November 21, 2002
Quaint hobby or growing craft? Read on and decide.
It was 9:00 a.m. when I arrived at the Bill Epps Smithy in Balch Springs, Texas, just outside of Dallas. The day promised to be a typical north Texas summer day with temperatures in the 90s, perfect for the annual Hammer-In sponsored by Bill Epps. About a dozen blacksmiths, some from as far away as Virginia, were already milling around Epps' shop. By noon more than 50 smiths would be on-site. Smoke from the coal fires began to drift into the clear Texas skies, and the sounds of hot metal being worked filled my ears.
Blacksmithing usually is regarded as a quaint throwback to preindustrialized America, preserved by a few diehards and hobbyists. However, if the activity on blacksmithing Web sites is any indication, the craft is alive and growing. As a hobby blacksmith, I was curious about how a professional blacksmith stays in business in a high-tech world.
Bill Epps began his career as a machinist, a trade he learned aboard a tender in the Navy. After his discharge, he continued as a machinist to support his wife and family. In 1961 he went to horseshoeing school and practiced as a farrier -- one who shoes horses -- on weekends. In 1975 he became a full-time blacksmith. As a natural extension of his trade, he began putting on smithing demonstrations at art and craft fairs, working for three years as the resident blacksmith at Old City Park in Dallas. His exposure at these public demonstrations led to orders for custom work, and the Bill Epps Smithy was born.
At the Hammer-In, I managed to talk to Epps over a lunch of good Texas barbecue, prepared by his wife, Sharon. It was the only time I saw him sit down all day. Epps was quick to draw a distinction between custom blacksmithing and commercial ornamental ironwork. "There's a need for mass-produced railings and fencing, and most of the shops that produce it are geared up with automated benders and a lot of welders. The railings are fabricated from standard components and produced quickly and efficiently. That's not the work I want to do.
"I don't care to make the same thing again and again. Everything I make is one of a kind. I think it's a shame to walk into a beautiful custom home and see the same ironwork as in the house down the street."
The Bill Epps Smithy produces much more than custom railing. Epps' Web site showcases everything from letter openers to bed frames, lighting, tables, and almost anything that can be made from forged iron. Epps emphasized that his site just gives examples. Whatever the customer can imagine can be produced.
Although his shop contains an abundance of power equipment, at its center are a gas-fired forge and an anvil. Scattered profusely are the special tools of the smith: dozens of tongs, flatters, fullers, punches, dies, and tools I did not even recognize -- the esoterica of the trade.
Epps believes in retaining the traditional look of hand-made metal work while utilizing every labor-saving device in the process. He was taught to "work smarter, not harder." After lunch he demonstrated a pneumatic power-hammer, pounding out a beautiful set of tongs in less than 20 minutes. Doing the work by hand would have taken hours.
When asked about his business, Epps said he has seen no downturn. "The custom market is driven mostly by the folks at the top end of the economy, and they are relatively unaffected by market fluctuations." His business philosophy