Jonathan Nedbor learned metalsmithing as a young man, with plans to study the craft in graduate school at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois. “But I met a woman, and life happened. I stayed here in Ulster County.”
He bought an old house by the Rondout Creek in Alligerville, where he raised a family. His shop, the Canal Forge, stands a few feet from his back door. When he came to the property nearly 31 years ago, he found the brick footings of an old blacksmith shop a few feet from the house, next to what had been the D & H Canal. He built his first shop overlapping that old shop, where he worked until constructing a new building in 2006. The old shop is now a museum of historic forged metal pieces, including his collection of handworked items and tools of the trade.
Nedbor works iron and steel into decorative and useful shapes using skills handed down from one craftsman to another for 3,000 years. He calls this skill “squishing metal.” With a long list of credits to his name – the Huguenot Historical Society in New Paltz, Clermont in Germantown, Montgomery Place in Annandale-on-Hudson, Great Camp Sagamore at Raquette Lake and Van Cortlandt Manor in Tarrytown, to name just a few – he has used traditional blacksmithing techniques to create reproductions of 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century hardware and household ironwork. Hardware of the Dutch Colonial period, ubiquitous in this region, is a favorite specialty of his, and has been produced in his shop for the restoration of private homes and museums.
Canal Forge is outfitted with a ceiling-mounted crane, with which Nedbor can move heavy equipment and giant pieces of material all around the space, crowded with tools and examples of his work. On the back wall sit his forges, fired with soft coal in a double-brick chimney. There’s a massive air hammer – “Essentially the same action as a beefy person swinging a hammer,” he says – an electric blower in place of a hand bellows, a welder. The place is fairly jammed with tools and chunks of metal in one shape or another, some looking like they’ve been around for longer than the shop has stood there. In one corner Nedbor is setting up a jewelrymaking bench: a space for more delicate work to be done.
He picks up an H and L hinge and a door latch made for one of the historic houses in New Paltz, explaining how he constructed it without using modern techniques that would have left telltale marks as a modern reproduction. “Observation is one of the most important tools I have. And there’s trial and error in manufacturing antique pieces to match an original. I consider the context in which these Dutch and English pieces were made and try to imagine the mindset of the smith who made them. The work was done by eye. Nobody in that time period had perfectly square lines in their houses.”
Once the process is figured out, as in this particular hinge, Nedbor says that he gets better and better at producing it. “If you have the right hammer blows at the anvil, you don’t have a lot of filing and fitting to do afterwards. There’s a certain purity to it.”
One of the few full-time professional blacksmiths in the country, Nedbor is a popular teacher and demonstrator, eagerly talking about processes and the history of metalsmithing. “Forging is working metal like clay, and the same processes are used whether applying traditional tools or modern ones. The metal is still the metal, and you still have to do to the metal what needs to be done.” He offers classes at Canal Forge for beginners and advanced metalsmiths. And he welcomes visitors to his shop to talk casually, if not also passionately, about the craft. “I even own two hand-forged basketball hoops. In my collection are a few tools that I can’t identify and ask everyone who sees them if they have a clue – haven’t yet figured out what some were used for.”
Although Nedbor specializes in historic forged ironwork, focusing on the early hardware of New York’s Hudson Valley, he also designs and produces contemporary ironwork of all types, including fireplace equipment, window treatments, furniture, railings and household gates.
Canal Forge is located at 496 Tow Path Road in Alligerville. Nedbor can be reached at (845) 687-7130 or by e-mailing him at [email protected] His website, still under construction, is www.hudsonvalleyblacksmith.com.