By Pat Jenkins
Darryl Nelson makes pounding metal a widely admired art form.
A blacksmith for 40 years, Nelson’s custom ornamental metalwork has popped up around the world. It’s part of a gate at the Globe Theatre in London, England that he and other smiths were commissioned to forge sections of. Visitors to the National Ornamental Metals Museum in Memphis, Tenn. and the Oregon Coast Aquarium and Oregon Zoo see his work. And closer to home, outside the National Inn at Mount Rainier National Park, signs hang from specialty brackets he made.
Through decades of learning and perfecting his craft, Nelson has become something of a guru for those following in his footsteps. At his shop/studio near Eatonville, part of his business called Fire Mountain Forge, he teaches classes to aspiring smiths who make the pilgrimage from as far away as California, Texas, North Carolina, Virginia and Pennsylvania. He also sells a series of instructional videos. He’s happy that blacksmithing isn’t going the way of the dodo bird.
“Another generation of blacksmiths is coming along. It makes me feel good,” said Nelson, 59. “Some of my students have become world-class smiths. Women are some of the best. They have a good eye for the decorative thing.”
Nelson didn’t know his own future and profession was in blacksmithing when he was a young man. “I thought I was going to be a foot doctor for horses,” he related.
But he went to blacksmith school in 1970 and worked as a horseshoer for 13 years, including a period after he moved to Eatonville in 1975, while trying to get started in the blacksmith business. He quit shoeing in 1985, when blacksmithing “really took off” for him.
“It’s a fun job. I like to say I retired straight out of high school,” he said.
Bending and shaping metal into his signature ram heads and other artistic shapes takes fire, heat and hammering. After learning the basics of working with metal, “what’s advanced is how you use the metal in your design. You can do a lot with hot metal,” Nelson said.
The metal is more than a medium. It’s a precious commodity to blacksmiths, including from a historical perspective.
“Blacksmiths have been recyclers since day one. In the early days, you were lucky to find a piece of metal to make something with,” Nelson said.
Nelson is one of 600 members of the Northwest Blacksmith Association, which covers Washington, Oregon and British Columbia. An archive of members’ work is stored in a small building next to Nelson’s shop, much of it for the purpose of being packed up and exhibited at the associaton’s twice-a-year conferences.
History and tradition are a big part of Nelson’s life. He works and lives on land that’s belonged to his family for years. His mother lives in one of the homes on it, and the shop where he plies his trade was built by his father in the early 1980s. Nearby pastureland is home to a small herd of beef cattle he manages.
Nelson is modest about his eye-catching metalwork. He talks about it reluctantly, almost bashfully, but his eyes light up when the subject is blacksmithing in general and its long-term role.