Blacksmith Darla Selander Shows Us the Art of Steel

Darla Selander is 57 years old, 5-foot-nothing and can do more pushups than you. She also likes red leather jackets, diamond earrings and—above all—her rough, calloused hands. All of these are qualities of a blacksmith insofar as Darla has all these qualities and is a blacksmith. So whether she looks like one to you isn’t really the point. Because 20 years of twisting and pounding raw steel into one-of-a-kind pieces for clients all across Michigan should—and does—speak for itself.

Darla Selander

The Craft

Before her hands found a hammer, Darla’s artistic streak found a saxophone. She almost went on to study music in college. Jazz was her thing, and the improvisatory nature of the music was always something that fascinated her. It’s not impossible to see the connection to what she does now. When she says, joking, “I don’t make mistakes, I only make design changes,” one can’t help but think of the quote often attributed to jazz great Thelonious Monk, that “there are no wrong notes.” The sentiment, whether pounding steel with a hammer or pounding out notes is the same: Sometimes you do something you didn’t mean to do, but if you keep an open mind about it, it can lead to something better than what you had planned anyway.

Don’t make too much of the connection though: Darla is not one of those esoteric artist types who loves drawing labored interdisciplinary connections between things like jazz and blacksmithing. Indeed, she’d probably roll her eyes at that. Her path into the world of blacksmithing was entirely practical: She rode horses, and when she got sick of crappy horseshoeing jobs, she decided she could do better. Simple as that. Her husband bought her a small propane forge in lieu of a pair of diamond earrings for one of her birthdays, and she started making her own horseshoes. Her love of artistic blacksmithing was sparked shortly thereafter. While at a horseshoeing seminar in Flagstaff, Arizona, she happened to catch a demonstration by a legendary Scottish horseshoer who was killing time waiting for his audience to gather. So he effortlessly whipped up a steel fire poker topped with a decorative ram’s head. After that, Darla made fewer horseshoes.

Darla Selander

Darla says one of her favorite things—and one of the signs of a good blacksmith—is to make something that doesn’t look anything like the material you started with. Case in point: She picks up a small steel apple, about half the size of a real apple. Hold it in your hand and it weighs only a quarter of what you’d expect. You deduce that the damn thing must be hollow, and are now struggling to figure out how this curved, satiny fruit was once a thick-walled two-inch pipe. Impressive. Other times, she works with a material’s hereditary traits, like the twisted metal snake figure lurking in the corner of her house. He was once a metal file; the crisscrossed scoring that once rounded off metal burrs now forms the perfect suggestion of a reptile’s scales.

As for music, she hasn’t picked up her saxophone in years. And when she works, she doesn’t listen to jazz. She prefers hard rock. At crushing volumes. Mötley Crüe. Alice in Chains. It helps her concentrate.

The Shop

There’s no need for a sepia filter: Everything in Darla’s shop, tucked in the Manistee County forest, is already brown and most everything is old. You can hardly see the walls behind the racks and racks of raw steel tools, heavily patinaed in a way that makes everything look like it’s covered in cocoa powder. Even the floors have been left a dusty brown—intentionally unfinished without a concrete slab, covered instead with a mix of soft clay and sand designed to make hours of standing on one’s feet, banging three-pound hammers against steel anvils physically tolerable.

Dirt floor, but ordered space: Darla has hundreds of hammers and calipers and various other metal somethings in here, all sorted along gradients of size and purpose. She selects a single hammer from the library of metal, holds the handle, feels the weight of it drag against her wrist and calls it “wonderful.” Compared to a regular hammer, it feels like a barbell in your hand. But Darla says she can swing this one all day. It’s not about the weight, she explains. It’s about how the weight is balanced. And though heavy, something about it does indeed feel wonderful and light, like a gravitational illusion.

She lets the hammer bounce lazily against an anvil that weighs god knows how much, and instead of clanging with a thud against the block of steel, the tool recoils with the lightness of a kid jumping on a trampoline. That is how you tell if an anvil is worth its weight, Darla says. Sometimes people will try to show off by “testing” an anvil—striking it and listening for the proper “ping,” like thumping a watermelon to check for a sweet inside. It’s a cute demonstration. But in reality, a good anvil is all about the rebound, not the sound. If the hammer bounces back, then you’re not going to be pulling its weight against the force of gravity all day. An equal and opposite reaction that turns out to be a real arm-saver.

Darla Selander

Amid the colonies of small hand tools are a few giants. If you never looked up, you’d miss an enormous leather bellows, mounted to the ceiling. It looks just like the spade-shaped one sitting in front of your fireplace at the family cottage. Only this thing is six feet by four feet and operates by pulling a ginormous wooden arm that’s been crafted from a tree branch. Selander picked it up for $75 from a blacksmith’s museum run by an old-timer who was retiring and getting rid of his best stuff so someone wouldn’t have to take care of it when he died. Darla laughs when she thinks about where all this stuff will go when the same fate catches up with her. No one in her family has taken an interest in blacksmithing, so it’ll probably end up similarly priced at an estate sale—the bellows passed on again to some newcomer artisan who’ll haul them home in smiling disbelief that something quite so spectacular could be had for so little. If she’s lucky, a few of the hammers will go to somebody who understands that a hand tool can be wonderful.

Darla Selander

Fire and Steel

What makes good steel is nothing you can see. It’s the carbon—a life-giving element that’s introduced in tiny amounts at hellish temperatures to transform regular old iron into one of the backbones of civilization. Different kinds of steel have different properties based on the amount of carbon and other elements that are added to the iron in the forge—which is why Darla says you can’t just go digging in grandpa’s junk pile, pull out a hunk of metal, heat it up and turn it into something it doesn’t want to be. No matter how good the blacksmith.

Darla is a good blacksmith, and part of the reason is she knows her steel. When it’s time to start a project, she heads down to her metal wholesaler, who carries steel in all kinds of shapes, lengths and molecular configurations. Watching her pick out steel is like observing a chef roam a just-opened farmers market, hands and eyes evaluating ingredients to match the day’s inspiration. Generally, she comes with an idea of what she’s looking for. But since each work and piece of steel is unique, she leaves room for a scrap piece of rebar to inspire something outside the plan. Which is why a stop at the bargain bin is always a must. There, Darla picks through the blacksmith’s equivalent of the ugly vegetables that have been gnawed on by insects. But the discarded lengths, which can be had for 45 cents a pound, might be just the thing for today’s menu.

Darla Selander

Steel is fundamental. But it is not elemental. Unlike, say, aluminum, if you screw up a piece of steel, its value cannot be recovered simply by melting it down again and starting over. This is why Darla says steel is “both forgiving and unforgiving.” Subjected to fire of the right type and temperature, it can be bent, molded, folded, twisted, hammered and hollowed into almost any form you impose on it. But strike it wrong, or subject it to the wrong kind of heat, and it will crack, scale, break and render itself into a day of wasted work.

Steel, though it is made using intense heat, can even be burned. This happens when the fire in the forge gets too hot and the carbon burns out of it—making the steel more or less useless as a material. This is why a good blacksmith must know not only the characteristics of steel, but also of fire, and the relationship between the two. A red fire for bending. Light yellow for welding. And always strike while the iron’s hot. There’s actually something to that. When you take a piece from the fire and transfer it to the anvil for shaping, Darla says you’d better know what you’re going to do. Hesitation, even for a few seconds, can cool an otherwise elegant material into junkyard scrap.

Keepin’ It Real

Darla cringes when you ask her about the video. The one that seems to be forever relegated to the first page of search results when you Google “Darla Selander blacksmith.” You click the play button. Darla appears on the screen, awkwardly taking you on a tour of her shop and craft. She struggles to look spontaneous delivering a script she’s obviously worked out ahead of time. Then, near the end, she looks at the camera and tells you how she “loves to enjoy a cold one” after a hard day of wielding the hammer. It sounds like anything but what she’s actually thinking, like a product placement in a movie that no one’s even bothering to disguise.

Which is more or less what it is.

Darla says she shot this video when a guy in her blacksmithing club contacted her because Busch beer was looking for a blacksmith for an ad campaign. The pitch: Feature hardworking people, working hard, and kicking back with a “cold one” after a day of aforementioned hard work. But after reluctantly torturing herself making the demo video—which the producers initially liked—they informed her they were going with a 30-something bearded logger dude from Manistee. They told her straight up that she was perfect, but they’re looking for somebody younger.

Darla is used to having to endure people who think she’s too this or that to do what she does. Usually, if people are going to have a hard time with something, it’s the fact that it’s a woman manning the anvil. For nine years she held the honor of being the demonstration blacksmith at the Old Engine Show in Buckley, Michigan—the state’s premier event for people who nerd out about long-lost heavy-duty things like steam engines and turn-of-the-century farm implements. More than one old-timer scoffed at her residency—taking one look at her, assuming she’s only there to hawk wares for the “real” blacksmith who must be otherwise occupied. She’s worked out ways to deal with the naysayers—including displaying a mounted red game-show style button in the middle of an old bear trap, the sign over it reading “Press to submit a suggestion.” If that’s not enough to shut them up, she says arm wrestling them with her hammering arm would probably do the trick. Did we mention she can do more pushups than you?

When not running interference at the Old Engine Show, the bear-trap suggestion box hangs on the wall of her shop next to the other symbol in here representing the unfairer sex. It’s a piece of plywood sporting a simple “I ♥ U.” The heart has been inelegantly pounded out of an old horseshoe by someone with less touch than Darla. It was her husband, Ernie, who snuck out to the shop one day and made this for one of their recent anniversaries. Asked to critique the work, she laughs and calls it “rough.” But as an artifact, it says that not all men have such a hard time with the idea of a woman blacksmith. Or a woman who loves her rough, calloused hands and pounds steel into art while listening to Mötley Crüe.

To Ernie: I ♥ U back. Love, Darla.

Lou Blouin is a writer and public radio producer based in Detroit | Photos by Andy Wakeman

This article originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy here!


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