form it takes, old iron has a new look when it leaves Washington Forge.
“It really interested me that you could take an ugly, old rusty piece of iron, forge it, shape it, move the metal around and turn it into something beautiful,” Pat says. He adds that he approaches woodworking the same way, using donated lumber, wormholed boards and different kinds of wood to build unique chests that incorporate his hand-forged handles. “That kind of thing really appeals to me.”
The fire to become a blacksmith was stoked in Pat shortly after he returned stateside from his time in the U.S. Navy Seabees. Inspired by his father, he wanted to build his own house. More specifically, he wanted to turn an old barn into a house, and unable to find a suitable structure, realized he’d have to build the barn, too. “Of course, when you build something like that you’ve got to have the big strap hinges and door handles and all that traditional hardware — and I like to salvage things,” Pat says with a smile. “You never know. Everything has possibilities.”
Pat explored that potential every night after putting in a full day’s work as a telephone repairman for Southwestern Bell. Naturally, he needed a place to store his lumber and begin the construction process, so Washington Forge took shape. It was there he restored the hardware to old church doors and windows found at a secondhand shop, cut and notched the timbers to frame his post-and-beam house and learned to build concrete molds and brick arches. Word traveled and soon Pat was helping people who were moving and rebuilding old log cabins. Those projects forced him to learn how to forge new types of hinges and handles as well as light fixtures and fireplace tools.
“I love antiques,” he says. “You see some of the old hardware that’s on those and they just have a character that can’t be duplicated with something that is mass produced.”
Examples of Pat’s work bear out that statement. One of his signature pieces — a leaf with a looping stem — is shaped the same way every time but the character of the steel and the effect of the hammer on heated metal make no two finished pieces the same.
Transforming something otherwise relegated to the junk pile shows not only the artist’s eye but also the blacksmith’s skilled hands.
The technique Pat uses today is quite different from the way he started four decades ago as a fledgling smith. His late friend, mentor and master blacksmith, Uri Hofi, at the former Ozark School of Blacksmithing in Potosi taught Pat a three-fingered technique using Uri’s own style of hammer. The loose grip allows the hammer to naturally rebound, meaning it doesn’t wear out the blacksmith’s arm. The slightly rounded edges of the head lets the smith guide the hammer to push metal five different ways instead of simply smashing it flat. Pat says the best decision he made was buying one of Uri’s “Hofi Hammers,” pointing out the date of March 1997 the Israeli smith stamped into the tool.
“He had a pretty unique method and it took me a while to get the hang of it,” Pat says as he hammers out the broad part of the leaf. “It looks like it may be sloppy, but it’s very accurate and it’s very powerful. The weight is right up close here where you have some control.”
Pat adds that Uri and his fellow instructors taught him another important tip that he uses every time he starts a day in the forge, whether at his own shop or when teaching a class: start with something simple. It may be one of his leaves or a nail, but the project helps students learn the basics of heating, moving and controlling metal in short order with something to show for it at the end of the exercise. For a blacksmith of any skill, it sets the tone for the day’s work.
“It gets your mindset right,” Pat says. “You get your muscles limbered up, your tools out, your fire ready, and then when you’re done you move on to whatever it is you’re going to make.”
Even when making simple objects, Pat can’t resist the temptation to try and learn something new. One of his favorite experiments is to make something he’s done before but using a different metal. The process helps him learn the different characteristics of working with the material and what they change in the finished product.
“There’s a certain prettiness to the metal when it comes straight out of the fire,” Pat says as he eyes the glowing end of an old iron rod, “but you can do a whole lot more to it.”
That’s where Pat’s portable propane forges, power hammers, welders, grinders and buffers all come into play, bringing sheen, color and texture to some of his most popular items including hummingbird feeders, metal flowers and letter openers with glass marbles in the handles. They also help speed along production during the two weeks of the year when Pat preps for his annual residency during the Silver Dollar City Harvest Festival. This fall marks his 21st year as part of the festival and Pat always makes sure to have plenty of items on hand. “People are real receptive to it. They come back every year looking for you and they want to buy something new and see what you’ve made,” he adds.
Pat has won the festival’s Craftsman of the Year award three times so far over the course of his tenure due in no small part to the artistic quality of his work. He credits that sense of dedication to the skills he picked up through his membership in the Blacksmith Association of Missouri, appropriately nicknamed BAM.
“Every meeting we have they designated what’s called a trade item so that was your homework,” Pat says, noting everyone’s trade item is then picked from the show table in a drawing amongst the membership. “My challenge to myself was to have the best piece on the table, to get taken first.” That regular self-competition pushed both his hammer skills and his creativity, including a Rolls-Royce bumper piece with a horn attached for Pat’s humorous take on the shoehorn trade item.
Having devoted more than four decades to the craft, Pat says blacksmithing not only helped put a roof over his head in a literal sense, but also has kept him young and taken him to demonstrations and festivals across the country. A juried member of the Best of Missouri Hands and a participant instructor in the Missouri Folk Arts Program, the 73-year-old master blacksmith is keen to keep hammering away and pass on what he has learned to newcomers. Washington Forge is a frequent host site for BAM workshops and Pat is a regular instructor at the renowned John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina. He recommends anyone in Missouri who is curious about the art and trade of blacksmithing check out BAM’s spring conference where newcomers can get their feet wet with a beginner’s course.
“I’ve picked up a lot over the years, and now it’s kind of my job to pass it on to others,” Pat says. “There shouldn’t be any secrets there. We all learn from somewhere.”
Pat McCarty joins the lineup of visiting craftsmen during the Silver Dollar City Harvest Festival, scheduled for Sept. 16 through Oct. 28. You also can find his work for sale at the Room For Art Gallery in Washington. For more information on blacksmithing classes in Missouri, visit the Blacksmith Association of Missouri online at www.bamsite.org or follow the group on Facebook.