Forging Ahead

By Nelson Sigelman
Martha's Vineyard Times
November 06, 1997

Fire, iron, water and muscle are the bare elements of T. Whitney Hanschka's workplace and trade.

Mr. Hanschka, a self-taught blacksmith, cajoles metal pulled from the heat of his forge into practical, everyday things. But a simple coat hook, a pair of fireplace tongs, or an elaborate wrought iron coffee table all carry the unique patina that comes from every blow of a craftsman's hammer and spirit.

Iron does not yield easily. It must be heated, pounded, and heated again until it surrenders to the blacksmith's tools and purpose. Mr. Hanschka finds satisfaction in that process.

"What I am doing has use," says Mr. Hanschka, who eschews any sculptural pretensions and takes pride in the simple functional beauty and value of what he makes.

"I enjoy the process of starting with iron bars and turning them into this," he says as he holds up a turned pair of fireplace tongs.

It was desire to help shape young people that kindled Mr. Hanschka's own interest in shaping metal. Mr. Hanschka was a carpenter at the Gannon and Benjamin wooden boat yard when he took a job teaching wooden boat building at a school for troubled kids on Penikese Island. On Penikese, teachers and students live and work together without the benefit of electricity. Self-reliance is a key to the experience.

Mr. Hanschka, who had some experience with metal work at Gannon and Benjamin fashioning boat fittings, decided to teach the kids how to work with metal. He welded up a forge, and suddenly kids who had never made anything in their lives were able to make everyday objects needed at the school.

It was also a learning experience for Mr. Hanschka as he read and experimented in an effort to learn more about the art and techniques of blacksmithing.

"I tried to stay one step ahead of the kids," says Mr. Hanschka.

Intent on "scrounging up tools for the kids," Mr. Hanschka attended a meeting of the New England Blacksmiths and met people who were earning a living in a creative way.

"It was an inspiring experience," says Mr. Hanschka.

After teaching for almost four years, Mr. Hanschka returned to the Vineyard, where he had maintained a small forge that he worked at during his weeks off Penikese. Newly married, he built a house and returned to Gannon and Benjamin, still intent on following his inspiration.

A forge he built himself and an anvil dominate the small spare workshop that Mr. Hanschka set up in an old wooden building behind Louis' restaurant last winter. That was when the former mechanical engineering student, teacher, and wooden boat carpenter decided the time was right to set up a shop full time.

Metal bar stock and odd bits of steel he has salvaged sit outside the back door. Smithing coal rests in a bin until it is needed for the forge, where it will be used to generate the heat needed to make metal malleable. Mr. Hanschka works with iron heated to a temperature between 1,200 and 2,200 degrees.

At that temperature, "it moves like clay," says Mr. Hanschka.

Much of his business has come from word of mouth and commissions. Still, at $385 for a five-piece set of fireplace tools, craftsmanship is not inexpensive.

Mr. Hanschka admits he cannot compete with catalogue items in price, but overall, he says, hand-made wrought iron is undergoing a revival, and appreciation is growing among people able to afford it.

"There is nothing like the look and feel of something hand forged," says Mr. Hanschka. "Each piece is unique."

While not ruling out metal sculpture in the future, for now Mr. Hanschka finds his artistic expression in the practical. He points to wooden boat building as one example.

"You can make an oar and have it be functional and beautiful," says Mr. Hanschka. "The important thing is in making things well, that look good."

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