IRON Craft; Local Artisans Forge, Fashion Decorative Metal items.(LIFE - HOME)

Article excerpt

Byline: Ann Geracimos, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Hong Lee dons heavy cotton gloves and clear protective goggles and fires up a small forge. When the heat has reached more than 1,200 degrees, he inserts a thin square iron rod into the fiery furnace until it glows red hot.

With a gesture as casual as lifting a flower, he brings the smoldering rod to a small anvil a few feet away and pounds and shapes the end until it is flattened into a very thin wedge. With hand tools, including a chisellike hammer called a crossed peen that imprints fine lines, he creates a small patterned leaf that looks as if it just blew off a tree.

Welcome to the world of the metal artisan, which basically is blacksmithing carried to a higher level. Mr. Lee, a native of the former South Vietnam, is a longtime employee at Flaherty Iron Works in Alexandria. He and other craftsmen work in a 15,000-square-foot studio - really a series of large, open connecting sheds - amid a welter of machinery noise necessary for the creation of artistic, decorative and protective iron and other metal products.

When finished, the leaf that Mr. Lee has fashioned most likely will become one of many ornamental elements - each different from the rest - on a candlestick or a fancy fence or banister. It also might be part of a chandelier in a dining room or a spiral staircase. This particular leaf resembles others that he has made for an iron bed frame being crafted to order for a client of Salvation Architectural Furnishings in Silver Spring, owned by Barry Remley.

Like many other designers in the Washington area, Ms. Remley relies on Flaherty Iron Works for much of her custom business - special orders for special customers who are looking for something different and creative when furnishing and decorating a home or business. Today's market is an especially lucrative and welcoming one for custom-crafted metal pieces, Ms. Remley says.

One of the latest trends, she says, is combining iron and wood. "Europe always used iron with wood. It has taken a longer time for the public in America to recognize the value of mixing different materials on the interior," she says.

"[Francis Flaherty] does wrought iron, but when he is fabricating for me, he may incorporate a cast-iron piece from a balcony front into the wrought iron," Ms. Remley says.

The term "wrought iron" is a bit of a misnomer, according to Ron Marsden, vice president of marketing for Bethesda Iron Works in Rockville.

"It's more a part of our history going back to Colonial days since, years ago, wrought iron was the baloney of metals, with metal manufacturers and foundries melting together all the junk. Cast iron, using molds, still is done. You see it in some bookends or andirons for fireplaces. Technology has brought us better techniques. Today's iron is mostly made of mild steel."

Like Flaherty, the Bethesda firm does a great deal of work for builders and developers. "Blacksmithing is a dying art," Mr. Marsden says. "So much is cast and machine-made product." Fences with scrollwork that people buy at local garden centers have largely been mass-produced, he says.

"There are people who do ornamental ironwork using prefabricated sections that they weld together and install," says Ken Zastrow, treasurer of the Blacksmiths' Guild of the Potomac. "Most gates and window bars that you see of this kind are of recent vintage."

Mr. Zastrow, a retired government engineer who teaches blacksmithing at Washington Waldorf School in Bethesda and at Carroll County Farm Museum in Westminster, Md., also gets outside commissions such as a repair-and-renovation job at Dumbarton Oaks estate in Georgetown. On such large projects, he will subcontract to Mr. Flaherty.

"When the stock market is up, decorative iron is good," says Greg Campbell, who owns a small Rockville shop called Black Rose Forge that does primarily residential and historic restoration work on old gates and railings. …