Taming Heavy Metal

By Sandra Zunino

At Sunrise Forge in Royal Oak, Blacksmith Robert Seely turns nondescript iron bars into anything from art to functional hardware using age-old techniques handed down from generations.

Inspired by his grandfather and great grandfather who were also blacksmiths in Pennsylvania, Robert works with metal in much the same way his forefathers did, right down to using some of the same tools. A blacksmith since 1970, Robert started out with a forge set up in a wagon shed on his Frederick County family property.

Sitting on the property was a log house dating back to 1835. Robert worked on the restoration of the house creating authentic Colonial hardware and other ironwork reproductions. This led to providing similar works for historical societies and other historic properties.

Robert was one of the original members of the Artist-Blacksmith Association of North America, founded in 1973, as well as a member of the Mid Atlantic Smith’s Association. Over the years, he has demonstrated blacksmithing in many places, including the Smithsonian Institute.

While much of his work has been sold at craft shows and art galleries, currently Robert concentrates on commissioned projects. “Typically, I will talk to the customers and get an idea of what they want,” he says. “Then I will come back with a sketch.”

Once the sketch is approved, Robert can determine a price for the piece, create a final construction drawing and complete the work. Gates, railings, fountains, weathervanes, sculptures and gallery art pieces have all come from Sunrise Forge. An item might take a week or two and most projects are of Robert’s own design.

The forge on Robert’s property consists of both a coal-burning furnace and a propane furnace. “Generally you work iron at around 2,000 degrees,” says Robert. “If you go up to welding temperature, it is 3,000 degrees.”

Robert starts with pieces of half-inch or quarter-inch round iron bars that are 20 feet long. “I take tongs and stick the metal in the fire until it gets red hot, then take it out and form it on the anvil,” he explains, “by banging away at it.”

A little-known fact is that today’s iron is actually steel. “We don’t use iron anymore,” he says. “Iron is a product that went out after the civil war. Steel is iron with carbon, so when I refer to iron or ironwork it’s actually steel.”

The type of metal Robert uses is called mild steel. “It has the lowest amount of carbon in it, so it is very similar to the old iron that used to be made,” he says.

Robert recently completed a project creating decorative infill pieces for a handicapped railing for the Queen Anne’s County Art Council building. The Maryland Arts Council funded the project. Another project he has pending is to create a lamp to support the eternal flame in an Easton synagogue.

“The kinds of work I get are making things that can’t be readily purchased,” says Robert, “something made out of metal that has some historic value or artistic design that you can’t get anywhere else.”

For more information on Robert Seely’s work or Sunrise Forge visit, www.sunriseforge.net or call 410-745-9400.