JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – I sat down to dinner a little after 9 p.m. Thursday – salad, rice, a cold IPA and a medium-rare, Montreal-seasoned, mushroom-covered sirloin that I had grilled using my very own brand-new, handmade steak turner.
About six hours earlier, I hadn’t even known a cooking tool called a “steak turner” existed. Like a fool, I had been using tongs all these years.
I got to create my turner while I learned a bit about metalworking during the Artist-Blacksmith’s Association of North America’s inaugural Iron to Art festival at Peoples Natural Gas Park in Johnstown.
Truth be told, it was two hours into the three-hour class before I understood what I was making. Seems like I spaced on that detail during the instructions. After turning the handle, I was told to taper the other end to the sharpest point I could.
“Cool, it’s a jabbing stick,” I thought. “This will get me through crowds quicker.”
Then somebody mentioned “steaks,” and I started to realize what I was forging. (Note: It still would make a pretty good jabbing stick, so stay clear from me in group settings. I might be carrying.)
Making the steak turner was a fun, head-clearing experience.
I didn’t even need to think, “Take that, (fill in the blank),” while I was pounding on the anvil, which I had intended to do.
All of the (fill in the blanks) just went away as I shaped metal and really, really concentrated on not burning myself or anybody near me with the glowing orange metal that was heated to well over 1,500 degrees.
Folks from Iron Osprey Designs in St. Augustine, Florida, taught a half-dozen studentshow to heat, pound, bend and twist what started as a nondescript rectangular bar of mild steel.
Owner Doug Hayes has instructed more than 1,000 students – from children to couples on date nights, to guys doing a bachelor party, to now at least one reporter – since he opened his forge in January 2020, right before the pandemic hit.
“I like the excitement that people get when they discover that they can do something or experience something new,” Hayes said. “For me, the fascination with blacksmithing is you take this immobile, rigid substance you can’t imagine doing stuff with, and you turn it into something that’s useful and friendly and feels good in the hand or looks good to the eye, and either provide art or function or both.”
Hayes explained that “typically out of 20 students, whether they be teenagers or adults, two or three will really have the passion for it and will come back multiple times.”
Instructors including Hayes and Steve Hotz, from Black Horse Forge in Fredericksburg, Virginia, have been teaching beginner’s classes for two days at the festival.
Hotz, a retired paratrooper with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division who served in the Gulf War, explained some of the benefits provided to veterans and other people dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, such as himself.
“It’s humbling, sometimes, to be able to share with the veterans and everybody who comes through here because we all have a different story,” Hotz said. “It’s also really satisfying to me when we can see that we help in the healing process. That’s one part of our teaching, what we’re doing. You can see that stress and everything come out from being a great outlet.”
Classes will be offered on Saturday when the festival is open to the public. Reservations were taken in advance. But chances are if Hayes, Hotz or other instructors see a person standing around watching for a few minutes, he or she will be asked, “You ready to pick up a hammer?”
Pick it up.
You’ll get the opportunity to hammer your mind clear, try something new and possibly leave with your own metal jabbing sti … I mean, “steak turner.”