BY: JOSEPH PORCARI
PHOTOGRAPHY BY: DAN CUTRONA
Blacksmith Richard “Rusty” Griffin shares his passion of creating Damascus steel-patterned blades and beautiful sculptural work in forged steel, bronze and copper.
Tucked away in a nondescript industrial area of Chatham is a modern-day forge founded in 2005 and owned and operated by Richard “Rusty” Griffin.
A self-described “artist, blacksmith and sculptor,” Griffin uses a gas-fueled forge, tools and machines—some more than 100 years old—to create sculptural and functional work in forged steel, bronze and copper.
The artist is well known by collectors of knives and swords for his complicated Damascus steel-patterned blades with handles fashioned of petrified bog oak and hand-tooled leather cases. In addition to crafting beautiful sculptural railings and gates, Griffin’s recent projects for architects have included recreating an old wrought iron archway for an ancient stone wellhead for an Osterville estate and making a massive chandelier destined for a home in California.
Griffin was raised in Chatham by an artistic and musical family; his father, Richard, Sr., is a painter, musician and a co-founder of the Chatham Chorale. He received six years of classical training in fine art and illustration at The Art Institute of Boston and the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. A job as a teaching assistant to a professor of sculpture who taught bronze casting proved to be a turning point: “It was then I realized I couldn’t sit at a desk all day as an illustrator. I wanted to work with my hands—I’ve always been attracted to three-dimensional and large-scale art.”
A complete 180-degree turn from a desk job, a blacksmith’s shop is a place of drama, danger, brute force and primal power—the stuff of myths and legends, gods and heroes. There’s the roar of the gas jets fueling the forge, and the rhythmic chugging of the 5,000-pound power hammer punctuated by the bell-like sound of the hammer striking the anvil (Griffin says it rings in the key of C). There’s the heat: When the metal in the forge is around 2,300 degrees, the surrounding air temperature is upwards of 130 degrees. And there’s the ever-present danger of injury from burns and heavy equipment.
In this charged environment, the blacksmith’s movements must be quick, precise and alert to the visual cues from the heated metal itself. At slightly above 2,300 degrees, steel turns a yellowish white color that signals its plasticity, enabling it to be stretched and shaped like Play-Doh. If the steel gets too hot (around 2,500 degrees), it melts into a lava-like puddle.
When forging objects like Damascus steel axe blades, Griffin needs an assistant, called a “Striker,” who wields a heavy sledgehammer to flatten the metal, while he uses a small hammer and tongs to shape it. Griffin choreographs the striker’s moves, pointing to where he should hit, and how hard or soft. The two must work perfectly in synch—an errant blow could be catastrophic.
Passionate about the integrity and history of his craft, Griffin considers himself a lifelong student and is constantly honing his skills at workshops with master blacksmiths around the country and in Europe. When asked about his future plans, Griffin mentions expanding his forge and teaching workshops. Whatever direction he takes, Griffin finds satisfaction in knowing that he will be leaving something behind: “My work will be around for hundreds of years. I can’t ever see myself doing anything else.”