Forging Ahead
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Forging Ahead

When Local 6 member Reuben Huibers isn’t constructing roofs, he’s in his backyard forge, turning scrap metal into functional art

By Cathy Miehm

REUBEN HUIBERS HAS TAKEN THE trade of his ancestors and elevated it to art.

He works long days as a roofer with BML Roofing Systems Inc., in Brantford, Ontario. But in his free time, he’s in his backyard forge, turning metal into beautiful knives and other functional pieces.

“I come from a long line of ironworkers and growing up believed that was in the cards for me,” he says. “Life kind of shot me in a different direction.”

Born and raised in Innisfil, Ontario, about an hour north of Toronto, Reuben moved to Brantford in 2008 in search of job opportunities. He soon found work with BML. The job is satisfying but, as he approached his 30s, he was looking for a creative outlet. He longed to get back to the metalwork he had learned from his father.

“I was living in an apartment, and that really wasn’t a conducive workspace,” he says. “So, I saved up enough money, put a down payment on a house, and moved in 2018. I initially bought the house with the sole desire of having some kind of shop space to get into blacksmithing.”

Since his house is in the middle of the city, he had to design and build a forge that would meet his needs and not be too disruptive for the neighbours.

“I built myself a 12- foot by 12-foot shop, which is also 12 feet high, so it’s essentially a giant cube,” says Reuben. “If you know what you’re looking for, you can see my cube shop from a mile away. I purposely built it with a four-foot by four-foot skylight in the middle that I can crank open, so all the hot air gets sucked out of the top.”

The heat source for the forge is propane, which he says is much less smoky than traditional coal forges. It suits his needs and keeps the air clean for the neighbours.

WITH HIS SHOP IN PLACE, Reuben turned his full attention to his craft. Even with his family background, he found he had a lot to learn.

“I grew up watching my dad doing ironwork,” he says. “But getting into forging was a completely different beast. In ironworking, there’s a lot of welding and cutting with angle grinders. Forging is heating up the metal until it’s red hot and moving the metal with a hammer.”

Reuben had to go through a lot of metal in the early days. Fortunately, the construction sites where he was roofing proved to be a handy resource.

“I’m on a lot of different job sites, and it became a veritable treasure hunt to see what good scraps of steel I could find,” he says. “A really great source for good knife steel happens to be leaf springs from derelict vehicles or trailers.”

Once Reuben chooses a piece of metal for a knife, he cuts it down to a manageable size and heats it until it’s bright red. He then hammers the hot metal into a basic blade shape.

“After I get the rough shape, it’s a matter of a lot of fine-tuning with belt sanders and files,” he says. “I particularly love the file work. Getting the bevels filed in is a real joy for me. After that, a lot of woodworking comes into play for the handles.”

The knife handle can feature a hidden tang (the metal piece that runs through the wood) or a full tang.

“Hidden tangs are really easy for blacksmiths to make,” says Reuben. “You heat the tang up until it’s cherry red, and you can essentially burn it right into the block of wood. After everything cools down, you can glue your wooden handle onto the tang, and from there you can do your shaping.

“Full tangs run through the length of the handle, and the metal is visible on the edges. They are more work, but also offer better balance and leverage. I think they make a better knife.”

A simple blacksmith knife with no wooden handle can be finished in about four hours. But it can take 36 hours to make the sort of high-end knives for which Reuben is becoming well known. He started out making hunting and bushcraft knives but has recently been testing his talents with chef’s knives.

“That’s the next level,” he says. “You don’t just start on chef’s knives.”

His favourite project was a mokume-gane guard, which he forged for his boss as a wedding present. This traditional Japanese technique uses two or more different metals that are alternately stacked, compressed, and heated to a high temperature. The result is the fusing of all layers into a solid block of metal, or a billet.

“I stacked nickel and copper with a teardrop pattern,” says Reuben. “I drilled holes halfway through the billet and then forged that flat so all the layers kind of pop out and you can see all the lines. That was probably the trickiest thing I’ve ever done.”

HE IS ALSO FINDING IT TRICKY to keep up with the growing demand for his knives. His reputation has spread by word of mouth alone—no marketing, social media, or craft shows.

Apart from being busy with his job, the weather is a big factor in when he can fire up the forge.

“During the summer, when it’s 30-plus degrees outside, it’s not really a fun time to be in a little 12-by-12 shed with a forge going,” he says. “Typically, I’m doing that a lot more in the winter time, when roofing can really depend on the weather. We’ll get a couple weeks here and there where it’s slow, and that’s my designated hobby time. That’s when I get to make a lot of commissions.”

The extra money helps, since he is now raising a young son with his partner, Crystal. She not only supports his hobby but also gets involved.

“We actually designed a kitchen knife together, which was a lot of fun, and it turned out amazing,” he says.

Reuben encourages everyone with an artistic soul to find a creative outlet.

“Being able to make things that are beautiful, that just makes me happy,” he says. “Going back to 2017, I was single, I was lonely, I was at a crossroads where I was depressed, and I just didn’t know what to do. I’ve always been a creator since I was a child, and so having this space available to me has been so beneficial for my mental health.”

A Brief History of an Ancient Craft

The Iron Age – Forging, or blacksmithing, can be traced to the Hittites (1600-1180 B.C.), who lived in what is modern-day Syria and long held a monopoly on the craft. As the empire crumbled, its people migrated westward and took their skills with them. Ancient smiths began forging iron in wood fires but soon learned that wood converted to charcoal produced a much better fire, and its intensity could be increased by blasting it with air. The introduction of steel also led to stronger weapons and tools.

The Middle Ages – By the fall of the Roman empire, most towns and villages in Europe had at least one blacksmith. (The number of people today with the last name Smith shows just how popular the trade was.) They were kept busy with demands for better tools and weapons and stronger armour. Specialized smiths also created items such as locks, silverware, nails, and chains. During this era, charcoal was the fuel of choice. Coal didn’t become readily available until the 19th century.

The Industrial Revolution – By the 1850s, a technique to mass-produce high-quality steel meant factories could quickly turn out most goods once produced at village forges. Smiths across Europe started to disappear, unable to compete with the new technology. Some were able to turn their hand to horseshoes and became farriers, which kept them working until the advent of the horseless carriage. With the invention of the automobile, blacksmithing became more of a specialty service, usually reserved for businesses or wealthy people wanting decorative items such as gates, fences, and railings.

The 21st Century – Today’s blacksmiths use modern technology combined with traditional smithing techniques to create everything from tools to beautiful art pieces. There are many blacksmithing associations and guilds across Canada for people interested in learning more about the art.

Sources: thecrucible.org, dragonfiretools.com

Forged in Fire

People often ask Reuben if his love of blacksmithing was sparked by the popular TV series Forged in Fire.

“I haven’t seen the show once,” he admits.

While his love of the craft came organically, there is no denying the popularity of the show has brought more people to the forge.

The History Channel reality show features competitors who recreate weapons from different eras, ranging from Japanese katanas to medieval broadswords to ancient throwing blades.

Each episode has three rounds. In the first, four contestants make a blade. After one contender is eliminated, the remaining three fine-tune their weapons and add a handle. The two best from this round then have five days to go back to their home forges to create one historic weapon. These are tested when they return to the studio. The winner gets $10,000 and the honour of being a Forged in Fire champion.

The show debuted in 2015 and is still on fire after nine seasons.

Source: pajiba.com

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