CUSTOM WORK IS VALUED NOW MORE THAN EVER. Be it produce from an East End farmer, pie from the corner baker or a scarf from your aunt: a piece of work by a craftsman who spent years learning and plying their trade is as much about their story as it is about the tangible result of their efforts. Four local craftsmen have spent years sawmilling a countless number of trees, heating thousands of pounds of steel to 2,500 degrees and carving imported marble by hand in order to create one-of-a-kind, story-telling pieces. Meet the stories behind your new stuff.
RACHEL AND TIM MILLER SPIRIT IRONWORKS, BAYPORT
ON HOT SUMMER DAYS at Spirit Ironworks, when the temperature next to the searing forges reaches 130 degrees, there is a saying that circulates the shop floor. “We call that a one-gallon day,” said Tim Miller, who co-owns the blacksmith shop with his sister Rachel. “That’s how much water you need to drink to stay hydrated.” If hand-shaping metal heated up to 2,000 degrees leaves you worried more about dehydration than permanent burns, it speaks to how well you’ve mastered your craft.
The Millers pursued blacksmithing separately before forming the company in 2003. Rachel studied for a degree in sculpture, with her work constructed mostly with the usual materials—stone, wood, plaster and clay. But she instantly fell in love with steel after experimenting in the school’s crude blacksmithing shop, a space she describes as alien with a few welding machines where she could heat up metal, bang it using a hammer and anvil, then bend, flatten and elongate it. “I had never seen this stuff before,” Rachel recalled. “I became fascinated by [it]. After I left art school, I wanted to pursue this.”
Tim started just after high school when he began working at the Bellport Historical Society doing metal fabrication. He wanted to be a blacksmith, drawn to the trade without really having a clear idea of what it was. After attending craft schools around the country, he completed a degree in metals from SUNY New Paltz.
They worked apart for years after college. Rachel began making furniture, then got a job welding airplane parts before starting a business out of a 250-square-foot garage in New Mexico selling tables, chairs and candleholders. Tim’s first shop was in the back of a commercial Bayport building owned by his father. That’s where he hammered out hardware for local barns and made occasional ornamental ironwork for a trendy Manhattan storefront.
Since partnering, they’ve grown to a staff of nine craftsmen, including blacksmiths and welders. Their work ranges from commercial and purely decorative, like the steel and copper tree shape archway for Patchogue Village, to functional, such as the turn of the 20th-century metal fence that was damaged during Superstorm Sandy that they replaced for a Nissequogue woman. Then there are times when the job is a matter of national security, like several years ago, when the Department of Homeland Security asked them to make a piece for the Brooklyn Bridge. “It was a purely functional part and they could not find anyone to make it the way it was speced out,” Rachel said. “We were the only shop they could find that could deliver the rope stanchions that hold the hand ropes in place for those walking up the main cables.”
Their skill sets complement each other and they have different interests within the field. Rachel, the artist, prefers “organic, natural forms, like owers, leaves and scroll work.” That’s fine with Tim who is rooted in the technical side. “I’m more process driven,” Tim stated. “The history of the craft, the different metals used, why it was built a certain way…I look more to the design of things.”
While each can weld, they are quick to point out that being a blacksmith involves more than joining two pieces of metal. “A welder will take pieces of metal that are pre-shaped and join them. A blacksmith can go a step before that and transform it by using heat to push, pull, spread and fuse it. It totally transforms the material.” The shapes they produce, from a tiny leaf to twisted rope gate hardware, all start as one form of North American steel: either a round, square or flat bar, or metal sheets. That rough stock is heated in a forge before all the tong-grabbing and hammer-banging begins. And while they use certain modern tools, the core of the craft remains the same as it did in Roman times.
And the burns? “Once you burn yourself doing something, you never do it again,” Tim said. “After about 20 years that list of things you’ll never do again gets pretty long.”
ETHAN SAND ESAND FURNITURE, NORTHPORT
LIKE MANY 37-YEAR-OLDS, wood shop was part of Ethan Sand’s curriculum in high school. But pointing to that time as the reason he now turns massive tree trunks into furniture cheapens the lasting impact of that one night on the side of the road. “I saw this piece of pine on the street out on Eatons Neck,” Sand recalled. “The power company came and cut it down so I borrowed a big tree ball cart, and in the middle of the night picked up this 200 or 300-pound piece of pine, and rolled it down the hill to my house.” Why? Because once you see a tree split open, reveling the beauty inside, it’s all you want to see.
“I asked myself, ‘How do you turn that into something instead of letting it rot and go to waste?” Sand said. His answer was to take a chainsaw to it, slice out a slab of wood and build a contemporary, 4’x3’ coffee table. Replicating that process—one that is neither fast nor easy and certainly doesn’t come flat packed, but it will last generations—is now his furniture business.
Most furniture workshops are filled with the tools of the woodworking trade, things like a table saw, hand planes and chisels, and while Sand’s shop in the garage of his Northport home certainly has tools, the beating heart is his Lucas Mill. It’s a portable milling rig that he trailers around to cut offsite as well as at his house. It, along with a chain saw, allows him to harvest flat slices of wood up to 60” wide—kind of like a horizontal bread slicer.
While he’ll tell you he’s learned a lot from YouTube videos over the years, when he first started there wasn’t much of an Internet to turn to for advice. Instead he spied local sawmill operators, looked over their shoulders as they worked trying to get tips. And books; Sand, a self-professed nerd consumed nearly any woodworking magazine, manual and how-to book he could find when he started out.
With a basic feel for the work, Sand needed trees to save. He developed relationships with local arborist and landscapers who now call him when they have oak, walnut, cherry or ash from a job.
But harvesting tree logs is only part of the equation, the easier part. “The biggest hurdle is drying the wood,” Sand admitted. Wood has to be properly dried to ensure it won’t warp over time. This requires time and special equipment. Initially he’d drive a few pieces to a Brooklyn-based sawmill equipped with a wood drying kiln to bring the slab’s moisture content down to about 10 percent. But once the mill got busy, Sand did what he often does: learn to do it himself. After reading up on the subject, he got a commercial kiln dryer and installed it in the insulated shed he built. His projects sit inside for about five weeks, slowly extracting the moisture. Then a quick blast at 133 degrees kills any bugs or bacteria hiding in the bark. Once dry, a slab is sanded and coated with a finish to prevent water from seeping in.
Meanwhile, Sand, who is also an occasional welder, makes the metal base that gives the slab the appearance it’s floating. Buyers often contact him after seeing his piece on display at Brú na Bó furniture store just down the road from his shop.
There have been bumps in the road, which he’s survived because making furniture will probably never feel like a job. “I learned by messing up a lot, that’s what you have to do; go make a lot of toothpicks and sawdust,” Sand said. “It takes a certain kind of mindset to do this, but I’m not special—I’m not Superman.”
DANIEL SINCLAIR DMS STUDIOS, LONG ISLAND CITY
IT DIDN’T TAKE LONG for Daniel Sinclair to realize how little he actually knew. Talented with pencil and paper since childhood, he was a newly minted graduate with a master’s degree in sculpture from Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute when he left for Italy—post, post-graduate work. Convinced he would spend “a couple of months picking up pointers,” his skills took a backseat to a heavy dose of humility. “After a fairly brief amount of time in Pietrasanta, I realized that I was a child,” Sinclair admitted. “I knew nothing at all. I didn’t know anything about art, about sculpture or about drawing.”
But Sinclair did know that impressing two brothers in this town—located about halfway between Florence and Genoa and internationally known for its skilled artisans—might be enough to allow him stay. It was. The brothers, Pasquino and Enzo Pasquini, were exceptional craftsmen creating marble work that adorned churches and cemeteries around the world. They took Sinclair in as an apprentice, letting him stay closer to the renaissance works of Michelangelo and Bernini that were responsible for luring him away from the painting career he initially thought he would make a living at.
Italy taught Sinclair not just about art but about the craft of shaping stone by hand. He makes a strong distinction between being a craftsman, who works to the specifications of a client and artist, who is essentially a poet regardless of his or her medium. The two are not mutually exclusive and in fact, at his shop they’re intertwined.
He returned to New York after a decade in Italy, half of which he spent out from under the wing of his stone carving mentors and under that of another type of craftsman. “I needed specific tools in order to execute the kinds of sculptures that I wanted to do,” Sinclair said. “You can’t go to your local art supply store and buy these tools, so I spent time working with a blacksmith to learn how to forge and create them.”
DMS Studios is the result of everything he learned in Italy: the skills, tools and study of the classics. His shop caters to clients looking for custom replace surrounds, doorway moldings, fountains and statuary. The process of commissioning one of his works is akin to building a house: architects are often involved, consultations happen, sketches, more consolations, revised sketches—each drawn to scale of the project—before the design is approved.
That’s when the slab or block of imported Italian marble or, for exterior work, American limestone, is brought into his Long Island City shop. From there, patterns are hand drawn, sometimes three dimensional clay molds are sculpted, before the hammer and chisel come out. Techniques have changed little since the times of his earliest predecessors, it’s all mostly done with a variety of chisels, some as narrow-tipped as a knitting needle. It starts with cleaving off big chucks and working down to the finer details like flowers, foliage, egg and dart moldings. Some projects take 90 days, others can take nine months.
Even in an increasingly crowded market, clients turn to him because of his skills but also for his knowledge of architectural styles—tell him when your house was built and he’ll have a book to show you what style of mantle would be architecturally appropriate for the era.
DMS Studio’s existence, and projects like the fireplace he carved for the White House’s Lincoln Bedroom, exist today more as funding source that allows Sinclair to pursue his more artistic side. His work reaches beyond stone to include metals and found objects. Some of his smaller, more intimate pieces are shown in galleries throughout New York, the larger ones, like the 25’x8’ assortment of mixed metals work titled “Speedwheels,” hangs in Grand Central Station.
Reflecting back on his career, Sinclair still returns to what he loved doing as a child. “It starts with the love of drawing and the idea of expressing yourself through your hands as a craftsman,” he said. “To me drawing is like oxygen.”