- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 8, 2002

Hong Lee dons heavy cotton gloves and clear protective goggles and fires up a small forge. When the heat has reached more than 1,200 degrees, he inserts a thin square iron rod into the fiery furnace until it glows red hot.
With a gesture as casual as lifting a flower, he brings the smoldering rod to a small anvil a few feet away and pounds and shapes the end until it is flattened into a very thin wedge. With hand tools, including a chisellike hammer called a crossed peen that imprints fine lines, he creates a small patterned leaf that looks as if it just blew off a tree.
Welcome to the world of the metal artisan, which basically is blacksmithing carried to a higher level. Mr. Lee, a native of the former South Vietnam, is a longtime employee at Flaherty Iron Works in Alexandria. He and other craftsmen work in a 15,000-square-foot studio really a series of large, open connecting sheds amid a welter of machinery noise necessary for the creation of artistic, decorative and protective iron and other metal products.
When finished, the leaf that Mr. Lee has fashioned most likely will become one of many ornamental elements each different from the rest on a candlestick or a fancy fence or banister. It also might be part of a chandelier in a dining room or a spiral staircase. This particular leaf resembles others that he has made for an iron bed frame being crafted to order for a client of Salvation Architectural Furnishings in Silver Spring, owned by Barry Remley.
Like many other designers in the Washington area, Ms. Remley relies on Flaherty Iron Works for much of her custom business special orders for special customers who are looking for something different and creative when furnishing and decorating a home or business. Today's market is an especially lucrative and welcoming one for custom-crafted metal pieces, Ms. Remley says.
One of the latest trends, she says, is combining iron and wood. "Europe always used iron with wood. It has taken a longer time for the public in America to recognize the value of mixing different materials on the interior," she says.
"[Francis Flaherty] does wrought iron, but when he is fabricating for me, he may incorporate a cast-iron piece from a balcony front into the wrought iron," Ms. Remley says.
The term "wrought iron" is a bit of a misnomer, according to Ron Marsden, vice president of marketing for Bethesda Iron Works in Rockville.
"It's more a part of our history going back to Colonial days since, years ago, wrought iron was the baloney of metals, with metal manufacturers and foundries melting together all the junk. Cast iron, using molds, still is done. You see it in some bookends or andirons for fireplaces. Technology has brought us better techniques. Today's iron is mostly made of mild steel."
Like Flaherty, the Bethesda firm does a great deal of work for builders and developers. "Blacksmithing is a dying art," Mr. Marsden says. "So much is cast and machine-made product." Fences with scrollwork that people buy at local garden centers have largely been mass-produced, he says.
"There are people who do ornamental ironwork using prefabricated sections that they weld together and install," says Ken Zastrow, treasurer of the Blacksmiths' Guild of the Potomac. "Most gates and window bars that you see of this kind are of recent vintage."
Mr. Zastrow, a retired government engineer who teaches blacksmithing at Washington Waldorf School in Bethesda and at Carroll County Farm Museum in Westminster, Md., also gets outside commissions such as a repair-and-renovation job at Dumbarton Oaks estate in Georgetown. On such large projects, he will subcontract to Mr. Flaherty.
"When the stock market is up, decorative iron is good," says Greg Campbell, who owns a small Rockville shop called Black Rose Forge that does primarily residential and historic restoration work on old gates and railings. He began 20 years ago making window bars until he realized that "cut and weld was not what I wanted to do." He is working on a commission for a client who wants an exterior iron balcony "trimmed" with bronze flowers.
"I picked dogwood blossoms because they are so prominent around Maryland," Mr. Campbell says.

Iron traditionally has been the material chosen for outdoor gates, fencing and protective railings, but a booming real estate market in suburban homes has helped fuel fresh demand. Other popular exterior uses are for garden decor such as plant holders and patio furniture. An awakening interest in historic restoration also has meant more work for skilled craftsmen called on to duplicate or repair original ironwork in older residential areas of Washington such as Capitol Hill and Georgetown.
A number of companies in the Washington area advertise mass-produced, prefabricated fencing, gates and stairs. It's more unusual to find firms such as Bethesda Iron Works, Black Rose Forge and Flaherty Iron Works doing custom work with iron and other metals such as bronze and aluminum, which are more difficult to handle.
"It's harder to tell when they [bronze and aluminum] get too hot, which is when they might break," says Mr. Flaherty, a tall, strapping man of 67 who has been in the business 40 years.
"Working with iron gets in your blood," he says. His firm employs 10 full-time workers skilled in blacksmithing arts, many of them from countries where they began training as children. He credits them for the firm's winning nine awards in the past six years for outstanding craftsmanship in competitions sponsored by the 1,000-member National Ornamental & Miscellaneous Metals Association (NOMMA).
His firm produced the large bronze railings on the stairs at Metro Center and did fencing renovation and repair at Gonzaga College High School in the District. Current projects include the driveway gates and fencing for a house in Potomac that belongs to the mother of Redskins owner Dan Snyder.

The Flaherty shop, one of the largest in the Washington area, is filled with forges, power hammers and machinery that can make intricate large-size metal sculptures as well as the simplest ornamental gates and fencing. Mr. Flaherty points proudly to a 100-ton punch used for putting holes in metal that he says dates from 1888.
"Machines today are faster, but we're not a production shop," he says.
Pricing is all individual on custom pieces because the cost of each order depends on the quality of the material as well as the size of the job. Custom orders for more complicated staircase designs can cost upward of $100,000, for instance. Anything hand-forged and hand-hammered is going to bring up the price, he warns.
Different metals vary in price, Mr. Flaherty says; bronze and aluminum are more expensive than iron. For custom work, clients can choose from among books of designs, or they can bring in their own sketch.
Anyone contemplating the installation of ornamental or protective ironwork needs to think first about the style of the building where the work will be seen.
"Is your home Colonial, modern or Victorian? You might want to match the gate with the style of the house," Mr. Flaherty suggests. "With Colonial, you can always use circles top and bottom, and finials. Modern styles are straight up and down with a more squared-off look. With Victorian, you get into hammered scrolls and twists."
Outside metalwork requires extra protection from the elements. The vast majority is primed and then painted with an oil-based satin finish that is between a flat and a gloss. Maintenance is crucial, metal craftsmen say. Inside metalwork such as hand-crafted candlesticks requires just occasional applications of butcher's wax or lemon furniture oil to keep it shiny. More critical is surveillance of exterior work, to guard against rust.
Moisture can get into cracks and instigate rust. The longer the situation exists, the more repair work must be done.
"You can't always tell. A gate can still look black but be significantly rusted underneath," Mr. Zastrow says. "You have to refinish any rusted areas before they get critical. The rust may have begun through a defect in the paint job, or with somebody hitting it or inadequate initial application. It has to be scraped and primed."
Mr. Zastrow recommends professional help unless a person knows "a little bit about the principles of outdoor iron."
Finding a professional ironworker or blacksmith is usually a matter of asking friends or neighbors whom they have used and can trust to do the job, he says. The guild has nearly 300 members, who mainly are hobbyists, but most members are aware of the work done by professionals.
Interested people are welcome at guild meetings, which take place in Arlington the first and third Friday of each month at 7:30 p.m., he says. The public also is invited to write for recommendations. The guild's address is: Gulf Branch Nature Center, 3608 N. Military Road, Arlington, VA 22207.


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