“Failure is absolutely an option,” the blacksmith says, pulling a block of red-hot steel from his forge and setting it on the anvil between us. “In our case, it’s a great option.”
Good. Because between my inadequate sledgehammer skills and my uneasiness with 1,700-degree metal, failure seems imminent. Somehow, this shapeless hunk of high-end steel is supposed to become a ring — a feat that feels impossible to a first-time forger like me.
Craig Cowan thrives on that feeling. To the self-taught blacksmith who’s spent a decade honing his technique, that process — taking raw material and figuring out how to make it something beautiful — is what makes his work so exciting.
“It keeps me young,” jokes Cowan, who is 29. For the past four years, he’s owned and operated The Barefoot Forge, a blacksmith shop in Allison Park. His specialty: rings of modern Damascus steel, an alloy known for the patterns it produces during the forging process. Its properties mean no two rings ever come out the same; each tells the story of the person who forged it. That’s why failure is such a great option, Cowan explains — the more mistakes I make with a sledgehammer, the more unique the final product becomes.
“We want to embrace change,” says Cowan. “We want to take your little mistakes and imperfections and turn them into bigger ones. Let’s make it weird, you know? Let’s push [the ring] as far as we can without it falling apart.”
This opportunity — the chance to experiment, swing large hammers, mess up, and produce something wholly unique — draws people from around the country to Cowan’s shop, where they spend anywhere from a few hours to several days learning blacksmithing techniques and forging rings themselves.
“Usually it’s people who want to make a wedding ring,” says Cowan. “Sometimes couples come in and make each other’s rings, or amateur blacksmiths come in to learn something new.” His customers, he says, come for both the rings and the experience. “So many people are into this now, and they really value the experience of trying blacksmithing for themselves.”
It’s a good time to be in business. The rise of the maker movement (and, according to some professionals, the popularity of “Game of Thrones”) has led to a surge of renewed interest in blacksmithing, both around the world and locally. The History Channel’s blacksmith-reality show, “Forged in Fire,” is now in its fourth season. Cowan, who plans to offer group lessons later this year, says hundreds of people have signed up for his waiting list. And he’s even gotten some national attention: You can spot him swinging a sledgehammer in the Pittsburgh episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown.”
“That was a lot of fun,” Cowan says of working with Bourdain’s crew. “They wanted B-roll footage that represented Pittsburgh.”
His shop certainly does that. Stocked with industrial machines — many of which Cowan bought from old factories and refurbished and customized himself — The Barefoot Forge bridges the city’s mass-produced past with its entrepreneurial, do-it-yourself future. Modern blacksmithing and other maker fields blend art with craft, new with old, and thoughtful design with hands-on hard work.
“Blacksmithing is so interdisciplinary. That’s one of the things I like about it most,” says Cowan. In describing how his forge works, for example, he jumps from thermodynamics to the price of gold to the history of Damascus steel. He’s part blacksmith, part jeweler and part philosopher, and while he clearly takes safety seriously (I had to be reminded several times to put on my safety glasses), he’s also a joker and a born storyteller — traits that put visitors like me at ease while he explains how to use an angle grinder, a 25-ton hydraulic press and other limb-threatening tools not typically wielded by journalists.
Which brings me back to the steel I’ve been hammering against an anvil. After a couple of swings, the strength in my arm gives out, but the steel looks vaguely round as it cools. We make some adjustments before plunging it into the forge again, a process we’ll repeat several times before switching to machines for cutting and polishing. Throughout the afternoon — one punctuated by talk of power tools, pizza and the merits of the Grateful Dead — the steel becomes more and more ring-like until, to my amazement, I do indeed have a wearable piece of jewelry.
It’s perfect in its own way, but Cowan assures me my next one will be even better. “That’s the thing about blacksmithing,” he says. “There’s this absurd learning curve in the beginning, but once you get the feel for it, you realize it’s something you can do. You realize what’s possible. And then you push yourself a little bit further.”