Location: Oakland, Oregon, USA
What is it that you do and how do you do it?
I am a full-time blacksmith and I specialise in making hand-forged cookware using old world techniques. I use mainly stainless steel and copper, and I have a passion for old tools – some of the ones I use in my workshop are from the early 1900s. It’s a lot of fun.
We started our business right after the pandemic began, and that is actually when I started blacksmithing as well. I’m not a seasoned veteran in this field by any means. I’d been a builder and a metal fabricator my whole life, but blacksmithing is a special set of skills within the metalworking industry, which I had to learn, and create a product with, in a hurry. It was sort of out of desperation as I needed some work that I could do from home when COVID hit and everything shut down.
I started out by creating handles and a rolling track system for barn doors, and then I realised that the hardware was just too big, too specialised and too expensive a product. I was really looking for something small that would be in high demand and that I could ship around the world pretty easily. That’s when I stumbled upon carbon steel skillets and decided that I could work out how to make and sell them. We now also make spatulas and other utensils as well as high-end kitchen knives.
Carbon steel has a lot of the same qualities as cast iron except that it’s lighter, it heats up a little faster and it has an even better non-stick finish, because the surface is that bit smoother. It’s a lot tougher too: if you drop a cast iron pan on the ground, it might crack; steel is really tough and bendable, so won’t break when dropped. Carbon steel skillets are a standard in commercial kitchens all around the world – apparently, the chefs prefer them. My fiancée Jessy and I are both really passionate about cooking and creating food – we grow about 80% of our own food – and so cookware was a perfect fit for our farm. Jessy has helped quite a bit with testing and fine-tuning the designs based on how the cookware performs and the feedback we get from our customers. Every time I make a batch, I also try to fine-tune the production process. It’s like taking a step back in time, to before the Industrial Revolution, and you’re trying to figure out how you can do it faster and better.
Early on, I started using Instagram almost exclusively as my marketing outlet, putting pieces up on Instagram and then selling them through my website.
How did you learn your blacksmithing skills?
I’m all self-taught – I’ve done a lot of experimentation in my shop. I had to make a large investment in tools to get started, and so I kind of went out on a limb and gambled. I had a tiny house on wheels that I’d built and was renting out on Airbnb, and that was part of my income before the pandemic, but then we had to shut that down. I ended up selling the tiny house for $60,000 and I put all of that and then some into tools and equipment.
Then it was a lot of trial and error. There’s an endless amount of information in books and on YouTube – watching videos is a great way to learn the trade of blacksmithing. But nothing really beats getting out there and heating up a piece of metal and banging it on the anvil, and just figuring it out for yourself.
Where are you based, and why?
I live and work on a couple of acres in a pretty remote and small farming community in Southern Oregon, USA. I bought the property in 2016 after driving the tiny house all around the country looking for a piece of land to park it on. When I found this place, it was the perfect set-up for what I had in mind. There was an abandoned house that was all gutted on the inside but had a good roof on it and I lived in the tiny house while I got that all fixed up. I now have my workshop right here too.
One of my other big passions is gardening and small farming. I took a permaculture design course about 10 years ago and was looking for a place to implement my ideas. We have a huge garden with a whole bunch of perennial trees growing in amongst our annual vegetables. Once the trees get big enough, they will shade out all of the annual vegetables and it will become a forest of food. We also have animals: we’re raising Icelandic sheep and Kunekune pigs and we have chickens and ducks.
The farm is really coming together now. A lot of the fruit trees in the garden are starting to produce heavily and it’s just a beautiful, amazing place to call home. We prioritise sustainability and this is our way of protesting the system and commercial farming and a lot of the things that aren’t going so well right now. Rather than complain about it, we’re just trying to do something on our own that we feel good about. It all revolves around creating a healthy ecosystem and showing that it is possible, in this day and age, to produce your own food in this permaculture system that we have here.
We’re just very passionate about trying to use as little as possible and trying to have the smallest carbon footprint that we can, not only in our personal lives but also with the business. We do as much as we can to not use plastic, and we don’t use any in our packaging, and pretty much all of the proceeds from the business go right back into the garden. We buy trees and just continue on with our planting of things on our little farm here.
What is your workshop set-up like?
Those old tools that I collect are some of the main tools that I use every day. One of the big-ticket items that I have is my Little Giant power hammer. It’s a giant hunk of metal that weighs a little over 3,000 lb and has a big ram that hammers down 100 lb in weight. That tool was made in 1905, I believe, so it’s an antique, and it still works just as good as the day it was new. It’s a sought-after piece of machinery – they don’t make them anymore – and I use it every day for forging out all of my handles.
And then I have this fly press that was also made here in the USA in the early 1900s. It’s a big screw press that puts 20 tons of pressure down on the dies when you turn the very large, heavy wheel. There are no electrical components – it’s all hand-operated. I use that to put my touchmark on the back of the pans and to bend my handles, and I can put all kinds of tooling and dies in there. That’s probably my favourite tool, because I could use it to do just about everything if I absolutely had to forge pieces without electricity. The power hammer, on the other hand, definitely has the potential for some catastrophic failures, which is a bit nerve-wracking.
Part of the self-sufficiency approach and something I learned from my old homesteader friends is that you really want to have two of everything. That way, when something breaks down, you still have another one to work with while you repair it. I’ve pretty much taken that advice and rolled with it, so I like to have two of any of the important tools that I rely on.
Do you have a favourite piece or part of the process that you especially enjoy?
Definitely the forging process itself. The ancient technique of firing up the coal forge and hammering on metal on the anvil is definitely the most fun part for me. Blacksmithing has been around longer than just about anything and there is a primitive feeling to it, like you’re connecting to your ancestors. Heating up metal and getting behind the anvil to start hammering it out into the right shape is pretty much the initial step for all of the cookware. I really like making all of the cookware, even the spatula handles – it’s kind of therapeutic. I’ve been making hundreds and hundreds of these spatulas, in the exact same way, and it’s a very meditative state that you get into when you’ve got the process down so well that you just don’t really need to think about it. With the small production, I can put on my Bluetooth headphones and listen to music or listen to a podcast and learn something and just sort of tap out. I’m not having to think much, and I can just get into this creative flow, where I’m repeating the same process over and over.
Making the kitchen knives is very entertaining and makes a nice break from pounding on pans all day because that gets pretty tiring – there’s definitely a limit to how much you can produce without damaging your body. I am a big fan of Japanese knife-making and put my own twist on the classic knife shapes from Japan. The knives that I make are pretty high-end and they’re real expensive as it can take a week of long days out in the shop to make a single knife. Just creating the bar of steel to forge the knife from can take a whole day, as it may involve forge welding five layers of steel and nickel together to get the right qualities in the end product.
My least favourite part of the business is all the other stuff that goes on outside of the blacksmith’s shop. I’m very fortunate that my partner is so willing to help with this business. Jessy and I are both working full-time at it, and she does a lot of the social media, keeps on top of the books and does all of the shipping. I am super thankful and wouldn’t be able to do it without her help in all of those departments. It’s a joint effort and Jessy has an equally important role in keeping the business going.
What drives you day to day? Why do you do it and what keeps you going?
Usually, it’s when I get to read the reviews that I get from my customers – that always helps light the fire under me again, because I see just how much people are appreciating this cookware and appreciating the fact that it’s handmade and how well it performs. It just really gives me a lot of joy to know that I’m creating something that’s going to outlive me and that could be an heirloom quality piece of art and functional kitchen tool that could be passed down from generation to generation.
I also have a pretty amazing commute to work. I walk through the garden and there’s a trellis full of grapes hanging down, and I can pick some grapes on my way to work. I don’t have to get in my vehicle and drive through traffic to go to an office job or something like that. I’m very thankful that I was able to find a way to work from home. It’s pretty great.
I feel really fortunate that it’s worked out and I was able to find a craft. Like I said, I sort of started out of desperation because I had to switch my career path really fast due to the pandemic. Now I’ve realised that I’m really blessed to be doing something that I love a lot more than what I was doing previously and to be able to work from home, here on the farm. It’s just great. I love it.
Photography: ©Johnathan Cummings,
Ryan's Story is immortalised in print in We Are Makers Edition 5, If you want a good reason to put your devices down and be inspired head over to our store and pick yourself up a copy, Be sure to check it out. there is loads of other amazing makers in there.
Ryan, If you are reading this. Thank for your story. You, Like all the makers we feature are why we are here! Keep doing amazing things!