Meaty forearms and biceps thick as tree limbs attest to Tom Ryan’s 20 years as a blacksmith. But if his physique isn’t clue enough, the sight of him in leather apron at his anvil leaves no doubt of his trade.
The precise swings of his hammer seem effortless. Yet each rapid-fire blow to a glowing length of steel rings so loudly it makes observers flinch involuntarily, even when they know it’s coming. A shimmer of tiny, glittering sparks ricochets around the hot metal each time the sledge makes contact. “I let the hammer do the work,” says Ryan, arcing it high above his head. “My job is to get it moving and hold it straight.”
When he was 20, Ryan, raised in Boston, got his start wandering Yorkshire, England, knocking on doors of master blacksmiths seeking an apprenticeship. Now, two decades later he runs the shop at Koenig Iron Works in Long Island City.
Here he crafts hand-forged metalwork, including stair rails, door grills, gates and furniture. His customers range from a neighborhood firehouse to the owners of multimillion-dollar Long Island homes.
A blast of heat and a smell of something like burnt pennies greets everyone who steps through the shop door. The space is divided in the center by a brick-lined furnace that burns white-hot and a seven-foot-high power hammer with strength equivalent to a 1,200-pound sledge. All types of rusted tongs and pullers hang from the wall like props from a dentophobe’s worst nightmare. A shelf in the corner holds rows of handmade hammers in every shape and size.
Today Ryan and the four smiths he supervises are building a railing for an elaborate grand staircase that will cost about $3,500 per foot. It’s the labor that’s expensive, Ryan says. He tells buyers: “You’re not just a customer, you’re a patron. You’re helping people who love this work to continue to do it.”
Ryan says he was born to be a blacksmith. He found his first job in North Yorkshire doing restoration of 17th and 18th century English metalwork. He later traveled Europe, accumulating the traditional techniques from each country, before returning to the States.
As far as Ryan is concerned, “you should be able to take a good blacksmith and drop him in any century or country. A piece of chalk, a drawing and off you go.”
He is ever conscious his work will outlive him. “You can’t let stuff out the door that’s not right. It’s going to last forever.” This pride means he takes great issue with people who weld pre-fabricated components together and call themselves blacksmiths. “If it didn’t see a fire or a hammer, it’s not hand-forged,” he chides.
But hand-forging comes with risks. Back at his anvil, safety glasses in place, Ryan hammers away at a small square of hot steel. With each bang, flakes of scale (iron oxide created when hot metal is exposed to oxygen) darken and hurtle off in every direction. “That’s where it gets dangerous,” he says.
Ryan jokes that unlike carpenters, blacksmiths get to keep all their fingers. But burns are a different matter. He says he knows two smiths who’ve lost their sight because of flying scale.
Nevertheless, he says, “I’m happy hitting hot metal.”