Anvil and Hammer
A Richmond attorney finds comfort in the heat of the forge
Interview by Adam Faderewski
Al Clark at his home forge in richmond. Photo courtesy of Al Clark.
By day Al Clark finds himself on the forefront of new technology as an associate of Patterson + Sheridan in Houston, nailing down the details on foreign and domestic patents related to semiconductors, flat-panel displays, and LED and LCD screens. Away from the office, Clark practices something much more old-fashioned—blacksmithing. With a background in metalworking, he finds solace in hammering out details of another nature—creating objects that may have a cutting edge and certainly existed well before computers.
How long have you been doing metalwork?
I was raised on cattle ranches most of my life, and when I was about 13 or 14, I got an old, long-neglected, engine-driven Lincoln welding machine and began playing with it. Initially I taught myself to weld, cut metal, and fabricate small items. I was building and repairing things for ranchers within about a year. One of the ranchers I did some work for told a local welding shop owner about me, and I hired on with that shop in my junior year of high school, learning proper welding procedures and advanced fabrication techniques. I worked there for about five or six years while also running a small mobile welding service on the weekends.
A few of Al Clark's projects, including candelabras and depictions of Kokopelli. Photos Courtesy of Al Clark.
When you were a welder was the artwork a side activity or was
it also part of your work? Where did you learn how to do metalwork and
how long did it take you to learn the techniques involved?
I cannot remember when I made the first thing that could be considered “artwork” or what it was. However, any item I make that could be considered art was, and is, at the moment, a side activity. Any shop I worked in or ran was some combination of repair work, fabrication, and production work. While some of my repair/fabrication work could be considered “art” by some in the way it looked or performed, I never was employed by a metal artist. I have, however, collaborated with a few farriers over the years who are much more skilled in blacksmithing techniques than I am. One in particular who became a good friend taught me many basic and intermediate skills and some more advanced techniques that I have yet to master.
Welding and cutting metal requires lots of heat, which makes the metal you are working with extremely malleable, almost as if it is begging you to form it into something. Imagination then kicks in—a bend here and a few hammer blows there—and a one-of-a-kind piece is born. I tend to center my “art” on useful articles as opposed to more abstract items (although I have created and sold a few AL CLArK abstract pieces). Items such as candleholders, furniture pieces, cutlery and other utensils, and wood and metalworking tools are my favorite things to make.
Al Clark's cowboy lassoing a bull. Photo courtesy of Al
What are the typical materials you use in your creations and where do you get them?
I use any metal from common mild steel (new or scrap) to copper, stainless steel, brass, and titanium. I use good tool-grade steels for useful items such as knives, punches, and chisels. Mild steels are typically the least expensive commercially available steel and differ from tool-grade steels based on the carbon content (tool-grade steels have a higher carbon content that enables hardening and greater strength). For the mild steels, I use commercial suppliers or scrapyards. For the better grades, I typically use old truck springs, broken tools, or wrenches that people have given to me over the years. Using old steel items and broken tools is very satisfying as they get a new life.
What are the standard tools of the trade?
The most basic tools are an anvil, a hammer, and a heat source. I currently use a gas-fired forge as well as a coal forge for heating and sometimes an oxy-acetylene torch. I have two anvils: one is 237 pounds and the other is about 100 pounds. I use the heavier one most often since more mass is better.
What's the standard process for doing metalwork?
This depends on what is being made and the materials used. For decorative pieces using mild steel, all you do is basically heat and beat. Then the piece is cleaned and painted or finished with something that will protect it from the atmosphere. For useful items using tool-grade steels, there are many processes involved, such as annealing, tempering, and normalizing. Annealing will effectively soften the steel to allow easier workability. Tempering will harden the steel, which makes a knife keep an edge, for example. Normalizing is used to make the grain size more uniform and relieve stresses in the metal.
Al Clark forges work like this candelabra. Photo courtesy of Al
What is the average time for a piece to be created from start
This again depends on what is being made. A knife could take up to two to three days while a small candelabra could take a few hours.
Is this largely a personal endeavor or do you do
commission work as well?
A little of both. I make some things for friends and family but also do custom work for people. I have made custom furniture such as table frames, headboards for beds, mirror and picture frames, large candelabras, as well as other pieces for customers. I also make things for fundraisers. My oldest daughter recently got into candle making, and I make small pieces that we sell along with her candles in occasional farmers markets.
Any upcoming projects you'd like to talk about?
I am constantly trying to create things that I have never seen before as well as combine different materials in uncommon ways. I am currently experimenting with glass and iron pieces where the glass comes from empty wine and liquor bottles. It is just experimental now and may never yield a sellable item, but it is fun to me. Additionally, I love experimenting with various materials by combining classical techniques with more modern techniques.
What led you to the law after starting off in
It is a long story, but prior to law school, I was a production manager for a medium-sized steel fabrication company. I was looking for a change, and a lateral move in that position is nearly impossible. My spouse mentioned taking the LSAT and enrolling in law school as my brother is an attorney and my dad is a district judge here in Texas. I took her advice and the rest is history.
Does being an attorney help to finance your work? Does
blacksmithing help you blow off some steam at the end of the
Yes and yes. Although I pick up some commission work, practicing law definitely pays the bills. Also, beating iron definitely relieves some stress. My spouse tells everyone that metalwork is my therapy, and she is correct. TBJ