Lucian Avery suffers for his art. At any given time, numerous burns dot his forearms. But that’s less alarming when you learn his line of work — blacksmithing. For the past 14 years, Avery has been giving exquisite shape to lifeless metal at a small shop in Hardwick. And he’s one of a small but growing number of contemporary artisans drawn to a craft that began in the Iron Age. As the founding president of the Green Mountain Blacksmiths Association and a member of the board of New England Blacksmiths, he’s helped to, well, forge a reinvention of metallurgy.
Additionally, Avery has taught blacksmithing classes and workshops around the region. An entire generation of New England blacksmiths is benefiting from the knowledge he’s acquired through thousands of hammer falls — and, perhaps, just as many burns. Impressive, considering he’s only 35.
Not everyone sees blacksmithing as a creative art, but Avery’s handsome work — ranging from architectural ornaments and restoration hardware to wrought-iron tables and chandeliers — melts the line between art and craft. “The work I do pretty much all has a function,” he explains. “Some things people don’t end up using a lot, so in a lot of ways it’s more artistic.” As an example, Avery cites a commission he recently completed for a fireplace screen and tools. The pieces will end up in a weekend home in Vermont, where they’ll be used infrequently. Hence he designed them with aesthetics, as much as functionality, in mind.
Some of Avery’s work is stark and powerful, but it also can be impossibly delicate. He draws inspiration primarily from nature, incorporating animal and plant elements into his work. A garden gate, featured in Avery’s online gallery, has leafy “vines” creeping over its bars. The vines, too, are forged from metal.
Most of Avery’s work is commissioned and custom-designed, though some stock items are available in retail outlets, including Artisan’s Hand in Montpelier. There, Manager Sandy Ducharme says people who come looking for black iron and steel items quickly fall in love with Avery’s creations. The store primarily stocks his smaller pieces, such as candleholders and sturdy hooks.
Despite his vast artistic license, Avery is particularly fond of making basic door hardware. He shapes, and keeps in stock, handles, latches, hinges and fasteners that would be right at home in a 19th-century house. In fact, he’s occasionally asked to create such hardware for historic restorations because of the authentic look of his style. So authentic, in fact, that Avery takes the precaution of stamping his name in each of his pieces. If they’re good enough for historians, he figures, chances are they could be passed off as real antiques.
There’s a simple reason Avery’s works look so old: His technique is, too. Most metalworking these days is done in what he calls a “cut-and-paste” style, in which different pieces of metal are welded together to create a desired effect. While such metalworkers are often called “blacksmiths,” that’s a misnomer to the real McCoys. Avery’s traditional approach makes him something of an oddity — true blacksmiths are not exactly a dying breed, but they’re still hard to come by.
Avery spends most of his time in Hardwick in a two-car garage — the sort of structure you’d normally see adorned with a basketball hoop. Instead, his has a small, hand-lettered sign that says simply, “Blacksmith Shop.” Stepping inside it is like going back in time. Dominating the room is a small forge that looks like a metal wizard’s hat over a table of flickering coals. It’s not the sort of flame-belching monstrosity often depicted in movies, nor is Avery anything like the stereotypical movie blacksmith. His blond hair is cut short, and he looks thin under his heavy brown apron. He speaks softly, but when talking about his craft, he stands up a bit straighter and becomes more passionate.
Avery does the bulk of his work on the forge and the nearby anvil — which looks like a small zeppelin. He starts with a single steel bar. “I forge out each element and form all these different shapes,” he explains. The first step is heating the metal in the forge, which softens it enough to make it workable. When the metal is hot enough, Avery draws the glowing bar from the coals and sets it either directly on the anvil’s face or on a shaping mold called a hardy tool. He holds it steady with metal tongs in one hand and, with the other, shapes it with repeated blows of his hammer. With each strike, the metal cools, its orange glow dimming until it is dark and too cold to work. Avery then returns the metal to the fire for another heating. The process is repeated until he’s created his desired shape.
And this, of course, is how Avery earns his battle scars. When metal is heated in the forge, even for a brief period, a thin sheath of rust forms on it. This comes off when the metal is hammered, usually drifting harmlessly to the floor, he says. But sometimes the hot flakes practically explode, landing on bare flesh where they stick and sizzle — Avery does not wear gloves, and his sleeves are rolled up. Luckily, the flakes cool quickly. Normally, he concedes, he does wear protective headphones as well as glasses.
Avery’s career as a blacksmith had its origins in a practical impulse: “I wanted to make tools for myself for homesteading,” he says. Clearly self-sufficient, he set about creating his own implements for farming and woodworking. Though Avery took a few workshops and culled as much information as he could from books and fellow smiths, much of what he learned came from experimentation in his shop.
Things evolved from there — to a livelihood. Avery can now command upwards of $2700 for, say, a custom-designed fireplace screen. A simple planter hook goes for about $8.) He still makes his own tools, though, as evidenced by the rows of instruments that line his shop. “If I go to a carpenter or a woodworker and look through their catalogues, I’m out of luck if I don’t see what I need,” he says. Besides, for Avery, the technique and the tools are intertwined; to compromise either would be a disservice to the craft, and to the timeless beauty of his art.