Peter Ross: Controlled Irregularity
This smith’s hand-forged tools and hardware combine art and function.
By Megan Fitzpatrick
November 2012, issue #200
Today, we aim for too much perfection; period work wasn’t like that,” says blacksmith/whitesmith Peter Ross. Handwork, he says, is a culmination of learning to do things quickly with few tools and little fussing, whether that’s working with iron or working with wood. With a sufficient level of skill, “you end up with pieces that have a spontaneity…but in a fairly controlled way because of the person doing it.” That ephemeral quality of controlled irregularity is what draws Peter to historical work.
Peter has been interested in period tools, hardware and techniques since his introduction to blacksmithing during high school, at what is now called the Long Island Museums at Stony Brook, in Stony Brook, N.Y. He then volunteered and was later employed at Old Bethpage Village Restoration, an 1860s living history museum on Long Island. After two years at the Rhode Island School of Design, Peter left college to work with Dick Everett, a smith who specialized in historic reproductions of house hardware, in East Haddam, Conn., before opening his own smithy on Deer Isle, Maine, in 1976. Three years later, he became a journeyman blacksmith at Colonial Williamsburg as the living history museum was transitioning the smithy from creating souvenir pieces to making authentic reproductions of historical metal artifacts. Peter soon became the shop’s master, and until 2006 worked at Colonial Williamsburg where he investigated historical methods of work and produced metal work for the museum.
Today, Peter works in his (preternaturally clean and organized) one-man smithy in Siler City, N.C., where he makes and sells traditional hardware and tools, from gorgeous dividers to hinges of all shapes and sizes and period locks of every sort. And just about any custom piece a woodworker might want, including a replica of the massive holdfast shown in André Roubo’s 18th-century book “L’art du Menuisier”; it weighs in at 9 pounds., 7 ounces, and is 18″ long. (Peter also makes excellent holdfasts in a more typical size.)
Same Work, Different Story
Though he no longer works at a museum, Peter still creates pieces that would be at home in the past – but now he works in blue jeans instead of breeches, and his commute is a stroll through the backyard of the old farmhouse that he and his wife, Louise, are renovating.
“The story is different; the tool is not. I pick my process for my own enjoyment,” he says.
The forge in Peter’s smithy uses an electric fan instead of a bellows, and he employs a power hammer for the initial steps in the hammering process, but the end result is the same – period-correct hand-forged tools and hardware.
“What I’m trying to do is make things out of the same raw materials and in a way that’s indistinguishable between a new and period piece.”
But those same raw materials can be difficult to come by, says Peter; there is now a limited supply of iron because it hasn’t been smelted for 50-60 years, and many blacksmiths are in competition for available scrap. (There is hope for “new” iron, though, at least in small amounts. Peter has two friends at Colonial Williamsburg who are investigating traditional smelting processes, and they’ve had some success in producing small batches.)
Behind the building that houses his smithy, Peter hordes piles of rusting wagon wheels, fencing, farm equipment and other iron items, just waiting for him to turn old into something new (that looks old). And he never knows where scrap iron is going to turn up. Some of his stash is from a town in Vermont that flooded in the fall of 2011. “They were cleaning out one of the buildings and there was a rack of iron that had been there for 100 years,” he says.
Today, many blacksmiths work in steel, which, because it’s still being made, is easy to find. But Peter prefers the iron because the impurities make it less predictable. There’s a lot more risk in working iron than steel, he says. “It’s a lot like woodworking, with variable grain.” The grain comes from the impurities in the materials, which stretch when the iron is heated and shaped. So when it breaks – and it does break – it breaks like wood. Iron is also softer than steel (which is typically iron with carbon, or another alloy such as manganese or tungsten, that acts as a hardening agent), so it’s easier to manipulate.
For Peter, spontaneity is more enjoyable than perfection – which is not to say his work isn’t precise, but “precise” is quite different than “perfect.”
“I do most of my work with hand tools and try to get things to come out consistently, but I also enjoy the irregularities,” Peter says.
That’s what draws him to historical work – both in working with iron and working with wood.
“When you really study antiques carefully, you can see there’s a lot more reliance on practice than on lessons that have been established in a book. When you look at a real piece and you look at what’s visible and not, there’s a reasoned approach to putting extra time into areas that show – things that would be a waste of time in areas where it’s not valued,” he says.
“You see that in tools. Steel just the for cutting edge. Visible surfaces of tools that have to be more precise are ground or filed; other areas are left rough-forged.”
But “rough” doesn’t mean crude; it means simply that there’s a minimum level of finish on a given surface – the finish that’s necessary for the tool to work, Peter says.
“My interest in history is what went on in the workshop. What kinds of attitudes did they have about their work? Can you tell how carefully they used the materials and the tools? What was OK to hide? To show?”
Peter has his own research collection from which to learn; in a room behind his forge, he has floor-to-15′-ceiling shelving lining the walls, and it’s stuffed full with old locks, hinges, tools and other period metal pieces.
Benjamin Seaton’s Tools
Peter’s contributions to woodworking go far beyond the work he does at his forge.
In 1994 and 1995, Benjamin Seaton’s historic tool chest and its almost-pristine contents were on loan to Colonial Williamsburg from the Guildhall Museum in Rochester, England, for the exhibition “Tools: Working Wood in Eighteenth-century America.” After the exhibit closed, Peter and Jay Gaynor, director of historic trades at Colonial Williamsburg, spent several months studying, measuring and drawing the tools. Peter and Jay’s detailed drawings, along with new drawings of the chest by Mack Headley, are included in the second edition of “The Tool Chest of Benjamin Seaton,” published by the Tools and Trades History Society. These drawings provide incredible insight into the crafts of both toolmaking and woodworking in the period, and are a goldmine of information for anyone interested in 18th-century tools and practices.
“We were careful to record how precise or imprecise they (the tools) actually are. The abundant flaws, irregular sizes and irregular shapes are very different from modern expectations, and call into question the assumption that good handwork must be done with super-precise tools.”
The drawings record not only these irregularities, but also help to illustrate Peter’s philosophy: “The value is in carefully researching and making something that matches.
“If you don’t care about whether it’s historically correct, it’s probably better off to redesign things and come up with a contemporary form that’s simply interesting to look at.” PWM
Megan is editor of this magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From the November 2012 issue #200
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