Meet a Seasoned Blacksmith Who Reveals His Art's Painstaking Process
On a sweeping stretch of the Rocky Mountain foothills in Alberta, Canada, inside a brick-walled, metal-beamed room, blacksmith Japheth Howard works against a backdrop that looks like a snapshot from the Industrial Revolution. But it’s a workshop built for contemporary ambitions.
Blacksmithing usually conjures an image of a guy with bulging muscles and a soot-covered face, but in Howard’s case the image takes the form of a contemplative craftsman wearing a pinstriped shirt and bending hot iron and steel into minimalist forms.
"So much of our environment is made out of metal," says Howard. "But people don’t think of it as something that can be expressive." Nor do they think of it as modern. "There’s a whole nostalgia around iron working that’s hard to counteract," he says.
But with the support of the forge’s owner, Ian MacGregor, Howard is attempting to do just that. MacGregor, the CEO of a Canadian refining company who built a fortune building oil refineries and infrastructure, may seem an unlikely patron for a blacksmith. But he grew up working in a machine shop fixing cars, then bought a welder after college. He eventually launched a welding company that failed, a loss that pushed him into the oil industry.
Yet MacGregor, 68, never lost his passion for metal. Over many decades, he has accumulated a varied collection of tools and machines—including toolboxes, early African metalwork, and prototypes for drills—covering a span of 2,000 years.
In 2001, he built a private 20,000-square-foot museum—the Canadian Museum of Making—on land he owns west of Calgary. (The museum is open by appointment.) The guiding curatorial principle is quirky and personal. "It’s a bunch of stuff with good stories attached to it," he says. "In some ways, they’re allegories for where we come from and who we are."
He also built a forge on the property, and eight years ago, he hired Howard as his in-house blacksmith. "I looked for the best in the world," he says. "That’s Japheth."
"Most steel I’ve used has been recycled. It could have been a bridge or a wagon, and it could have been hauled to Korea and back, and it comes to me in the form of a bar." Japheth Howard, blacksmith
Raised in southwestern New Mexico, Howard, 53, spent his teenage years exploring ghost towns, where he excavated old tools from long-defunct blacksmith shops. At 15 he built his own forge under a mesquite tree next to his dad’s painting studio.
"I grew up picking up pottery and arrowheads—things that were fifteen hundred years old, but with a direct connection to a person, to someone who made things with their hands," he says.
At 19, Howard began his first metalworking apprenticeship, in Santa Fe. Soon after, he began a semi-itinerant life as a blacksmith. He made his living crafting high-end architectural pieces for wealthy clients, everything from light fixtures to stair railings. The work was occasionally frustrating. "There was a big struggle I had with architects—sometimes they think ironwork is only loop-de-loops and scrolls and Rococo," he says. His designs, on the other hand, are simple and contemporary, as is his approach. "Blacksmithing is an old trade, but I use all sorts of modern techniques—plasma cutters, electric welders, power hammers," he says.
From rough drawing to "iron sketch"—or what he calls a "doodle in the actual material"—to the finished product, Howard usually works alone. It’s physical, hot, exhausting work, drawn out by the fact that he uses a coke-powered forge rather than a faster, gas-fired one.
These days he makes small objects such as fire tools, candle holders, and light fixtures on commission, or he crafts fittings, like towel bars and door hooks, for a housing development MacGregor is building.
"There’s still a place for objects that say something about where they’re from and were made by hand," Howard says. "Nobody has anything made for them anymore. My hope is that as people live in smaller spaces, they’ll have fewer things they value more, rather than lots of things they don’t value very much. Then there’s a place for a few well-made objects."
Hammering Out the Details
Although he’s worked everywhere from Tennessee to England, today Japheth Howard can be found tending an out-of-the-way forge in Alberta, where he welds household items, architectural metal, and more. Here, Howard reveals the labor that goes into making a steel fire shovel.