Man forges raw bars of iron into useful, indestructible art

By Dan Nielsen
Traverse City Record-Eagle

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) - He wields a heavy hammer like Thor. He has a massive fortress of solitude like Superman. His brain bursts with creativity like Tony Stark.

Dan Nickels uses his powers for good. He forges raw bars of iron into indestructible things of beauty and utility, the Traverse City Record-Eagle reported.

"My work is my advertisement," Nickels said.

His blacksmith work is spread across northern Michigan in homes, restaurants, wineries and other businesses from Cadillac to Mackinac Island. His iron creations are visible at Red Mesa Grill, Blackstar Farms, Willow Vineyards and The Homestead.

His craftsmanship serves aboard the tall ship Madeline. Most of his work ends up in private residences. He recently concluded a 2½-year project at a Traverse City residence that included a curving staircase railing and extensive ironwork throughout the house.

Architects sometimes prefer iron railings, Nickels said, because their high strength-to-bulk ratio allows views to show through more readily than thicker wood railings.

One customer wanted a deck railing for a house in Leelanau County. Nickels hatched the idea of shaping iron into branches and leaves, capping the long run of railing with a county map forged of iron that soars seven feet above the decking.

Nickels' products, and those of his apprentice, Derrick Bliss, all are custom made. It's all spoken for before they begin making it.

"Everything we make is sold," said Nickels. "Otherwise, it's the wrong width or height or doesn't fit the space."

The pair works in Nickels' shop in East Bay Township, a massive space with an Industrial Revolution feel, a dirt floor, a high ceiling and the sweet odor of burning coal. The space is packed with metal work tables, anvils, giant vises, racks of tongs and huge machines. A seven-foot-tall air hammer beats large pieces of hot iron into shape more efficiently than a handheld hammer. A coal-fired forge made of brick is the core of the gigantic work space. The large building hulks just inside the edge of the silent green forest southeast of Traverse City.

"I kind of live here in my own private world," said Nickels.

Bliss, 24, took up forge work when he was 9 years old. He toiled with several blacksmiths downstate before apprenticing himself to Nickels five years ago.

"By far, I've learned the most from Dan," said Bliss.

"I'm trying to teach this young whippersnapper something," Nickels said.

Nickels has devoted some time during his 30 years of forge work to teaching others the traditional trade. He was technical adviser when the National Park Service set up the blacksmith shop in Glen Haven.

In Nickels' shop, Bliss heated two pieces of iron bar in the coal-fired forge until their ends glowed orange. He and Nickels each used iron tongs to hold the pieces, orange end atop orange end, against an anvil. Bliss repeatedly swung a hammer to batter the two glowing chunks of metal until they bonded into a single long bar.

Various partly finished projects are scattered through the shop and await attention.

Bliss intends to someday open his own shop in the area. He is for now still inhaling knowledge from Nickels' 30 years of experience.

"The job always changes," Bliss said. "You get to look at your finished product and say, 'We made that from nothing, or almost nothing.'"

The men buy raw iron in 20-foot lengths of bar stock. They craft it into intricate designs that feature twists, intersections and fanciful designs. Nickels made a trip to Sweden a half-dozen years ago and since created iron dragons and a miniature Viking longboat complete with swords fashioned from nails.

"It's a creative process that you get to relive every day," Nickels said.

Nickels' father was a physician who served in the U.S. Navy before becoming superintendent at the Traverse City State Hospital. His mother was a registered nurse. Nickels recently finished a project he has long had in mind - crafting large iron grave markers that display his parents' achievements.

Three decades ago, Nickels bought a forge while he was employed in the construction industry.

"When I wasn't pounding nails, I was pounding iron," he said.

His new hobby grew into a career. His products run the gamut from large to small. He makes gates, window grates, bottle openers and decorative Nordic dragons made from railroad track.

"If you need a spatula, you might as well make it nice. And indestructible," Nickels said.

Published: Tue, Aug 04, 2015

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