Whitney Hanschka Forges Ancient Art of Blacksmithing in Vineyard Haven

By Rachel Nava Rohr
Vineyard Gazette
August 04, 2006

It’s 30 degrees outside and a man wearing many layers of clothing stands between a dirt floor and a low ceiling, in front of a coal-fired blacksmith’s forge, heating a piece of iron in its flames until it glows red. What was immovable when cold becomes putty in the man’s hammer-wielding hands, which are ungloved and black with oxidized iron.

It could be the year 1800 or 1700 – or 1000 if the coal was charcoal, the dirt floor was in Japan and the man was a samurai sword maker. But in fact, the year was 2003 and the dirt floor was in a small unheated studio behind Louis’ Restaurant in Tisbury, where Whitney (Whit) Hanschka blacksmithed for eight years.

“I can probably count on one hand the number of days I didn’t go to work because of the cold,” Mr. Hanschka said.

These days, Mr. Hanschka works in a larger studio off Holmes Hole Road in Tisbury, with luxuries such as heat and running water. But his profession – from the burning hearth of the forge and raw materials to the principles and skills of the craft – still evokes the ancient and timeless.

“There’s something elemental about it,” said Mr. Hanschka, who has been the artist-blacksmith of Hanschka Fine Metalwork for 10 years. “It’s very physical, but you’re translating your physical effort into making something into a beautiful form.”

Mr. Hanschka uses wrought iron, bronze, stainless steel and copper to forge custom items like railings, fireplace screens, hinges, tables, fences and weathervanes, that are as often as striking in form as they are in function.

“One of the things I like is the problem-solving aspect. You want it to be beautiful, but you have to make it work in a unique situation,” Mr. Hanschka said. “I enjoy the ongoing challenge of both of those things.”

An avid surfer, sailor and hiker, Mr. Hanschka often incorporates Vineyard flora and fauna into his designs. A gate latch may take the form of a morning glory or fiddlehead. Forged wrens may perch on a bed frame. A hammered copper eel may be swimming through wrought iron eel grass on a fireplace screen. Weathervanes may show wind direction with detailed silhouettes of a cow or an acoustic guitar.

Metal was not Mr. Hanschka’s first medium as an artisan. After growing up sailing and coming to the Island every summer from Lincoln, Mass., he studied mechanical engineering at Stanford University. He returned to the Island after college to work for The Loft making sails, and later at Gannon and Benjamin building and repairing boats.

“That was my first real metalworking experience – except for a little bit of it in college – but my first practical experience,” Mr. Hanschka said of fabricating bronze hardware for the boats.

He met his wife, Nancy Tutko, at Gannon and Benjamin. She was hired to document the construction of a boat that Mr. Hanschka was working on. They married four years later.

After five years at Gannon and Benjamin, it was time for Mr. Hanschka to move on. He took a job teaching boat building at the Penikese Island School for troubled boys, whose mission is teaching 15 to 18-year-olds to live their lives less criminally and violently.

Mr. Hanschka also wore the hats of camp counselor, role model and authority figure, living with the boys for a week at a time on the otherwise uninhabited island in the Elizabeth Islands, which has no electricity or hot water.

“That kind of metamorphosed into working with the kids building anything,” Mr. Hanschka said. Projects included chairs, a solar shower and a gate.

“After a while I wanted to do metalwork,” he said. “The only thing that was really practical was a traditional coal-fired blacksmithing forge, which I didn’t really know much about.”

Mr. Hanschka did some reading and went back to Gannon and Benjamin to weld a “glorified hibachi.” He then built an enormous bellows to breathe air into the fire, used a foraged piece of railroad track as an anvil and made a small building to enclose it all.

Thus was born the first blacksmithing class on Penikese Island and Mr. Hanschka’s first blacksmithing studio. The first thing he made was a heart from a spring that he straightened out and heated in the forge using charcoal briquettes like those used for a barbeque.

Mr. Hanschka’s work was in demand from day one.

“It was promptly stolen by one of the kids at Penikese,” he said. Not only was it stolen, it was smuggled off the island the same day by a boy who broke his arm and was brought to the hospital for treatment. At the hospital, the booty was found and returned to Mr. Hanschka.

“I was flattered that the kids would steal it,” he said. But he was pleased to have it back. “I gave it to my girlfriend, who is now my wife,” he added.

Blacksmithing proved difficult to teach.

“It was very challenging to actually have kids make pretty objects,” Mr. Hanschka said. “It’s easy to get something hot and smoosh it around with a hammer, but to actually hammer out something that’s pretty…”

One 15-year-old student was successful. He forged and filed an entire set of chess pieces. An avid chess player, he played chess by mail with his older brother, who was in prison.

It was during Mr. Hanschka’s three years at Penikese that he attended his first New England Blacksmiths conference.

“That was a real eye-opener – that it might be possible to do this as a living,” Mr. Hanschka said. “Literally, going to their meets changed my life.”

When Mr. Hanschka and his wife closed on a house in Vineyard Haven 10 years ago, he left his job at Penikese, where he had been for three years, and rented out the tiny studio behind Louis’.

Having the larger studio space for the past two years, he has been able to work more efficiently – especially on larger projects like a railing for a spiral staircase and an elaborate fence that goes around a swimming pool. But that is not to say he did not somehow manage to take on large projects before. Without a place to spread out paper to draw designs, he sometimes drew with chalk on the parking lot.

“I enjoy the bigger stuff,” he said with a smile, pouring himself another cup of honeyed green tea from one of two large thermoses he brings to work every day. The tea – like the day – is steaming hot, but Mr. Hanschka doesn’t seem to mind.

He now aspires to delve into sculpture-making as well. A few years ago, he was asked to make a piece for the Family Planning Art Show. He forged a six-foot-tall, free-standing sculpture that moved with the wind. It sold on opening night.

“I loved doing that,” Mr. Hanschka said. “Both to make it, and have it sell.”

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“Fabulous! We love the screen. Just what we had in mind! You captured the feeling! Plus we love the railings! They look so subtle. My 92-year-old mother is coming in August, so we are so happy to give her some comfort!”