POULSBO — Behind Elijah Burnett, a gas furnace glowed bright orange as it steadily belched fire, heating the steel within.
“Just go ahead and assume that everything’s hot,” he cautioned from inside his work space at the Burnett Forge. Flanking Burnett were hammers, tongs, chisels, pins and bits of metal varying in size and shape – the tools of the blacksmith.
Burnett is a full-time blacksmith, creating detailed sculptures as well as functional fixtures like hinges, latches, railings and gates. Regardless of whether he’s making a sculpture or something more utilitarian, Burnett said the process by which he shapes the metal is, in essence, the same as it has been done for centuries.
“Everything I do starts and finishes at that anvil,” Burnett said, gesturing to his 460-pound Nimba anvil. “Solid cast-steel, probably the best anvil ever made.”
His anvil was designed in Port Townsend by Russell Jaqua, one of the masters under whom Burnett had apprenticed.
“I started out shoeing horses when I was about 14 years old. That’s where I first got my hands in the fire and learned how to make my own horseshoes,” Burnett said. Later, he began an apprenticeship under master blacksmith Jerry Culberson and finally Jaqua.
“Through the craft, I found the artist in me. I started seeing how to move this metal, all the different ways that a blacksmith manipulates the metal by moving it with his hammer and his anvil,” he said. “The fire is one of the main tools in blacksmithing. From the fire, it’s to the anvil and the hammer. Through that process, I’ve really learned how to see what can become.”
In recent years, blacksmithing has experienced a resurgence, assisted by the internet with numerous YouTube channels and countless videos dedicated to the craft. Only so much can be learned by watching, though.
“You really learn by actually experiencing it, by actually doing it. That’s where real knowledge and wisdom of how this is done happens,” he said. “The more you do, the more you see; the more you see, the more you do. That process is endless. The process of creation in here, in any blacksmith shop, is endless.”
As he worked the metal, Burnett was creating the unmistakable form of a fern. He alternately heated the piece and then used a hammer and chisel to beat a crease into the center of each of the fern’s blades, forming a midrib. Only a few leaves could be worked at a time before the metal needed to be heated again.
“I really enjoy seeing what this metal speaks,” Burnett said after placing the fern into the furnace once more. “I forge in steel. I forge in aluminum and bronze and stainless steel, copper — all the forgeable metals. They all have a different personality which I love to tap into. The beauty of all those personalities — I get to kind of bring out and learn about.”
The ferns, Burnett said, will be attached as adornments to the stem of a candle holder. Throughout his shop are scattered the fruits of his labor: a bearded hatchet, candle holders and an ulu knife. Various railings, hinges, latches and chandeliers are on hand as well to showcase his work for those who might wish to commission a custom piece.
The work of a blacksmith, he explained, is unique in that it requires both patience and speed. The smith must wait until his work has been heated and made malleable, then he must strike quickly with focus and precision.
“I don’t know who said this, but I heard it from an artist friend of mine. He said, ‘Life can steal your soul, but art reminds you that you have a soul,’” Burnett said. “I really can relate to that whole idea, because when you create something that’s out of your mind and your heart, with your hands, you realize the importance of artistry.”
Burnett is currently in the process of constructing a new studio, where he intends to teach classes to groups of students.
“There’s a lot of real positive interest in this craft, and I have so much to offer after almost 20 years of doing this full-time, since I was 20 years old,” he said. “The experiences that I’ve gotten to have through this craft, I’m excited to show people.
“I feel like the best works haven’t even been done yet and to be part of this renaissance in blacksmithing … to see it now, it’s great to be a part of.”
—Nick Twietmeyer is a reporter with Kitsap News Group. Nick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org