BY ERIC HOPE
Langdon Park in northeast Washington is quietly opening its arms to area artists searching for studio space at welcoming prices. Its profile as a haven for artistry was recently bolstered by the opening of Off the Beaten Track, a warehouse space hosting a variety of artist studios surrounding a vintage furniture and curio showroom. With the recent addition of tenant Fontana Forge, the neighborhood can now lay claim to the only artisan blacksmith in the nation’s capital. Proprietor John Dittmeier invited me over for a tour of the forge and a crash course in the art of metalsmithing.
Fontana Forge is not easy to locate; a trek through the alley and down an unmarked staircase leads the way. Expecting a subterranean, perhaps claustrophobic studio, I was amazed to find an airy shop with soaring, twenty feet ceilings and plenty of natural light. Dittmeier’s forge occupies what was once the coal storage area and boiler room for the warehouse’s machinery. The old boiler room houses the tools of his trade while the coal room, located up a short ladder, is currently used to store raw materials. An original hook-and-pulley system now helps to move steel instead of coal between the two spaces and around the shop floor.
Arrayed along the north wall of the studio are various presses used to flatten and/or fine tune his hammer work. The back (east) wall houses his propane-fueled forge; a natural gas line is in the works. Ringing the south and west walls are tool and supply cabinets. Various twisting vices and benders share space in the center of the room with Mister Stout, Dittmeier’s 200 pound anvil (a cultural note: it is apparently commonplace for smiths to name their anvils). The anvil is not just the geographic center but also the artistic heart of the space.
As the forge heats up for a demonstration, Dittmeier tells me about his background and plans for the forge. As a young man, he apprenticed both locally in Delaware and overseas in Great Britain. Work and familial responsibilities took him out of the foundry for many years and when the opportunity for a second career came his way, he decided to delve in headfirst and open his own shop. In discussing the nuances of fine-art versus fine-craft, he notes that while architectural metalwork might produce a higher income stream, his heart is in creating one-of-a-kind furniture pieces whose polished steel can better highlight the handmade impressions of the forge work.
A blast of welcome heat engulfs the workspace as he opens the door of the small furnace. The insides glow white-hot, and the ends of two steel rods he places inside are soon the color of a ruddy sunset (2300 degrees give or take). While pure iron is ideal, given its expense, mild steel, composed of iron with 0.1 to 0.3 percent carbon, is more often used. While one rod continues to heat, he pulls the second rod out and proceeds to the anvil, grabs his forging hammer and strikes a series of precise blows, flattening the arced face of the bar into more of a rectangular shape. That rectangular shape is honed with a quick visit to the foot-powered treadle hammer before being placed back into the forge for reheating back up to the preferred temperature. The second bar now comes out, but rather than placing it across the top of the anvil, he angles it against the side, gently tapping the end of the bar into a curve. Alternating between fire and anvil, each piece is further sculpted and reheated until one rod is flattened and tapered to a sharp point and the other rod has a curved scroll at its hot end. Depending on the smith’s intent, the iron may be placed aside to naturally cool or, if more intricate finishes are desired, the iron may be worked over a water trough, where small amounts of water aide in the rapid cooling of the bar.
Watching Dittmeier at work, any preconceived distinctions between forging as a fine art versus handicraft melt away. The striking blows upon the anvil require a keen eye and a deft touch that seemingly belies the brute, physical force required to bend the metal to his will. The result is no less subtle than that of a sculptor manipulating clay or painter gently applying oils to canvas. While projects can be preplanned and curls geometrically designed, there is still a bit of serendipity involved in the final process based on the temperature of the furnace and minute changes in how the artisan applies force to the steel. It left me with a new-found respect for the art of forging as well as a better understanding of the work that goes into a singular piece of furniture.
Dittmeier will offer introductory classes to blacksmithing, though insurance policy prevents any hands-on learning by students. He also plans to hold regular open houses to engage both the general public and the regional blacksmithing community. For more information about the forge, including commission opportunities, visit his Facebook page Facebook Page HERE.