CanIRON I, a retrospective

On the 28th-30th June Canada’s first major blacksmithing conference was held at the O’Keefe Ranch near Vernon, British Columbia, Canada’s most western province.

Vernon is located in the Okanagan Valley. This is a picturesque area filled with lakes, vineyards and fruit trees. The North Okanagan was first settled when Cornellius O’Keefe began raising cattle near what is now the town of Vernon in 1867. By the turn of the century he and his partner owned 20,000 acres of prime Okanagan farmland. Just fifty acres and the original ranch buildings remain at the historic O’Keefe Ranch, which is open to the public from Spring to Fall. This was an excellent location for the conference. Besides being a wonderful backdrop for the forging it also provided a number of activities for other family members not so interested in smithing.

The canopy-covered forging stations were adjacent to the camping area where a few tents shared space with a large number of motor homes, some of which were more like mobile hotels. Most people had come to make a holiday of it, some from as far away as Scotland (Pete Hill and Shona Johnson). The south east side of the camping area was bordered by a churchyard where the last few generations of O’Keefe rested undisturbed by the commotion in the next field.

The organisers had equipped the forging stations with a propane or coal forge, anvil, leg vice plus some areas had a treadle hammer. Demonstrations began on Saturday morning. Demonstrating away from the comfort of the home shop always presents a challenge, and those of us who have attended several gatherings of this sort have witnessed many feats of improvisation.

I first attended a demo in the “Public Area”, that is the recreated forge building of the Ranch. Here Darryl Nelson, a versatile blacksmith from Eatonville Washington and a veteran demonstrator if ever there was one, was confronted with a chest-high anvil and a foot-powered bellows which required thighs of steel or two normal people working in unison. After a few minutes of dismay and a quick demo by Joe Delisimunovic the resident smith of the ranch, Darryl began a demo which drew in a big crowd of museum goers and blacksmiths. As always a good demonstrator makes it look so simple. Darryl made a ram’s head followed by a dragon with a horse head for an encore.

That afternoon I returned to the main demo area where a line of pavilions sheltered demonstrator and spectators from the beautiful Canadian sun, a welcome sight for those of us who had come north from rainy Seattle. In the first tent John Adolph, a technically minded smith from Maple Ridge B.C., was demonstrating the forging of a pair of log tongs. These giant pinchers were forged of 4140. This is tough steel and I was aware that I was watching a very good smith who had made hundreds of these tongs. Handicapped by a gas forge which wouldn’t get very hot and another chest-high anvil (are all Canadians seven feet tall?), he was forging red hot tool steel while balancing on his tool box in a way that showed he meant business. All the onlookers were impressed as he refused all offers of help and showed us the finer points of forging a tool that would function for years and never miss its grip.

Down the row of tents Dorothy Stiegler from Carmel, California was showing her methods of forging flowers. Surrounded by a small garden of her creations and a circle of attentive listeners, she was giving an excellent running commentary on each progressive step. If her listeners were taking note they should be assured of success when trying to make flowers of their own..

In the half of the tent separated by a wall of fabric from Dorothy, Darryl Nelson was at work again, this time assisted by Alice James, his part-time helper of several years. Darryl was forging a lynx head out of a 1«-inch square bar, assisted by Alice when a second hammer was needed.

When not striking for Darryl, Alice forged the horizontal and vertical bars of the wall-mounted coat rack they were making. Working together again they offset the bars in a way which made them self-supporting when woven together. In fact they fitted so well it took both of them to pull it apart after the demo.

Saturday evening all present trooped down the hill to a restaurant which is part of the O’Keefe ranch visitor centre.

Sunday the demonstrations continued. Berkley Tack continued his service of informative demos with one on forge welding which was a success in spite of some of the worst coal I have ever seen. Berkley, who came up from Oregon, also explained the identification of scrap tool steels and the forging of a traditional door latch.

Account by Japheth Howard (Seattle) and Doug Newell (Alberta)
Source: British Artist Blacksmiths Association