Fifth-generation blacksmith keeps the legacy alive
May/June 2011 California Country magazine
Story by Kate Campbell
Photos by Stephanie Austin
San Luis Obispo County blacksmith Max Randolph sends the ringing sound of hammer on anvil across the Central Coast as he forms metal tools, fittings and decorative pieces. He frequently exhibits and sells his creations at local art festivals.
The ringing sound of metal beating metal is as much a part of California history as the Bear Flag Revolt and the discovery of gold. Blacksmithing, a metal craft that traces its origins back to the Iron Age, was essential to California's early farmers and ranchers, who counted on local blacksmiths for equipment repairs and the forging of new farm implements.
Although the Industrial Age brought mass-produced hardware and equipment to America's farm towns, and buggies and horse-drawn wagons gave way to cars and pickup trucks, the tradition of hand-forged metal equipment, fixtures and decorative items has lived on in California.
Max Randolph, an Atascadero blacksmith who owns Legacy Forge, credits "osmosis" for his skill and passion. A fifth-generation blacksmith on California's Central Coast, the 22-year-old said he has always liked working with his hands, and molten metal is his preferred form of creation.
"In the old days, if a farmer lost a tooth on a rake, he'd take it to a blacksmith to have it fixed," Randolph said. "Or he'd come in with a design for a tool and the smithy would create it. These days, broken tools are usually just replaced.
"But what's interesting now is that people are reverting back to well-made hardware and tools that have character, love and durability built into them," he said, referring to the many custom projects he makes for clients. He said contractors working on custom homebuilding or remodeling projects seek him out for handmade cabinet hardware, light fixtures, railings, hinges, latches, gates and doors.
While still in high school, Randolph tracked down his great-great-grandfather's anvil and took up a hammer he made himself.
"In high school, I seemed to have a hammer in my hand more often than a pencil or pen," he acknowledged. "I don't usually tell people this, but I always have my favorite hammer with me. I'm embarrassed to say I sleep with it on my bedside table."
Forging is a process for shaping metal through compression that still is a primary form of industrial fabrication. But the age-old hammer and anvil techniques, such as smiths like Randolph use, are not obsolete even on a commercial scale.
In his own shop, Randolph heats metals to 2,000 to 3,000 degrees to form and shape the objects his clients desire. He works with iron, steel, stainless steel, titanium, nickel, silver, copper and brass.
"I'll admit that getting burned by flying metal is extremely painful," Randolph said. "It's filthy work, but I love it because I find purpose in what I make, in creating things that endure and that make people happy for a very long time. I find my worth in what I do."
Randolph said he starts each day at his forge and anvil with the music and rhythm of his hammer singing out.
"I sometimes joke that if I went to the doctor and he checked my heart, he'd hear an anvil ringing," he said. "My neighbors say they love the sound and sometimes wonder which hammer I'm working with, how heavy it is. They come by to check on my projects. It's funny to hear them talk about how much they like the sounds I make."
In addition to hardware, fittings and fixtures, Randolph also makes jewelry, sculptures and decorative pieces, often exhibiting at local art festivals. He said he's not much of a traveler and doesn't venture very far to show his work. Examples can be found online at www.legacyforgesmithing.com.
Kate Campbell is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or email@example.com.