Carmel resident Nathan Brandt turns his passion for blacksmithing into a home business
What do you do at Bear Brandt?
I do blacksmithing, which is forging the steel. In forging, you heat up the steel and it gets soft like clay and you shape it with hammers and tools. I don’t just do blacksmithing, making things, but also restorations of old saws and tools, as well as sharpening and tuning. What I wanted to do when I started was introduce people to a craft that was dying. The tools were still around, but the lifestyle was going away. The more I’ve gotten into it, though, I’ve realized that blacksmithing is coming back as an art medium.
What else do you make?
I like to restore beautiful old axes and crosscut saws, but I also make ‘new, old tools.’ I do ornamental gates, railings, hardware for homes, jewelry and restoration work of antiques (like furniture). I also do camping gear, especially for people who do Colonial reenactments. If they provide photos, I can do everything from tripods to muskets to tent stakes. I do commission work. I’m working with a woman who wants me to make a wooden coffee table and end tables with forged legs.
How did you get started as a blacksmith?
I got started when I was 11. I lived on a farm inOhioand went to a lot of tractor shows where they showed the old ways of doing things. My grandfather is really into that. He took me to the tractor shows and taught me how to rebuild steam engines, swing an ax and build just about anything. My grandparents were huge influences in my childhood. My dad has been a master fabricator and welder for 40 years. My great-grandfather was a pattern maker at Wagner Ware (skillets). Metal has always been around me. I found an organization, SOFA (Southern Ohio Forge and Anvil Association), which is huge among old timers and they are begging to teach people the craft because they don’t want to see it go away. They taught me a lot of things. I got started making old style new tools, chisels, hammers, axes, logging tongs and all kinds of weird stuff that a small part of the population – Amish, homesteaders – use. I realized, especially with old logging tools that were rusting away, that the tools are still viable and useful.
Are there many blacksmiths today?
It has exploded and is coming back, which is cool to see. But it is really difficult to make a living, which is why I have another job (in graphic design). It’s hard to get customers. I don’t do it full time yet, unfortunately. This is really my passion, so I’m trying to figure out how to make it work in today’s society. I’ve met just one other guy who is a professional blacksmith. For everyone else, it is just a hobby. I hate that. A friend of mine opened a blacksmithing school, so I’m thinking of that avenue – educating people.
Where can people see or buy your work?
I have a wall in Soho Café with art and jewelry. I also have a booth in the Carmel Old Town Antique Mall. It has housewares, like bowls and bottle openers, and smaller things, as well as some furniture I made. There’s a bench I forged there; it’s made of a log I split, and we forged legs for it. I find customers mainly through word of mouth. I try to have an online presence, too.
What are the prices?
I’ve sold tent stakes for $1, while some of the furniture is several hundred dollars. Some blacksmiths do $80,000 ornamental railings, but I’ve never done anything like that, unfortunately.
What is it that people like about your pieces?
It’s important that people sense and feel the authenticity of my work. Anybody who buys a piece from me knows I care about it. The piece will last hundreds of years and I don’t want people saying ‘that guy wasn’t good at what he did.’ When I make something, I work really hard and sweat a lot. So much work goes into every little thing. People don’t know the labor that goes into it because in today’s society we have machines to do everything. I’m working with an antique dealer who is having me make stands for some old carnival shooting targets, the steel rabbits you shoot and they fall over. They’re small and simple, but they take an hour and a half. That may not sound hard, but if you’ve ever hammered with a six-pound sledgehammer for that long, you’ll see that it’s tough. For log furniture, I hand saw it with antique tools. It takes five to 10 hours to saw it. I do sanding by hand. Everything is hand done. I try not to cut corners. Everything is powered by hands and sweat. I love it that way because I want it to last.
What is it you like so much about blacksmithing?
I’ve done art my whole life. My whole family is artists. This has been the first art medium I’ve found that is useful. I struggled with painting. You finish it and it is ornamentation on a wall. With this, someone can take it and cut down a tree. They can take the tools I make and make something else. The actual process of it is so cool to me. I come in the shop that is all dirty and smells like coal and in the winter, it is especially great to start the fire. This is the only medium, besides pottery I guess, that lasts for generations. The anvil I use was made in 1903. There’s so much history to everything I do and use. You can’t fake that. A lot of people buy jeans that are all ripped up to look like they are old and have been used – they see value in that To use a tool that was held by another man 200 years ago, you can’t fake that. I feel like the authenticity of that is lost. You can’t replace 200 years of dirt and sweat on a tool. The process is weirdly fun.