Interview with Francis Whitaker

by Rob Edwards

Published in the September and October 1997 Issues of Anvil Magazine

IN the presence Of The Master
Interview with Francis Whitaker, Blacksmith

August 18, 1996 - Carbondale, CO
Part I

Francis Whitaker is currently the blacksmithing instructor at Colorado
Mountain School. In this interview he discusses his life as a beginning
blacksmith in Germany, during the Depression, during WWII and afterwards
in Carmel, Aspen and Carbondale. Francis is now 90 years old, and has
recently published his autobiography, My Life as an Artist-Blacksmith.

ANVIL: We have just finished the fifth Rocky Mountain Smiths/Colorado
Rocky Mountain School Conference. Francis, I know you managed to escape
the lure of the computer. But you do have a computer of sorts; can you
tell us about that?
FRANCIS: Yes. Itís a nice, wooden frame of a 10Ē x 14Ē. Itís the
L.E.A.D. #2 computer. It consists of six #2 lead pencils. The first
one is a full-length pencil, that is capable of writing large or small
type at the discretion of the operator. The second one has both ends
sharpened for those who make no mistakes. The third one has erasers on
both ends for those who only make mistakes. And it goes on, so there
are six of them with carefully selected uses! Thatís my computer.
I will not let my students use a computer or a calculator. They
calculate and figure in their heads or with pencil and paper, and Iím
amazed that so many high school students are terrible with fractions. I
have asked the math teacher to please give a refresher course in math,
with fractions, to any students who come to work in the blacksmith
ANVIL: Do you suppose we would have all been better off if we had
transitioned to the metric system some time ago?
FRANCIS: I have often thought so. I learned in Germany for two years,
working with the metric system. Itís ideal. But Iíve worked with the
English system for so long, I would find it difficult now to convert.
ANVIL: So the application of fractions is still of paramount importance
to you?
FRANCIS: Yes, it is. The metric system is wonderful; you can draw your
drawings one to five, one to ten, one to twenty, and itís much easier
than 3/8Ē, 3/4Ē, 1 1/2Ē to the foot much simpler.
ANVIL: You have just published your autobiography, My Life as an
Artist-Blacksmith, which I found to be most interesting. I would highly
recommend it for anyone interested in blacksmithing, or, for that
matter, in the life of a very interesting, historical character such as
yourself! I do have a few questions about your early history as a
blacksmith. Your first year was spent at Samuel Yellinís shop at the
age of 15. Yellin is probably Americaís most well-known historical
blacksmith. I understand your task was to make 400 rosettes while
working at his shop. Was that the extent of your year there?
FRANCIS: Oh, no. My father knew Yellin, and knew the architect who
built Yellinís building. He knew the architect who had done the Federal
Reserve Bank job, on the strength of which Yellin built a whole new
building to do that commission. And so I had the opportunity to help
different smiths, to work in the stock room, to work in the tool room,
and it was a fairly well-rounded education. The rosettes were for the
Federal Reserve Bank, on the tellerís windows, along the frieze. And
there were 400 to make, and I got quite proficient at it. When I got
the 400 done, I looked at the first 10 or 20 and discarded them and made
another 10 or 20 more, which is the way you acquire skill by repetitive
work. Lots of young people come to me and show me something, and I say
to them, ĎThatís nice; can you make another one just like it?í
ANVIL: So thatís the secret, then: duplicate the one youíve already
FRANCIS: Yes, and in architectural work, there is a lot of
duplication. You may have 10 or 20 or 40 scrolls the same. You may
have 50 collars the same. I helped a fellow near Colorado Springs at
Woodland Park and we made over 300 collars. So doing the repetitive is
a way of training and honing your ability and your skill.
ANVIL: Would you say that Samuel Yellin was largely responsible for the
history of ironwork in the United States? FRANCIS: He is the best
known for it.
ANVIL: His practice of going down to the ships and getting emigrant
blacksmiths to work for him must have been a wonderful infusion of
different skills.
Getting back to you - you then went to Julius Schrammís shop. Schramm
was one of the best-known blacksmiths in Germany. How did his shop
compare in size to Yellinís?
FRANCIS: Oh, no comparison. Schrammís shop was no bigger than the
school shop here.
ANVIL: How many employees did he have?
FRANCIS: He had (and it was quite a change from an operation with 200
employees) three masters and four apprentices.
ANVIL: Were you included in that number of apprentices?
FRANCIS: I was not a formal apprentice because being a foreigner, I
could not come under the apprentice system. I got health insurance and
medical care if I had an accident, but I could not formally apprentice.
There was the master, Julius Schramm, who no longer worked but kept his
finger on everything, just the way Yellin did. He was in the shop
daily. But his work was design and customer relations -- working with
architects and so on. There was a master locksmith, two master
blacksmiths, two apprentices and two volunteers. I was one of the
volunteers. The formal apprentices were indentured for four years. But
they had a wonderful system. They were paired. One of them worked in
the morning for 4 1/2 hours, went to school in the afternoon for four
hours, the other had gone to school in the morning and worked in the
afternoon for 4 1/2 hours. By the time they got through with four years
of that kind of training, almost the equivalent of high school, and
working in a competitive shop with master craftsmen, doing real-- and I
mean real work -- they had a balanced education that we do not give our
young people now. No matter which way they went after their
apprenticeship, what they had learned in those four years by working
with their hands and training their minds would be useful the rest of
their lives. Itís quite different from getting someone who has a
college degree and has been in business for five years and then wants to
be a blacksmith at 40-- a lot different.
ANVIL: Yes; heís already on the back side of the curve. Now with the
students who attend Colorado Rocky Mountain School, is there a
curriculum for blacksmithing?
FRANCIS: No. Itís extra-curricular. It is a college-preparatory
school. There are lots of extra-curricular activities offered:
wilderness trips, raft trips, cross-country skiing, soccer,
blacksmithing and photography. These donít earn them credits. Itís
done partly because most of the students live on campus. And they need
something to round out their lives.
ANVIL: So your students hail from all over the United States, then?
FRANCIS: Yes, they do.
ANVIL: Do you get many foreign students?
FRANCIS: Yes. We usually have some from Japan. Last year we had one
from Germany. The school has a very good relationship with the Navajo
nation, and they always have at least one Navajo student up here.
ANVIL: Have there been any students sent here specifically so they
could take some of your classes?
FRANCIS: Yes, one from Germany. What I have done in the seven years
that I have been teaching classes here is have the students make things
for the school. I havenít taught them blacksmithing per se, but rather
making fireplace tools, barbecue forks, and hooks to hang things on the
wall. Itís been creative. We have made tree protectors for the trees
that were planted in honor of the founders of the school. We have made
coat racks, of which there are a dozen or so all around the campus. We
made the chandeliers, the railings and handrails, and bicycle racks.
ANVIL: Back to Julius Schramm. In your autobiography, you mentioned
that while you worked there, you acquired a great appreciation of the
arts. I would suppose during that period of time, Berlin was the art
center of Europe.
FRANCIS: Yes, it was. It was under the Weimar Republic. It was
friendly, honest, clean. The opportunities for culture were unlimited.
The Berlin Philhar-monic Orchestra used to have a dress rehearsal on
Sunday mornings and a regular concert on Monday evenings. For about 75
cents, I could get a seat to hear the Berlin Symphony. I met music
students there, and made friends in the musical world. Most of the
students who were there were studying music, piano, violin or voice.
There were art galleries all over, opera, concerts, chamber music, solo,
violins, piano -- everything. It was alive with that sort of culture.
ANVIL: What year was that you are referring to?
FRANCIS: That was 1924 to 1926.
ANVIL: So in a mere 20 years, it existed no longer. That must have
been a very sad thing.
FRANCIS: Oh, yes. The signs of Hitler were there -- the brown shirts
were out on the streets sometimes. But most people thought, ĎOh, itís
just the lunatic fringe.í
ANVIL: One of mankindís saddest moments in history.
FRANCIS: Yes. Hitler was a clever man; he played on the role of the
Jews and he played on the fact that after the first world war, Germany
lost its colonies. One of his great campaign slogans was, ĎGive us back
our colonies!í They were a source of raw material and income.
ANVIL: It seems ironic that you would start out your career working
with Yellin, a Jew, and then move over to Germany. Was that an impetus
for you to come back to the United States -- the negativism that was
occurring and the rise of Nazism? Or was it a little bit early for
FRANCIS: It was too early for that. You see, the Germans were used to
regimentation and control and discipline. They were used to taking
orders and obeying them. For example, when I went over there, I had to
register with the Residents Department of the city that I was living
in. I was living with a friend of my fatherís in Berlin. Then when I
got oriented in Berlin, I moved in to a room and board place. I had to
report that I had moved from Dr. Behrendtís to such-and-such a place and
give them my new address. So you see, they accepted discipline and
orders and regimentation much more easily than we do in this country.
We are more inclined to rebel and say, ĎThe hell with you, Iím not going
to do what Iím ordered to do.í So Hitler played on that pattern of the
Germans, too.
ANVIL: That made it easier for an entire country to stray. And itís
such a shame; itís almost a reversal from the Berlin you describe. You
would think that Berlin would have been the epitome of democratic
ideals, where culture abounded so.
FRANCIS: Yes, it was. But he played his cards very, very carefully and
very shrewdly.
ANVIL: Everybody hears about Yellin and his work. However, there were
competing blacksmiths in America that certainly had smaller shops, but
were doing comparable work. In Germany, was the same true of Julius
Schramm? Did he have a lot of competition?
FRANCIS: No, he did not have competition. He was the reviver of
ornamental ironwork in that period of the early twentieth century. I
donít know of anyone doing comparable work. He did a lot of work on
public buildings. If you have a copy of the Schramm book, you can see
that he did a tremendous amount of work on the Federal Court building
and many other well-known German buildings.
ANVIL: Was there ever a connection between Samuel Yellin and Julius
FRANCIS: No. The only connection that I know of, which I learned of
re-cently, was that Fritz Kuhn and I had both worked for Schramm.
ANVIL: Was most of Schrammís work destroyed during the war?.
FRANCIS: A good deal of it was destroyed. Schramm had a commission for
a five-panel bay window. He made a sample for the client to see. Itís
on page 31 of the Schramm book (The Artist-Blacksmithís Craft/My Life as
an Artist-Blacksmith by Julius Schramm. Reviewed on page 33 of the
November, 1996 issue of ANVIL Magazine.) I was the blacksmith helper
and I worked with August Klingberg, making an entrance grille for a bank
8 feet wide and 16 feet high, with variation in every single one of the
60 panels. (See page 25 of Schrammís book). They are gone now. They
were either destroyed in the bombing or torn down and the metal used for
armaments; Iím not sure which. Itís a real shame. It was one of the
great works of the 20th century, in my opinion -- my prejudiced opinion,
I might add! I have since discovered that Abim Kuhn, the son of Fritz
Kuhn, rescued a portion of this grille.
ANVIL: What other prejudices do you have?
FRANCIS: Iím prejudiced against the arc welder. It has contributed
greatly to the mediocrity of ironwork.
ANVIL: Letís touch on some historical events in your life before we get
into contemporary issues. I thought your description of going through
the depression was interesting. It was probably one of the most graphic
descriptions Iíve read. It was one a blacksmith could relate to. At
first, you were unaffected by the Depression, werenít you?
FRANCIS: Thatís right. I wasnít affected by it until 1932. It hit
the East Coast and it traveled slowly; then it hit the West Coast, as
well, in 1932. Then the bottom dropped out. There wasnít anything to
do -- no jobs. I had some help from the Red Cross at first, then I
worked for the Forest Service for six or eight months. Then I got a job
as a welder with a road contractor, building a road in Monterey County,
California. That lasted for awhile, and then later, things began to
open up a little bit.
ANVIL: And is that when you opened your forge shop?
FRANCIS: The Forge in the Forest was already in existence. It was
operated by an elderly attorney who had done work on his grandfatherís
farm near Sacramento. So I came along at the right time. I rented the
shop on a percentage basis. I think they got 15% of my gross product.
Then I leased it for awhile, and after that, I bought the business over
a period of years, including all the tools, equipment and inventory.
When the war came along, the bottom dropped out of that, too. I didnít
have a priority to get material. I couldnít get steel, I couldnít get
welding rod.
ANVIL: So thatís when you went to work in the shipyards?
FRANCIS: Yes. I worked in the shipyards for two years.
ANVIL: There is certainly a fascinating account in your book about that
period! Itís interesting, because you can get the picture of an entire
society mobilizing. And here you are all of a sudden, thrust into the
position of teaching people to weld who didnít have a clue!
FRANCIS: Then I got into the advanced training. One liberty ship had
three miles of welding on the shell of the boat condensed and chipped
out. So I developed a shell welding class, which was devoted to nothing
but the thickness of the material and the position of the weld, because
most of it was vertical, some horizontal, some overhead. Some on the
prow of the ship was on a curve coming up from almost overhead to
vertical all the way. So I taught a class and I built a jig where we
could test the welds right on the job, right in the classroom without
sending them out to some engineer.
ANVIL: So there was immediate feedback, then.
FRANCIS: Yes. I was quite successful at that. Women turned out to be
very good welders. Their hand/eye coordination was better. They had a
testing machine of two bars of metal with an electric contact. The
student would have to take the holder and a bare rod and move it down
and move it along the slot. And if he hit either side, it rang a bell.
Women passed that test much better. They have much steadier hands. It
was interesting to find that out.
ANVIL: Do you find that carrying over into blacksmithing in general?
FRANCIS: No. There are a few good women blacksmiths, but the
percentage is with the men. There was a relatively high percentage of
women welders in the shipyards, maybe 30%.
ANVIL: So you lived in Mill Valley during the war. I understand you
were on a camping trip when the armistice was signed, and people
couldnít believe when you returned from your trip that you didnít know
anything about it.
FRANCIS: I was with my son and some friends on a backpacking trip for
ten days in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California. Then after the
war, I moved back to Carmel, California.
ANVIL: The prosperity of the post-war era caused you to be busy in your
own shop. Were you able to be as creative as you wanted, and did you
have the clientele who requested such creative endeavors?
FRANCIS: I tell my students, and I can tell you, except during the
depths of the Depression, I have found that there are more people with
good taste and money who want fine work than there are craftsmen who can
supply that work. I think thatís still true today.
ANVIL: I was in a house in Aspen, Colorado, recently with a good friend
of mine who is a builder. This house was huge and it had a lot of
ironwork. But to the trained eye, you could see it was not particularly
good craftsmanship. I often think that people, if they knew what was
fine work, would be delighted to pay what it would cost to get it, but
most just donít really know what fine metal work is.
FRANCIS: Or they canít find people to do it. That was one of the
reasons I moved to Aspen. I had been going there skiing for five or six
years for a couple of weeks at a time. I went with friends from Denver
and friends from Carmel. We would rent one of the big Aspen homes. I
saw these homes which were at that time worth probably around a quarter
of a million dollars, with lousy handrails, miserable firescreens,
fireplace hoods that wouldnít draw -- everything was mediocre. So I
thought, gee, if people can spend this much money on a house, I think
they would appreciate good ironwork, too. So I sent some photographs to
an acquaintance who operated a motel and had an accounting business
there, and said I was thinking of moving to Aspen. I asked him what he
thought my chances of success were. He took the pictures down to the
bank president, then wrote me back and said, ĎMr. Walker thinks you will
be a great success in Aspen, for the quality of work you do.í So I
moved there!
ANVIL: How long was it before you got into politics in Aspen?
FRANCIS: The first year. I had first gotten into politics in Carmel; I
was on the Carmel Planning Commission and the Carmel City Council. In
Aspen at that time, the famous restaurant, The Red Onion, had a
community table. You could go in and sit down there without waiting to
be seated. I met a couple of architects there who were on the Planning
Commission. They heard about my background and experience in Carmel, as
I had done some creative things on the Planning Commission. I had
helped the state senator develop the cluster development, where you take
the large acreage, concentrate your housing in one part of it, and leave
the rest as open space. I had helped get that legislation passed. So
within six months, I was on the Planning Commission. I stayed on it
until the 1966 Master Plan was passed. Then I ran for city council, and
was elected three times. So I was in political life most of the time in
Aspen. ANVIL: Do you find the current development in Aspen somewhat
frustrating? Itís the antithesis of your ideal, I would imagine.
FRANCIS: We tried and tried to require setbacks in the commercial
district, so that the commercial district would have open space. I
tried when I was first on the planning commission to have the old town
sites classified Ďhistoricí so that anything that was built there would
be in the character of the Victorian era. I was howled down. Now they
are doing it on a piecemeal basis. Part of Main Street is that way now,
and parts of other downtown streets -- but we could have taken the whole
town. The worst part of it is like what has happened to Carmel -- the
development outside the city limits.
ANVIL: It seems inevitable that this sort of thing is going to happen
as a result of the growth in population.
FRANCIS: Yes, itís also happening here in Carbondale.
ANVIL: A friend of mine in Aspen was telling me he used to drive cattle
through Carbondale, right down the main street!
FRANCIS: Thatís right. They used to drive sheep right down the main
street of Aspen, as well.
ANVIL: Boy! Times change, and not necessarily for the better.
FRANCIS: No. We tried to restrict density and growth. It was a
constant fight with the developers who want to squeeze the maximum out,
and to hell with everybody else. The short-term almighty dollar...
ANVIL: Regarding your love of skiing _ do you consider skiing an art
ANVIL: I thought so.
FRANCIS: I ski the old, easy turns, controlled skiing down the
mountain. None of this bouncing around. I hate the snowboarders and
the hot doggers. Thatís one reason I chose Aspen. I got tired of
driving to Mammoth or Donner Summit from Carmel to go skiing. I looked
at Salt Lake City and Jackson Hole, as well as Taos and Aspen. Aspen
just seemed to be the best choice. And it really was for 20 years; I
had a good 20 years there.
ANVIL: I saw some of your work there the other day, and it looks like
you did a little bit of everything -- general blacksmithing, as well as
being an artist-blacksmith.
FRANCIS: Yes, I did. I was the only blacksmith in Aspen, and the boom
was just beginning. Contractors would come to me. One or two in
particular had gone to Grand Junction Steel Fab or to places in Denver
to get some brackets for stairs or to purchase brackets for beams or
whatever. The brackets were wrong and then they would bring them to me
to correct. I got tired of it and I finally told them, ĎLook. Let me
make them for you in the first place. Then you wonít have to bring them
back.í So I developed quite a business of modest structural work. And
I also found out that if I could furnish brackets or the tie rods and
the stair things and the bolts for the fasteners to go with it, it was a
much better service to my clients, so I had a huge stock of bolts. I
have some left even now. I stocked from 3/8Ē long, 6/32Ē thread to 3/4Ē
x 16Ē in half-inch or 1Ē increments. I had a huge stock of all kinds of
bolts and lag screws
-- square head -- hex head, carriage bolts and anchors. So when someone
came to me, they could get everything. And that enhanced my
reputation. The word was, ĎGo to Whitaker. You can get everything from
him.í When a contractor needed fifty 5/8Ē by 5 1/2Ē machine bolts and
the washers and the angle irons to go with it, they knew they could get
it right at my Mountain Forge.
ANVIL: Being a man of culture, shall we say, do you find Carbondale
stimulating in that sense?
FRANCIS: I satisfy my need for culture now by some of the activities
here, and by traveling a lot. A few years ago, I found a lovely
traveling companion, a lady Iíve known for over 40 years. We find we
like to travel together. So weíve been to Australia, to Europe a couple
of times and have traveled through the Panama Canal. We mostly go on
the Smithsonian Study Tours and they have wonderful lecturers. The side
trips are very educational. The last one we went on we had an
orchestral concert in St. Petersburg, and another one in Danzig. We had
lectures on shipboard about the art and the culture of the different
countries; itís very educational. Weíre not just tourists, weíre
ANVIL: That sounds like a fascinating way to travel. u

Part II
August 18, 1996 - Carbondale, Colorado
ANVIL: So you feel the future for blacksmiths is bright, then?
FRANCIS: I think the future is very bright, I really do.
Look at ABANA. Itís now 25 years old, and started with 29 members. Now
it has over 4,000, and over 30 chapters including one in Australia and
one in New Zealand, some in Canada. And weíre way ahead of the
Europeans, as far as I have been able to find out.
ANVIL: Tell me about that.
FRANCIS: Well, Iíve been going to Europe for the last five years. Iíve
made an effort to find good metal workers, and Iíve been very
disappointed. I found that they have gone to the Hossfeld Bender for
bending scrolls. Their scrolls are not tapered, they arc weld them. In
Germany I could talk to the smiths because my German is pretty good.
One of them said, ĎWe canít afford to do things by hand anymore. We buy
them all from a catalog in Italy, like the Lawler line.í He told me
there is a machine in Italy that can take four pieces of 5/8Ē square,
arc weld the ends together, put them in the machine, twist them cold,
untwist them, then open them up to make a basket. And so they buy those
and they arc weld them and put a collar over the arc weld. And it looks
exactly like a machine-made basket. There are no hammer marks or
anything - nothing to indicate hand work. And the railings. One
railing I saw in Switzerland was about 3/8Ē by 1 1/2Ē and as regular as
clockwork. It was rolled cold, so every railing looks like every other
ANVIL: So the design is imprinted in all of them, then.
FRANCIS: The one thing that almost turned me off completely was the
technique of splitting a hole in a 3/4Ē bar. There was a hole and a
little cut in it. The corners were sharp rather than coming out
rounded. I looked at them and studied them, and finally found one that
was in very good light,
and didnít have too much paint on it. They were flame cut out of 3/4Ē
by 2Ē plate! I thought to myself, the art of blacksmithing is dying in
the place of its birth!
ANVIL: Are you referring to Germany as the place of its birth, or
FRANCIS: Europe.
ANVIL: Archaeologists have pointed out that in Africa, blacksmithing
was done thousands of years ago.
Although the first forged metal was not really iron, it was bronze.
FRANCIS: Yes, both copper and bronze. The forge and the hammer and the
anvil predated the use of iron, probably by several thousand years.
ANVIL: So you think the workshop system is our answer to carrying on
the traditions of the blacksmith trade?
FRANCIS: It helps. It does not do the job the apprentices would. In
no way.
ANVIL: You mentioned that drawing and forging are equally important, in
order to be a well-rounded smith.
FRANCIS: Yes, I think so.
ANVIL: So would you suggest that one learn to draw before one learn to
wield a hammer?
FRANCIS: At the same time I was working at Schrammís, I spent three
nights at technical high school learning architectural and perspective
drawing. I recommend that strongly.
ANVIL: Many of our really top professional blacksmiths nowadays hold
Master of Fine Arts degrees.
FRANCIS: Yes. Have you ever seen any of Tom Joyceís drawings? His
drawings are masterpieces. Mine are very simple sketches. I do my work
on the layout table. Yellin had every one of his draftsmen take basic
blacksmithing so they would have a feel and an understanding for it.
And that helped them draw things much better. The drawings that
Yellinís draftsmen turned out were wonderful.
ANVIL: I guess there is a conceptual process that you can make work for
the drawing that you canít always transfer to the anvil because of the
operation of pulling the iron out of the fire and immediately having to
go to work on it. So the visualization has to be prior to that process.
FRANCIS: There is one more factor. No matter how beautiful the drawing
is, you cannot draw the third dimension. So when I am tackling a job --
and I still do it after 70 years -- I will have a full-sized layout. I
will get the size material I think is suitable and the next size
smaller, as well as the next size larger. I lay them right on the
table. Then you can see that third dimension. Because if you draw a
half-inch on paper, what is it? Is it 1/8Ē by 1/2Ē? Or is it 1/2Ē by
2Ē? You cannot show that in a drawing. And so I teach my students to
do that. I keep the stock of as many different sizes as I can. Iíve
got 1/8Ē by 3/8Ē, 1/8Ē by 5/8Ē, Iíve got 3/16Ē by 5/8Ē. I used to be
able to get 1/4Ē by 7/8Ē. The 5/16Ē sizes are very important because
the difference in your work between 1/4Ē and 3/8Ē is substantial. And
that intermediate size of 5/16Ē fills a very important spot in designing
your work with good proportion and grace and beauty.
ANVIL: The actual mechanics of wielding the hammer seems to be the
epitome of the craft. And yet, when one gets deeper into it, one begins
to realize that imagination is required and there are skills in drawing
and conceptualization that are needed first. Actually, the operation of
utilizing a hammer becomes almost the follow-through.
ANVIL: It was a very interesting lecture you gave today about the
measuring for a railing and I can see where that could be a real
nightmare trying to match up the project to what structure is finally
there for you to put the rail on.
FRANCIS: Dorothy Stiegler was supposed to be here and she wanted to
take the repoussé class, but she called me and said, ĎI cannot get
away. My associate and I were going to put up a railing we had
completed. We took it out to the job and found they had made major
architectural changes. So weíve got to take the rail apart and
reconstruct part of it.í They were not told that changes had been
made! Someone might say, ĎI need a pair of firescreen doors.í Iíd ask,
ĎIs the fireplace finished?í ĎNo, it isnít.í Iíd ask, ĎWell what is
lacking?í Theyíd reply, ĎOh, weíre going to put some stucco around and
put a 3/8Ē tile on the hearth.í I said, ĎWhen you get the fireplace
finished, I will come out and measure it.í And very often I would find
that instead of 1/2 ď of stucco, they had put 1/4Ē. Instead of 3/8Ē
tile, they put 3/4Ē. I got burned that way once and that was enough.
ANVIL: So you would recommend that if at all possible, the actual
fabrication be done after?
FRANCIS: Absolutely. The only time to get in on the ground floor is to
be sure there is backing behind the sheet rock for your rail to fasten
to, and, if possible, to pour the socket for your railing in the
concrete. Those two tasks are very important to get done. And if you
can get it done, it makes your life a lot easier. It costs the client
less if he has the proper backing and the proper preparation has been
done. No matter what youíre making or installing, this is true.
ANVIL: I understand you did some ironwork for John Denver, who lives in
FRANCIS: Yes. I did some railings in his house and a very fancy copper
fireplace for him. I have a picture of it in one of my albums.
ANVIL: Upon retiring to Carbondale, your desire was to sell your
business and tools. As it turns out, though, in hindsight, I suspect
moving everything here was the best bet.
FRANCIS: I didnít actually want to sell my business. I could have sold
that and retired, but I didnít want to do that. I offered it to the
University of Colorado in Boulder. I got a phone call about three
months later saying they really werenít interested. I offered it to the
School of Mines, because I heard that they were starting a new
metallurgy program. They never answered. I offered $100,000 worth of
tools and equipment. I offered it to one place in Missouri and then I
found out I would be under the thumb of a Board of Directors that knew
nothing about blacksmithing, so I was obliged to stay away from there.
I offered it to the John C. Campbell Folk School and they didnít need
it. And then Will Perry, a local smith, said, ĎWhy donít you offer it
to Colorado Rocky Mountain School?í And this is the result. So no, I
didnít want to break it up; I wanted to keep it as a living unit. And
Iíve succeeded.
ANVIL: Oh, youíve definitely succeeded! The concept of having one
demonstrator at a time and a limited attendance seems to work very, very
well for your annual conference.
FRANCIS: Yes, it does. People tell me that these are the best
conferences they go to. At the bigger conferences with six, and even up
to twelve demonstrators all working at the same time, you miss too
much. And thatís why I insisted that we do it this way -- that we limit
attendance. We got over 100 one year, and it was too many. Limit
attendance, and have one demonstrator at a time.
ANVIL: The attendance is now limited to 85. The Rocky Mountain Smiths
are certainly supportive in this effort -- they video the demonstrators,
help with cleanup and setup, and they are your right arm at these
events. They are quick to help everyone, including the demonstrators.
FRANCIS: Yes, summers are beautiful here, and people love to get away
from the eastern heat or the Texas heat -- or the California heat, as
ANVIL: You are going to be 90 in November, Francis, and it doesnít seem
like youíve slowed down a bit.
FRANCIS: Oh, Iíve slowed down, yes. I have a handicap sticker on my
car; I have some mobility problems. My wrist is worn out.
ANVIL: I notice you were wearing a brace on your wrist.
FRANCIS: To keep it from bending. The cartilage is gone and the bones
rub together.
ANVIL: What would you recommend to a smith to avoid that?
FRANCIS: Do your upsetting, whenever possible, in the vise. Iím going
to write an article shortly on this subject. Use tong rings to hold the
tong reins so youíre not squeezing the tongs and absorbing the shock of
the hammer at the same time. If the tongs are held tight, you donít
have to grip so tight. And the shock is not so bad. That is my
ANVIL: You mentioned earlier today that the only thing you genuinely
invented was the twisting wrench in two sizes.
FRANCIS: Yes. I have never seen anything like that in any tool catalog
or any collection of old tools. I have never seen anyone else who had
come up with that idea, except after seeing mine.
ANVIL: Now the rein holder that you have; where did you get that
FRANCIS: Someone wrote it up and sketched it out in one of the
blacksmith chapter newsletters and I jumped on it and itís wonderful.
ANVIL: To what do you attribute your longevity?
FRANCIS: Iíve kept mentally and physically active all my life. As far
back as I remember, Iíve swam, Iíve walked -- I was always an avid
walker. In my Carmel days, almost every morning I would go down and jog
the full length of the Carmel beach, from the south end to the north
end. Every summer I was always in the Sierra Nevada mountains climbing
and backpacking, as well as skiing. I think thatís accounted for the
fact that at almost 90 years old, Iím still in pretty good shape. I
never let my body get flabby and I was always mentally active, one way
or the other, with blacksmithing or politics. And I find working with
the young students here keeps me on my toes also, as well as keeping
them on their toes!
ANVIL: Youíve been very active in ABANA, as well. As a matter of fact,
you were president of the Artist-Blacksmiths Association of North
America at one point. When did your association with ABANA begin?
FRANCIS: In 1976. I was invited to the conference in Carbondale,
Illinois, at the Southern Illinois University campus. And I realized
before the conference was over that I had a mission in life. For
example, there were two people who knew how to make and put on a hot
collar properly. And both of us had trained in Germany. Iíve since
improved my technique little by little, so itís now about as perfect as
you can get. And I can put collars on that are tighter than I ever
could all the rest of my life before -- really tight. So the mission
has been extremely interesting. My late wife and I, and myself alone,
have done over 200 workshops in 20 years in 26 states of the Union. My
wife and I were a wonderful team. I helped her with her quilting and
design and made some iron strips for measuring, as well as all kinds of
things to assist her with her work. She helped me in every way
possible. My first wife took absolutely no interest in my work. My
second wife that weíre speaking about, Portia, was always interested. I
would not be where I am now were it not for her. When the teaching
began, she was travel agent, guide, reporter - everything.
ANVIL: Thatís marvelous. You devoted a sizable portion in your book to
her, describing your wonderful relationship.
So your big challenge now is to continue teaching?
FRANCIS: Yes. Not only to continue teaching, but to continue the work
my foundation is doing. George Dixon is slowly working on a project to
record all of Samuel Yellinís tools.
ANVIL: Heís photographing them?
FRANCIS: Yes. We are working with Nahum Hersom to supplement his
written text with photographs of the repoussé tools, technique and
results. And now my main focus is on the National Cathedral in
Washington, DC, to document all the work in it. I just had a wonderful
boost from Anna Fariello, curator of the Radford University Museum in
Radford, Virginia. She has offered to take her class in Museum
Management to the cathedral and take photographs of everything and write
a detailed description of the location and the size, and so on, of all
the ironwork in the cathedral.
ANVIL: Thatís tremendous!
FRANCIS: I have offered to put up $5,000 on a matching basis; my
foundation will put up another $5,000 on a matching basis. And so there
is the possibility of $20,000 to get it off the ground. So I think this
is equally as important as the demonstrating.
ANVIL: Do you think that the National Cathedral is the zenith of
ironwork in the United States?
FRANCIS: Yes, I do. From what I have seen, there is nothing that
equals it. It equals some of the cathedrals in Europe -- Seville,
Salamanca -- they are incredible works.
ANVIL: From a contemporary point of view, some of the ironwork that is
being created now for sculptural purposes seems to be branching out and
using more metals and different types of materials than ever. But
still, the basic concept of forging iron seems to be the basis of it
FRANCIS: Yes, thatís true. One man here at the conference showed me a
number of fireplace doors he had done with iron, stainless, bronze.
Thatís another field, itís sculpture.
ANVIL: Your life in iron has predominately been along the traditional,
wouldnít you say?
FRANCIS: Yes, traditional architectural ironwork.
ANVIL: Do you feel that the articles in the Anvilís Ring are
representative of the membership?
FRANCIS: Yes, I think so.
ANVIL: The addition of the Hammerís Blow newsletter was an excellent
FRANCIS: Yes, it was. I think The Anvilís Ring covers quite a broad
spectrum because they have contemporary work, they have traditional
work, they have sculpture, and itís all part of the metalworking field.
I am dedicated to the architectural ironwork and almost everything I do
is functional -- from a candlestick to a door knocker.
There is another subject I want to talk about. Occasionally Schramm
would say, ĎHere is the commission; make a design for this and then show
it to me.í And of course, his was always much better than mine. Once I
had to design a stand for a sanctuary light. It holds a bowl of oil
with a floating wick in it. And I took it up to him and he said,
ĎFranz, thatís pretty good. But how are you going to support the
bowl?í I hadnít thought of that. And I said, trying to think quickly,
ĎIíll put three little clips down around the bottom of the bowl where
they wonít be seen.í He replied sternly, ĎFranz, there is never
anything that wonít be seen!í I lived with those words for the rest of
my life. And I finally found a motto, an automobile ad for Lexus. It
says: ďThe relentless pursuit of perfection.Ē Thatís my message.
ANVIL: Nowadays it seems that a blacksmith is tempted by all these
prefabricated things to get the job done. And I imagine there are a lot
of frustrations involved, that a blacksmith knows he could put more of
himself into the work by doing more hand work, but it would drive the
price up. Does he or she have to struggle with that?
FRANCIS: Not necessarily. Bob Bergman came out here one summer and I
had a railing to build; it had about 60 or 70 5/8Ē balusters, 32Ē long,
with a 7/16Ē tenon forged on each end, exact length, sawed off, ready to
put into the rail. How long do you think it took to do one baluster?
ANVIL: By hand, using a spring swedge?
ANVIL: Iíd say half an hour each?
FRANCIS: Six minutes! I had the technique and I had the tools, plus
the know-how. Bob couldnít believe it! But we kept accurate time,
because he wanted to know how long it would take to make a baluster. So
one finished baluster came out of the shop every six minutes.
ANVIL: At Chris Axelssonís lecture today, somebody made the comment,
ĎWhy donít you build jigs for that?í Chris said, ĎWell, in one sense,
here is my jig.í And he pointed to the anvil. ĎI bend it this way over
here, I bend it that way over there. This is a universal jig, and
besides, you always have to put the final touches on a piece that comes
out of the jig. So if youíve got enough practice in doing it, just go
ahead and do it by hand.í
FRANCIS: Iíd agree with that.
ANVIL: I was told once that if youíre going to weld, using any form
other than forge welding, donít try to hide it; be proud of it.
FRANCIS: And Iíd agree with that, also. Iíve been corresponding with a
blacksmith recently, and he sent me a preliminary on basic training for
beginners. I commented on it and returned it to him. Then he sent me
another one. There was one phrase that said, ĎArc welding or acetylene
welding will be acceptable, as long as it resembles forge work.í Now
thatís hiding; thatís concealing. I wrote him back and said, ĎIf you
want my comment on this one, please delete that whole section.í
If you want to teach people to be blacksmiths, use no pretense. If you
want to do arc welding -- and I have done some on contemporary work --
go ahead. I did one set of candlesticks for a convent in Stockton,
California. The process involved brass welding, silver soldering, and
arc welding -- all three. I made no pretense about it, but to meet
their designs and what they wanted at the convent, I had to use various
methods using those techniques. I can do it; I much prefer the other,
however, but I donít make any pretense about it. Schramm had a
different answer. He said, ĎI have never had a welder. If the work
should require one, I redesign the work!í
ANVIL: In Fabricator magazine, you see a lot of very nice work. Itís
fabricating, and itís welding, but it is very functional and I can see
where it would be nice to educate people to the differences between the
hand-wrought work and other forms. But thatís going to be a long time
FRANCIS: Yes, but it is coming.
ANVIL: I think that blacksmiths are showing their work more at artistic
events and in museums, as well as other showplaces.
FRANCIS: Yes, thatís true.
ANVIL: It appears youíve got a lot of literary irons in the fire now.
FRANCIS: Yes, I do.
ANVIL: I guess thatís inherent with your new tasks of teaching that
youíve assigned yourself.
FRANCIS: I see in the not-too-distant future a second edition of The
Blacksmithís Cookbook. I had 5,000 copies printed and I think Iím down
to about 300.
ANVIL: It is such a handy idea -- it is such a perfect size for oneís
shop and with the big rings, you can just flip from one recipe to
FRANCIS: The John C. Campbell Folk School has adopted that book as
their official textbook for blacksmith classes. I think now they
require every student to have one. Itís proved invaluable at every
workshop I go to, all over the country. Invariably, someone has a copy
of it at a workshop, and weíre constantly referring to this or that in
it. Itís been far more successful than I ever thought.
ANVIL: You alluded earlier to the workshop concept in this country and
it must be very gratifying to you to realize that there are so many of
your students out there forming beginning, intermediate, and advanced
classes for blacksmiths. The opportunities are marvelous - almost every
week of the year, you can go someplace in order to learn some aspect of
FRANCIS: I was instrumental in building up the John C. Campbell Folk
School in Brasstown, North Carolina, from a one-forge shop to a 13-forge
shop now, with a lot of improvements. We now have an outside
centralized blower system with a slide gate to each forge, so it makes
the shop very quiet. I taught there for 18 years, and I was always
making tools. If you ever get there, youíll see half of the tools there
have that diamond shape with the F in the center, which is my signature
stamp on things I make. They have about 35 to 40 classes a year, from
weekend beginner to two-week architectural work. And thatís over a
comparatively short period of time -- the increase has come in only 20
ANVIL: Some of the universities have fine arts courses, with an
emphasis on metals. Southern Illinois University in Carbondale,
Illinois, has such a course. Are there others that you know of?
FRANCIS: No, I donít. A lot of the universities have, unfortunately,
discontinued their metalworking programs. And some of the high schools
have discontinued their metalworking programs, as well. Itís such a
ANVIL: Shop classes are expensive to conduct compared to academic
FRANCIS: Well, it may be expensive, but what do you get out of it? You
get useful people who can do things! Colorado University had a very
fine shop with six forges in it. It was very well equipped. But itís
gone completely now. Itís too bad.
ANVIL: Taking a look at the job market today, one would find that
skilled craftsmen are in great demand and will continue to be.
Unfortunately, there doesnít seem to be the educational process to
perpetuate that system. But as the demand for craftsmen becomes
greater, perhaps weíll see a change.
FRANCIS: I may not live to see it, but I sure hope so. One last thing
Iíd like to say is that the direction of my life was charted by the
opportunity to work under two great masters, and for that I was very
fortunate. Because of that, Iíve tried to impart some of my skill to
others, so they will be similarly inspired.
ANVIL: Youíve been most successful in that. There are many inspired
teachers of blacksmithing who can attest to your efforts on their
FRANCIS: Thatís been very gratifying for me.
ANVIL: We appreciate your taking the time out of your very busy
schedule, Francis, to visit with us today.

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