by Jennifer Zahrt

During a class fieldtrip to Greenfield Village & Henry Ford Museum in Detroit, the ten-year-old Chris Niemer spied a blacksmith smacking on metal with a hammer, and he knew right then that he wanted to become a blacksmith. He didn’t get to start working with metal until his early 20s when he came to California and got involved with the California Blacksmith Association. Now, Chris teaches courses in blacksmithing in The Crucible’s smithy.

A good part of Chris’s art is functional, but he often implements organic shapes. He’s done railings, gates, and fences that all have an artistic foundation. He created this particular railing early on in his career, and it’s still one of his favorite pieces.



These days, Chris spends most of his creative time making machines, structures for machines, and tools for the smithy. The major project Chris has resolved to create this year is an induction heater, which is an electrical heat source for heating metal. It works by passing magnetic waves through the metal and exciting the atoms to get it hot.

In class he’s known for telling his students to “Swing the hammer!” This mantra sums up his approach to teaching in the smithy. After he’s presented a thorough demo and communicated his organized layout for what he expects students to achieve, he gives them the freedom to make mistakes. He’ll then step in and help students solve the mistakes. This teaches them through direct experience one of the fundamental aspects of being a blacksmith: problem solving. Blacksmiths, who often have a limited amount of tools and resources, have to figure out how to accomplish their goals with the tools, resources, and skills at hand.

The most prominent thing that Chris sees students getting out of the smithy is a tactile understanding of physical properties and geometry and an appreciation for how things are made. The results of a wrong hammer blow are very graphic. Learning how to work with metal teaches students how to understand angles, positioning, and force and how that is applied to material. Students also gain a new perspective on metalwork and walk away with being able to see the difference between machine-made and handmade. As Chris put it, “when things are exactly alike, you know a machine made it. When things have variance, you know that a human hand was involved.”

Chris credits The Crucible with giving him the greatest source of unrestrained creativity in his artistic work. He’s constantly amazed by all the creative people and projects happening at The Crucible, and he’s excited that he’s been given the chance to build up the smithy into one of the Bay Area’s best places to swing hammers!