Interview with Toby Hickman
Part 1

by Rob Edwards

Published in the December 1998 Issue of Anvil Magazine

October, 1998, at California Blacksmith Association 20th Annual Oktoberfest

ANVIL: Toby, you used to show your blacksmithing wares at the Renaissance Faire in Novato, California.

TOBY: Yes, from 1976 to 1988, along with blacksmith and knife maker Carl Schroen, the late Gene Fleming, Bruce Northridge, Joe Anderson and various other friends and fellow smiths. The Novato event is the northern version of the original Renaissance Faire.

ANVIL: Did you travel around other Renaissance Faires, or just that one?

TOBY: I did the one in Los Angeles for a couple of years. The Renaissance Faire, for me, was always an inexpensive and easy source of architectural customers. In some ways, the chain Iím following right now began there. Customers I sold to at the Faire recommended me to people who recommended me to others. Some had me make lighting fixtures for them, which led me to stores that then represented my work to other people and the whole thing has grown. Iíd say 40 to 50 percent

of the business I do today started as a chain from the Renaissance Faire.

ANVIL: What did you do prior

to 1976?

TOBY: I made a lot of knives. Thatís how I started out. I thought I was going to fill the Ďunanswered needí for a good bosunís knife. I was convinced that I could make a living making bosunís knives.

ANVIL: I understand you went to college; what was your major?

TOBY: I studied history, as well as linguistics, sociology and psychology.

I was trying to find a way to reach kids who couldnít read through presenting the material to them in a context they could understand. I would only know that by knowing what they did understand.

ANVIL: Did you pursue that later on?

TOBY: No. By the time I graduated with a BA and was going into the

teaching program, I realized that I would probably end up in jail if I taught. I just didnít have the patience for it. At that time I was also trying to get my blacksmith shop, Waylan Smithy, started and I was much more interested in smithing than I was

in staying in college any longer.

ANVIL: Where was the first location of Waylan Smithy?

TOBY: At the same place I am located right now. My original shop was on the same piece of property. Itís northwest of Petaluma, in the rolling grasslands, located in a renovated chicken barn.

ANVIL: Now you primarily do architectural work.

TOBY: Actually, what I do mainly is lighting. I do a few architectural projects every year, but I would say that a good 80 percent is frames for lights. I have about five different lighting companies that I make fixtures for.

ANVIL: You havenít gotten out of the teaching profession entirely, because Iíve talked to several people who have told me that if you hadnít yelled at them at the appropriate time, they still wouldnít know how to swing a hammer!

TOBY: I havenít demonstrated for the California Blacksmith Association (CBA) in a long time, but I generally do one or two demos a year. They all involve hammer control.

ANVIL: In the meantime, however, you did manage to get involved in ABANA. Were you one of its founding members?

TOBY: No, but I was one of the founding members of the CBA. I was CBAís second president and third vice president and served three or four terms on the Board.

ANVIL: Youíve had an illustrious political career in blacksmithing organizations.

TOBY: Iíve always felt that if you enjoy these organizations, then youíve got to stand up and take your turn.

ANVIL: You also held a position on the Board of ABANA, didnít you?

TOBY: I served six years. It takes a lot of time. Youíve got to get in there and direct these organizations. They are sophisticated organizations by now; they have real budgets, and we can do real projects. Tonight, in fact, Iím going to announce that weíre set to photograph the house of old-time and well-known blacksmith, Carl Jennings. We have a professional photographer and weíre going to put together a work crew and help Carl get his grounds in shape. Carl is in his late eighties now. (See ANVIL interview June, 1992).

CBA has put up $1200 and ABANA has put up $1,000. I hope to raise another $300 or so tonight and find someone to run it. The organizations have the money to do that kind of thing now. They had the money to help Stephen Bondi go over to Italy

to photograph the Mozzucatelli work (See ANVIL interview June, 1998).

ANVIL: Youíve served on several ABANA committees.

TOBY: Yes, I was on the Conference Committee and was chairman of the ABANA Library Committee when we transitioned from trying to actually be a library where people get books to being a tape library where you can take out videotapes. ABANA has a very extensive list, from Jerry Darnell making Colonial lighting to Clifton Ralph demonstrating power hammer techniques, as well as a lot of informative blacksmithing videos in between.

We took all the books and put them at the Metals Museum in Nashville, Tennessee. To differentiate, the National Ornamental Miscellaneous Metals Association (NOMMA) in Atlanta, Georgia, is a professional organization aimed at ornamental iron and blacksmithing. ABANA is interested in the art of blacksmithing and the preservation of the knowledge of blacksmithing. The Metals Museum in Nashville is a physical site capable of archiving and preserving both books and information as well as iron pieces. Youíve got three very important organizations that will keep us from becoming a lost art again. The books are at the Metals Museum now, but the videotapes are available through the ABANA office. There is a wealth of valuable and interesting information. You have to have patience, though, because video is a rather boring medium in certain respects. We realized very early on when I was on the Library Committee that we could not afford to have an edited blacksmith tape; the price was just prohibitive. So what we relied on is people with a fast forward to edit out the information theyíre not interested in. George Dixon asked Rocky Comfort Forge to videotape the 1998 Asheville, North Carolina ABANA conference. And itís probably the

most extensively video-documented conference ever. Those tapes should

be available in a couple of months. Theyíre going to be well edited and quite concise. A lot of ABANAís tapes are ones that were shot by members who volunteered and there is a lot of great stuff. If you want to learn to blacksmith now, itís certainly not like it was when I first started to look for information on the subject.

ANVIL: So youíd say that ABANA and CBA are primarily educational organizations, then.

TOBY: They are by their charters, yes. Their charters prohibit them from being anything other than that. They are both nonprofit educational organizations. When people get upset about ABANA not fostering professionals, thatís not ABANAís job. NOMMA is about fostering blacksmithing professionals and providing avenues of marketing and providing access to tooling and things like that — although ABANA has a lot of great tools and plans for tools available from the office also.

ANVIL: I believe you said that 80 percent of your blacksmithing work is lighting; could you expound on that somewhat?

TOBY: I have companies that just buy parts from me — forged parts only. They might purchase, for example, sixteen inches of 1/4Ē x 4Ē with a given texture on it in a given direction. Sometimes we cut them to length or to angle, sometimes we give them the raw part and they cut them. I have companies that send me drawings of lights and provide glass that has been blown for them — in fact, I have a hard-and-fast rule: no glass, no light. I donít make a light for glass I donít have, because glass is very undependable and very uncontrollable. Just because someone tells you that the glass is going to be 24Ē round by 5Ē deep doesnít mean it is. And so when I make up a light for blown glass or slump glass, even, I want the piece of glass Iím going to be hanging.

ANVIL: Whatís the difference between slump glass and blown glass?

TOBY: Slump glass is glass that is heated up to the temperature where glass becomes viscous and flows. It usually is a negative form and the glass sags, or Ďslumpsí into the form. Itís handy for making bowls and arched pieces. Itís not really very good for intricate pieces. A lot of lighting is simply a bent piece or a bowl, so slumping is marvelous for that. And you can get all kinds of different qualities — you can slump art glass, you can take Ďfrit,í which is ground glass, and lay it together and fuse it. Then you slump that and it gives you all kinds of great textures. Blown glass is glass that someone takes on the end of a tube and puts a puff of air into it and expands it into a vessel, and then adds color to it, if desired. Then they pull and tug at it to shape, or blow it into a form. They make a piece of glass thatís generally thicker and more patterned. It has a different quality than the slump glass. Blown glass is really something special, thereís no doubt about that. It has that extra Ďenergyí in it, like forged iron does, that just makes it go one step beyond in its attractiveness to the eye.

ANVIL: What percentage of your lighting work is iron, as opposed to bronze and other metals?

TOBY: I personally donít like nonferrous metals very much. I do very little bronze; I do some copper. But I think iron forges better than any other metal I know of. I find the finished product on bronzes is quite beautiful, but the process is a pain in the neck! Itís finicky, it doesnít like to be interrupted, it doesnít like to have a fuller run into it. It cold works mean — I simply like iron. So Iíd say 99.5 percent of my work is forged in iron.

ANVIL: Essentially mild steel, you mean.

TOBY: Yes.

ANVIL: Do you make both exterior and interior lighting fixtures?

TOBY: Yes; most of it tends to be interior. Thatís because the bulk of my lights either go into private houses or restaurants.

ANVIL: Do you have a standard finish?

TOBY: I donít finish a lot of my work, actually. I probably finish less than ten percent. The people who buy it from me finish it. The kind of scenario Iíve tried to set up with a lot of my customers is: Why should you pay me $75 an hour to do what you can do in-house for your labor cost? And most of these people have $8 to $12 an hour labor costs, on top of everything else. So the further I get from the forge, the lower my profit margin. I encourage people to assemble the things I make, I encourage them to paint the things I make, and to basically do everything but forge the things I make for them.

ANVIL: Most of your clients are other blacksmiths, then?

TOBY: No, most of my clients are lighting companies. I have one customer who has fabric, wood and fabrication shops and does restaurant interiors extensively. I do the forgings that are part of that. His jobs may be $120,000; $8,000 to $15,000 of that

is in forgings. The rest of it is a whole bunch of other stuff. But I do his forgings. Heís got cheaper labor to do all the rest, including the finishing and installation of my forged items.

ANVIL: What kind of equipment do you have?

TOBY: I have a 2B Nazel power hammer and Iím working on getting another one. I have a 15-ton press. Iím trying to get a 30-ton going, but Iíd actually like to kick it up to 50 or 60. Iíd love to end up with a 200-ton press. Iíve got a nice Ellis saw, a Powcon welder, and a Miller Synchrowave TIG welder. Iím a bit short on the rolling tooling, but that is my next goal, to get some good rolls for doing hoops and things like that.

ANVIL: How many employees do you have?

TOBY: Right now I have three working full time and two guys who work three days a week and four when I can twist their arms into it. Then I still have my beloved Jimmy Fischer, who comes in about once every six weeks or so. Jimmyís the one who got me thinking about machine tools and taking forged parts and machining them afterwards so that they would fit together well and be easy to assemble for those who end up doing the assembling — thatís how I get out of doing the assembly portion. I make them easy to assemble for other people to do. Jimmy came to work for me in 1982. He has worked off and on for me ever since. In the mid Ď90s, Jimmy was working four days a week for me. Heís sort of slowly reappearing again.

ANVIL: This 200-ton press you want to get is a real monster.

TOBY: Yes!

ANVIL: Is this a Ďmachoí thing?

TOBY: Don Hawley once said, ĎIn this business, there is no substitute for power.í Thatís what itís all about. If you want to move metal, youíve got to have the force. The difference between a press and a hammer is impact and pressure. A hammer comes down and hits, and gets off; a hammer works the surface of things. A press comes in and loads that thing, locks the points of contact, and then works from inside the material. If you upset a piece in a hammer, the top ends roll over and you have an I-shaped thing. If you were to upset it in a press, the tops and bottoms stay almost the same size because theyíre chilled on the plates and the middle bulges. Itís just a different kind of force and you can do all kinds of things with it. I want the power. I do a lot of canopies and bowls and I bend forms with my presses now. I canít do much forging with them — the ones I have just donít have the power thatís needed. With a 200-ton press, I could really do some forgings.

ANVIL: A lot of blacksmiths donít have the heavy equipment like the Nazel 2B you have. Do you do forgings for other smiths?

TOBY: We do, and weíre perfectly open to doing forgings for anybody. Iím not attached to the fact that it has to be my style or anything like that. I can do anyoneís style.

ANVIL: You mentioned some other blacksmiths that you used to work the Renaissance Faire with. I noted a couple of names in there who now have big hammers. Has that been a progression?

TOBY: Well, Bruce Northridge claims that I ruined him, taking him away from his 50-pound Little Giant and having him do a job for me one time on a Nazel. All of a sudden, the light came on for him. (See ANVIL interview December, 1992).

ANVIL: In your particular case, it all started out at the Renaissance Faire where you obviously got this real feel for iron and for dealing with customers. Now you have a production shop. Youíve found your niche and youíre getting bigger equipment. Some of your compatriots have followed along the same path. Where do you go from here?

TOBY: In the direction of making money! When I started doing this at the end of the Ď60s, we began using big equipment and a bunch of us were really on board by 1975. Weíre all maturing now, and this is the time of life to take a careerís worth of expertise and turn it into some bucks.

ANVIL: You guys have certainly paid your dues.

TOBY: But if you donít run a profitable business, obviously you donít make money. It isnít like anyone owes you anything. Even if they do, theyíre not going to pay you unless you sell something for more than it cost you to make it.

ANVIL: I think one of the problems that blacksmiths have had in regard to making money is they are a little too artistically Ďright-brainedí.

TOBY: That may be. For years, I gave away my work. I thought of commissions as opportunities to work on technique that I was interested in — to upset square corners, to slit-drift a gate — to do all the blacksmithing techniques that I was totally enamored with and absolutely desirous of mastering. So no matter how high I set the price on a project, I always exceeded the bid because I did more work than the customer ever knew there was to do. I stopped doing that four or five years ago and now Iím hard-nosed about saying, ĎYouíve got this much money which amounts to this many hours of work that I usually do.í Itís also one of the reasons I really love production because if I can make $75 an hour on the first run of a product, Iím probably going to make $125 an hour on the fourth run. The tooling is all paid for, my guys know how to do the work, they know what to watch out for, they know what the efficiencies are — how many pieces make a good run. And so we really make money on it. There are still a lot of jobs weíre lucky to clear $35 an hour on. But not anywhere near as many as there used to be.

ANVIL: As the proprietor of your own business, are you now stuck with the administrative function instead of the type of things you want to do?

TOBY: Quite a bit of it, yes. Now that Iím getting older, I really donít want to blacksmith 40 hours a week. Iím lucky that Iíve got such great help; I still do enjoy the work, and I enjoy the big iron, but it wears me out. A lot of what I do is prototyping — hereís the job; this is what it is going to look like. Iíll make part of a piece or Iíll make a bar and set the theme. Is it going to be tapering an octagonal or rectangular cross-section? Is it going to be a heavy gew-gaw which is hit-turn-pinch-pinch-pinch kind of texture? Is it going to have a rolled edge or a flattened edge? I set the parameters on the piece and then I turn it over to my crew and they make it. I come in and fine-tune the project, but in general they are getting better and better at knowing what choice I would make. When they find themselves coming to a point of decision and theyíre not sure what to do, they come and ask me. Yes, I probably spend as much time on the phone as I do at the forge. And thatís making sure we understand what the customer is asking for. We do a lot of engineering. A lot of what I offer my customers is saying to them, ĎYou figure out what itís supposed to look like and weíll figure out how to make it.í Most of my customers donít have a clue. They may say, ĎWe want it to be a tree.í And thatís all they can tell me. So we ask them what kind of tree? Whatís going to hold the tree up? I used to tell this one young designer to start at the wall. Donít start out in space. What keeps it from falling down? Answer that question first. What holds the glass up in a lighting socket? How do the wires get to each fixture? You have to answer these physical questions before you can begin to make the art because if the art doesnít get the wire there, the fixture doesnít glow! So a lot of what I do is go over drawings with my customers and make sure that I understand what they need, and that they understand Iím going to have to do this, that, or the other thing to attach it to the wall or to hold it up to the ceiling.

Look for Part II of Toby Hickmanís interview in the January, 1999 issue of ANVIL Magazine.

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