A! Magazine for the Arts

Greg Shaffer hammers a piece of metal, sending out a shower of sparks at his shop in Bristol, Va. (Earl Neikirk | Bristol Herald Courier)

Greg Shaffer hammers a piece of metal, sending out a shower of sparks at his shop in Bristol, Va. (Earl Neikirk | Bristol Herald Courier)

Bristol Craftsman Forges a Life of Creativity

July 13, 2010

*** This story was published: February 22, 2010 in the Bristol Herald Courier. ***

BRISTOL, Va. – Greg Shaffer spends his days surrounded by flying sparks and 2,500-degree heat.

The Washington County resident is part craftsman, part artist and 100 percent devoted to his time-honored trade.

"I've been interested in blacksmithing since an early age because my father had blacksmith tools around the house," Shaffer said.

For the past two years, the 43-year-old Shaffer has pursued his interest full-time as the owner of Three Springs Forge & Iron Works.

With a national clientele featuring famed television director James Burrows, Shaffer creates ornate hinges, racks, cooking utensils and other decorative pieces by hammering, bending and cutting.

The tasks are tedious and time-consuming. But it's a labor of love for Shaffer and it sure beats his old job on the factory floor.

"I worked in a factory for 15 years," Shaffer said. "It was basically as miserable dead-end job that I hated. That wasn't how I wanted to spend my life."

Steel Driving Man

A history buff and mechanical wizard, Shaffer was eager to follow a path blazed by father and grandfather. Shaffer's father, Marvin, formerly worked as metal fabricator and welder.

"I was talking to my brother one day and he said that one of his partners knew how to blacksmith and had a local shop," Shaffer said.

After conducting some research and making a few phone calls, Shaffer was invited to a meet with a group of local blacksmiths at the Rocky Mount Museum in Piney Flats, Tenn. Shaffer said he was intrigued by the demonstrations, and he soon began adding the parts and pieces to his dream.

"There was an anvil that set next to the garage for most my childhood that my father used," Shaffer said.

The anvil and assorted other tools dated to a 1950s-era general store and blacksmith shop in the Jasper Creek area of Washington County. After being laid off from his factory position in 2007, Shaffer took the next step by contacting local blacksmith Jamie Tyree.

Shaffer eventually joined Tyree at Cedar Branch Forge in Limestone, Tenn. For 15 months, Shaffer learned how to forge 18th and 19th century restoration hardware under Tyree's attentive eye.

"Jamie not only taught me how to be consistent in my forgings, but he also taught me how to be a craftsman," Shaffer said.

Forging a Dream

Shaffer now operates from his cozy shop on Reedy Creek Road which is decorated a blend of trinkets and treasures from a simpler time. In addition to doing custom work for clients, Shaffer fills orders for a New York-based company called Historic Housefitters. He also serves as a demonstrator at the Exchange Place, an 1850's era historic village in Kingsport.

For Shaffer, no practical, ornamental or traditional task is ever the same. He's even done work for Revolutionary War re-enactors.

"This is a craft where you are always learning, and you never learn it all," Shaffer said. "A piece might take days if it's really ornate while another piece might take just 30 minutes. It just depends on the job."

Shaffer said he encountered skepticism when he first considered making his career change. Since then, he has been welcomed by a diverse and supportive brotherhood that appreciates the value of hard work and ingenuity.

"Blacksmiths are an interesting group of people," Shaffer said. "A lot of them have advanced degrees and backgrounds in fields like nuclear science."

Shaffer is a member of the group called "Bristol Forge at Rocky Mount," which works to promote the art of blacksmithing. Television shows and books devoted to "do-it-yourself" home restoration projects also have helped stir interest in the ancient craft.

"When I started asking around about blacksmithing in the 1980s, I was told that there were none left but it's more popular than ever now," Shaffer said. "You just need a craftsman's eye and a little bit of artistic ability."

While the job can be brutal during the summer months, Shaffer said, he savors the opportunity to smite art out of raw black metal.

"There's craftsmanship and artwork in every piece," Shaffer said. "And I can set my own hours here."