Hammers clang and sparks fly. Heat and smoke billow from the furnaces, making the summer weather outside of Walt Hull Ironwork, 802 East 1250 Road, Lawrence, feel almost refreshing.
Not everyone would want to spending eight hours a day in such a place. Not everyone is a blacksmith like Walt Hull.
Hull makes his living with sweat, soot and steel. If it can be forged, he can make it: tools, benches, railings, sculptures.
“The first time I hit hot iron and saw it do something real, it was just like I took a new drug,” Hull said. “I knew I was going to do it again.”
Blacksmithing is an ancient profession, reaching back before the Romans and Greeks. But while the days of swords and horses are long past, Hull said the profession is far from dying.
“There’s probably more blacksmiths in the U.S. (now) than there were 50 years ago,” he said.
The profession has just taken on a more modern and decorative flair.
“Railings are our meat and potatoes,” Hull said. He added that his work is easily spotted outside Lawrence businesses: “It if looks old and it’s not, then I probably did it.”
Hull’s work is parts tradesman, salesman, artist and architect. To make a railing, for instance, he must first measure and sketch the job.
“You try to sell what you want to make,” he said. “If not, make what he wants to buy.”
He then takes these sketches and begins work. Hull must understand how the metal bends, expands and stretches during the shaping process and the 2,200 degree heat that comes with it. A wrong measurement and the railing will not fit together properly.
Then there is the actual shaping of the metal to consider.
Hull makes his work look easy. He pulls a red hot piece of iron from the furnace and, with a few deft hammer strokes, it takes whatever shape he desires.
However, blacksmithing is a difficult art, something that becomes apparent watching Hull teach it to nine students from the Kansas University School of Architecture, Design, and Planning.
With heating after reheating, the students hammered on their iron, struggling to achieve in 50 strokes what Hull did in 10. But the students lack Hull’s 20-plus years of experience.
Hull wasn’t always a blacksmith. He graduated Kansas University with degrees in English and Linguistics. He then took a job at a steel company to get by.
Later, he wanted to shape metal on his own. Hull read books, made friends, went to gatherings and slowly but surely he learned the trade.
In 1982, he began blacksmithing in the shop he built next to his home. In 1994, he started doing it full time.
The walls of the shop are filled with tools, most of which Hull manufactured himself. He also built his own custom coal furnace, which he uses alongside his more modern gas furnaces. It gets hot in there, especially in the long denim clothes and leather apron Hull wears.
“I drink a lot of water,” he said, noting how important it is to stay hydrated.
The other important aspect about Hull’s job is efficiency. For Hull, each movement is tailored to require the least amount of effort.
“If you are doing this for eight hours, it makes sense to do this as lazily as you possibly can.”
And while the work is hard, hot and smoky, Hull wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s a hard way to do some things, but it’s the only way to do some things if you like the look,” he said.