The Craft of Blacksmith John Wood
By Gary VanDeWalker
An Unexpected Journey
Story by Gary VanDeWalker
Photos courtesy of Taryn Burkleo
From the sides of the forge come tongues of dragon’s breath. The orange and red flames lick the air as leather gloves push the steel rod inside, heating the dark metal into a glowing creature. John Wood’s hammer comes down with a firm blow as he places the rod against his anvil and begins to taper the tip. The cool air and hot metal transform as the craftsman twists and bends a plain steel post into a work of art.
Wood came to Northern California with hopes of attending college and becoming an English teacher. “I loved to read fantasy,” he says. “And there in every story was a blacksmith.” However, life has its own journey. Wood married and joined the Navy, with the intent of returning to school. His naval career advanced and kept him focused on computers for the next 20 years.
Each forge project begins with choosing the steel. He kneels down in his heavy leather apron, choosing a piece, then cutting it to length with a saw, then introducing it to a grinder to clean the edges to prepare the piece for the flames. The sparks create a brilliant display, in an art where the creative process is as beautiful as the finished work.
Before finishing his 20 years with computers in the Navy, John had begun to take blacksmithing classes in Maryland on a farm with coal forges and 30 acres of farmland, owned by the Maryland Blacksmith Guild. He knew he wanted to be part of an older style of life. Upon retirement, Wood turned to his wife Brooke. He promised her he would move anywhere she wanted. She chose her hometown of Weed. They purchased a vintage home, which John gutted and restored for his family.
Wood’s tongs reheat the metal, then he dips the steel tip into the water, cooling the end for the vise to hold, where he turns the rod with slow deliberation, creating a spiral twist throughout its length. Alternating between the forge, anvil and vise, a hook begins to form like a living plant growing from the once-cold steel.
Using their savings, Wood added a garage to his remodeled home and began to collect the tools of his trade. His father-in-law discovered tongs at a garage sale. He scoured Craigslist for an anvil. His forge was purchased. What tools were unavailable, he crafted on his own. He practiced and designed hooks for various uses, opening an Etsy store and taking in orders. He began to add welding as a skill to increase the artistic outreach of his craft.
His leather-covered hands quench the piece again in the water. The blacksmith moves between his stations until his artwork is formed. A chunk of beeswax is brought and melts a sheen over the finished product, coloring and protecting the metal.
Looking outside his shop, Mount Shasta rises. Remembering his love of fantasy books, Wood names his business, “Forge Under the Mountain.” Daily, his Etsy shop brings new orders and special orders for fire trivets and fireplace tools. “I learned on a coal forge. Coal works great, but is really for show. I use a propane forge,” he says. “Every day I learn new techniques and take on new projects.”
Wood loves blacksmithing. “I enjoy every challenge, learning to create something another person will want,” he says.
He takes the cap off his head, wipes the sweat from his brow. He sets his thick gloves upon the anvil, then removes his tinted googles. “Blacksmithing is an amazing art. I think of the renaissance fairs I attended. I know I can learn to craft armor and swords. But what I value most is this job gives me time with my wife and two sons. Crafting a family is the best work of all.” •
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