Patience & Hot Iron

You may have seen him at the Columbia County Fair. If you let your ears follow the pop and woosh sound of the single stroke engine display you’d find him next door. He’d be hard at work in the building housing people who love to work with their hands, weaving baskets, spinning thread or creating a chair with hand tools.

Bob Engel is the broad shouldered man in the plaid shirt, his sleeves rolled up, his cap cocked back on his head. Usually a group of young people is gathered around, intently watching, eyes filled with amazement witnessing a timeless art. Bob is a blacksmith and the easy grin on his face is the product of his work.

Bob Engel was born in Brooklyn but his family moved to Stockport when he was a baby. He grew up like just about any kid in rural America in the 1940’s, running in the woods and playing cowboys and Indians. He loved old things, heritage and history. He built the log home he lives in today because when he was a boy Abe Lincoln’s log cabin intrigued him. He attended Ichabod Crane High School, passing Lindenwald everyday. Martin Van Buren’s home had fallen into disrepair back then and it upset him, “It just wasn’t right for a president’s house to be dilapidated like that, I thought. The restoration was a super change. I still take regular walks there.”

Bob joined the Air Force following high school and got a degree in electronics. He wound up stationed on the DEW Line, the Distant Early Warning Station in Labrador, Canada. It was the Cold War and they were on the lookout for Russians. “I spent two long dark winters up there before I was transferred to California. Quite a change from 43 degrees below zero, guess they wanted to thaw me out,” Bob laughs.

Electronics just didn’t hold his interest, so when he returned home after two years in California he went into the building trades. He started building houses then moved on to larger projects, Bliss Tower, Hudson Terrace, Price Chopper and the Dunn Memorial Bridge. He shifted over to the Stockport Highway department in the early 70’s and stayed for 20 years before moving to Columbia County building maintenance.

Looking for a craft to supplement his eventual retirement, Bob began learning shoe repair. In this disposable world, why repair shoes?

“One word, gratifying. Blacksmiths were the first recyclers, shoe repair is another form.” Bob trained with Joe Bent for a year and a half. “Joe never said, ‘that’s good enough.’ It was either good or he gave it back to me to do over. It takes a little longer to do it right once, a lot longer to do it wrong twice.” Bob’s work is first-rate so people still drop their shoes off at Brown’s in Chatham for Bob to repair and pick up them up the following week.

Back in the mid 70’s he had some metal that needed to be bent to mend a plow. One week later Bob stumbled on to a blacksmithing class offered at the Hancock Shaker Village near Pittsfield. He took the class, studying with master smith Bill Senseney, and it got in his blood; immediately he began shopping around for old hammers and anvils and a forge. “Once you smell the coal smoke you’re hooked. Learning what heat can do to metal, taking a solid, immovable object and reshaping is fascinating. Hot metal is like modeling clay.”

Bob made all the iron for his house, door latches, hinges, doorknockers, boot scrapers. Bob picks up a tire iron, “What’s this look like to you?”
“A tire iron.”

He fingers the hex end, “Looks like a candle holder to me.”

Bob joined the Berkshire Blacksmiths in 1987, a group formed by Bill Senseney to promote blacksmithing, there were seven members at the time, today there are 200. Blacksmiths were notoriously secretive about the tricks of their trade, unfortunately many extraordinary techniques died with the old guys. “It’s important to pass it along, share the knowledge, otherwise it’ll be lost forever.” Bob’s friend Francis Fabiano told him there were once seven blacksmith shops in Hudson, now they’re gone, the heritage is lost. This is why Bob demonstrates his craft at every opportunity around the area; anywhere he can practice this fascinating art form.

Bob will soon resume his studies advancing to the next level of blacksmithing. “Everybody should learn blacksmithing to gain the patience needed to raise a family. You’ll be a better parent. With blacksmithing you can’t rush the fire, you have to wait for the iron to get hot, then one step at a time you mold and shape it. Kids are the future of blacksmithing, all kids from 70 on down.”

A few years ago Bob had a female apprentice, now she’s teaching, passing it down, “There’s no pay in it, but you don’t work 85 hours in five days if you don’t love it.” Bob grins and tells me his dream is to be good enough to train others to be master smiths, “Teaching teaches you, pushes you to be better.”

We’ll talk next time From The Road.

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