CHAGRIN FALLS, Ohio — Like a sculptor with clay, a Chagrin Falls man molds molten metal into art with tools from the past.
He creates a coal fire in his forge, heats it to the exact temperature, then places his steel into the heat until it reaches a burnt orange and red color.
He uses the coal forge because it is hotter than gas forges and, as he calls it, “timeless.”
He takes hammers and tongs and molds the metal into the shape of an idea on the anvil. He goes back and forth from the heat to the tools, which can be traced back to the early 1800s if not earlier, and then uses mechanical hammers from the early 1900s to pound out the intricate designs.
A piece of art is born.
After high school, Ken Roby started working as a blacksmith in the traditional sense of the occupation. In fact, his high school senior project was about farrier work.
But his childhood was filled with the freedom to be artistic, as both of his parents were artists. His love, however, was horses.
“I had no interest in iron back then — just horses,” said Roby.
About 12 years into his career, he realized he had been collecting many of the tools necessary to work with iron, and he had developed an interest in how to make items. His first attempts were making things out of horseshoes.
Today, he doesn’t shoe horses at all. Instead, he crafts hand rails, staircase railings, door latches and decorative items for landscaping.
He said the artistic side of the job comes easy, since his artistic ability was encouraged by his parents when he was young. Today, those skills help him to create works of art from the molten iron.
“We’ve been doing this for thousands of years and I’ll die only knowing a little bit,” Roby said.
Today, Roby’s designs can be found in California, Florida, and all across the U.S. His work is also in place as far away as Africa.
While Roby said the creation of his art, it’s the people behind the designs, as well as other artists, historical reactors and even the person who works at the saw mill who does blacksmith work on the side, who make the work fun.
“It’s the characters. It’s the people I meet and work for. That’s what is interesting,” said Roby.
To read a related post on Roby’s philosophy of characters in a book, click here.
Roby admits there have been times when he doubted he would make it, but he did.
“Most people would not survive doing this. You have to have a lot of luck and a lot of determination,” he said.
Roby said there are two markets for iron work designs — one is the high end and the other is competing with mass-produced items made in China. He knew he had to stay in the high end in order to make a living.
Roby said all of the work he has created for customers came by them finding him, not with any type of self-advertisement.
He said it takes him a while to get a feeling for what designs people like, for example if they like scroll work or if they prefer flowers made of iron.
“You have to see what is in their minds, then you complete sketches and, eventually, drawings of what they are looking for,” he said.
“I don’t have to like it once I’m done. Only the customer. They have to be happy,” he added.
Roby added his biggest joy comes from using what some would consider ancient machinery and turning metal into something the eye can enjoy.
He’s received awards such as Blacksmith of the Year and others from the Ohio Landscape Association and even honored by the Hungarian Garden for a preservation project in 2007 for a garden arch he renovated and recreated.
When not designing and forging his art, he spends time with his partner, Nancy Tozr, and her two sons.