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Artisans of Michigan: anvil, hammer, and tongs


Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
John Rayer of Waterloo Metal Works.

Anvil, hammer, and tongs.

It's sooty. It's screams muscle and metal. But, the thing that strikes you is this: A blacksmith’s shop has a smell like no other. It’s the coal in the forge, the odor hot steel.

We visited Waterloo Metal Works to talk to John Rayer. But, shortly after I started poking around he stopped me.

“I did forget to give the safety warning. Everything in here is dirty, or sharp, or possibly very hot,” Rayer said.

Rayer’s blacksmith shop is in the lower level of a barn not too far from the Waterloo Recreation Area in Jackson County. The rough rock walls seem perfect for the job that has to be done here.

I was wondering how being a blacksmith today differs from 70 years ago.

“Seventy years ago your blacksmith would have been the mechanic in a village,” Rayer explained.

The blacksmith repaired things. Wagon tongues, tractor hitches, or forging pieces to keep a piece of equipment running just a little longer. Today, most of the blacksmiths are doing something a little more artistic.

“We do a lot of work on buildings: railings, lighting fixtures, pot racks, things like that,” Rayer said.

Rayer says he was forced into a different career because of the Great Recession. He’d been apprenticing with a master blacksmith because he wanted some inspiration in his life. When he lost his day job, he says blacksmithing was the only thing he knew how to do.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio

He’s not alone here. He offers lessons and his apprentice, Luke Blough, has his leather apron on, watching as Rayer at work.

“I’ve just always loved blacksmiths. I love to see how they work with their hands on the metal. It’s not something on a screen,” Blough said.

Rayer has done forged architectural work all over. He’s worked in Alaska, New York, Virginia, Bahamas, Ecuador, and a lot here in Michigan.

He says he doesn’t think of himself as having a particular style. He just wants to do whatever the client wants. But, when I noted all the Art Nouveau stylings, he conceded, “If I had a choice and I was only going to do one thing it would probably be Art Nouveau.”

He says Art Nouveau doesn’t have to be like so many other architectural styles which call for symmetry.  “It’s botanical. It doesn’t have to be perfect. If it looks right, it is,” he said.

Credit Courtesy: Waterloo Metal Works
Courtesy: Waterloo Metal Works
This brass fire screen, in the style of Edgar Brandt, won "Best Fireplace in Detroit" in 2015.

Support for arts & cultural reporting on Michigan Radio comes in part from a grant from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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