Give ‘Em Hill: I am Iron Woman

I HAVE AN IRON coat hook, and I’m so proud. It’s about six inches long, tapered, then curved into a shape any self-respecting single-handed pirate captain would covet. The non-hook end is flattened out and has a hole, so as to screw it to a wall for handy coat-hanging purposes. I’ve been showing it off every chance I get. Hi, Mr. UPS-man-at-my-front-door. Wanna see my coat hook? Isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t it cool? No applause necess- oh, if you must.

Now being in possession of a coat hook may not seem terribly exciting to you, unless your coats are strewn all over the floor in a big mess, and then you’d appreciate one. But to me, this hook is even more than a practical organizing tool. To me, it is a solid testament to persistence, fortitude and stalwart forearm flexors, because I did not merely pick this coat hook up at Lowe’s. Nay, I forged this fine firm fixture all by myself and I have the blisters — I mean, calluses in training — to prove it.

Yea, I blacksmithed, heating a small piece of iron in a 2,500-degree forge (a big, hot, metal box which apparently contains the surface of the sun) and beating the living daylights and all my aggression out of it with a 2-pound hammer on an anvil the size of a baby rhino, heating it again and pounding it and pounding it more in some time-warped medieval game of Whac-a-Mole, then heating it, bending it, twisting it like a Twizzler, and tada — a coat hook for the ages and for the $40 brown leather jacket I got at Nordstrom Rack. And I am proud.

Of course, this feat was not accomplished in my kitchen oven. Rather, it took place in a three-hour sampler class May 8 at The Crucible, the fine-and-industrial arts complex in a giant West Oakland warehouse where they do things like weld and carve and saw and pound and make huge metal sculptures, produce fire operas and shape delicate glass vases with mere puffs of breath.

It’s not clear what possessed me to take blacksmithing, other than it’s something I hadn’t done before, and you never know when you might need an emergency set of horseshoes. And then there’s the anti-computer aspect, shunning the modern dependency on broadbands and wi-fis and communications satellites up there somewhere in the dark, and doing something real. It’s amazing how much stuff the average person doesn’t know how to do. Not that everyone needs to know how to forge a coat hook, but really — how about changing a tire? (My friend recently had a flat and had never put a spare on before, but she got out the manual and the jack and started yanking on lug nuts. A total of three men came by, separately, and said, “I’d help you, but I don’t know how to change a tire,” then started texting someone. Scary.)

In the smithy classroom, two forges sent a steady jet-engine sound throughout the building. Our instructor, Chris Niemer, thin and strong as a length of angle iron, shouted at us over the roar like a drill sergeant in a good mood. “COMMUNICATION IS KEY IN HERE. THIS IS A ROOM FOR YOUR OUTSIDE VOICE,” he yelled. (For the full experience, I was tempted to write this entire column in caps, but figured it would freak out our computers, and no amount of hammering would help.) Niemer was assisted by Jocelyn Scheintaub. Both were tremendously professional and patient — and brave, considering the total newbies who would soon be running around the room with chunks of hot metal in their tongs.

There were eight of us, a guy and his girlfriend, three other women, a 12-year-old kid and his dad, and me. We got gloves, goggles, long tongs (think Larry pulling Moe’s teeth), a hammer and a solid half-hour of safety training. Niemer then demonstrated the several steps to make the hook, flattening, tapering, curving. We learned how to judge the heat of the iron — you don’t go by time, like baking brownies, but by color. You want orange, almost yellow. We learned about hammers and anvils. “ANVILS ARE USED FOR SOMETHING OTHER THAN DROPPING ON THE ROAD RUNNER’S HEAD,” he bellowed.

Of course what took him about two minutes to create took the rest of us nearly two hours. My first effort to pound the flat end was not pretty. What was supposed to be a sharp edge resembled the duck bill of a duck-billed platypus, stepped on and run over by a truck. Striking while the iron is hot is no mere cliche. You have to work fast, or it cools off and gets stubborn. Gradually, I got a rhythm going, then finally quenched my piece in water with a satisfying “tssss,” becoming one of only three who completed the project. The others were still on the tapering part when the class ended, and I silently judged them.

It was a blast, but I’m not sure I have enough aggression to keep doing it. Plus, I’m afraid I’d get one really huge arm, like Homer Simpson when he worked only one side with a dumbbell and then won a bunch of arm-wrestling tournaments.

But hey, I have a stylish hook, a great sense of accomplishment and something to show the UPS man. Maybe I’ll try welding next.

By Angela Hill
Oakland Tribune