Blacksmithing in Montana’s New Economy

By Beacon Staff

WHITEFISH – Creation isn’t always this loud.

But with the humming and pounding of an air compressor and hydraulic hammers, Tony Stewart’s ironworking studio leaves the head a bit rattled. When he’s not grappling with the hefty hydraulics, Stewart handles welders, chisels, heavy chunks of metal and phone calls, without skipping a beat. Some realities of ironworking, though, intimidate him.

“I don’t handle the checks,” he said. “My wife does all that.”

At his Iron Thistle Forge, Stewart hand forges ornate railings, intricate locks, fire grates, chandeliers and about anything that can be rendered from steel. He even built most of his tools, including the sophisticated hydraulic systems that can crush thick steel and the occasional meandering finger.

“Oh yeah, I’ve broken some fingers,” Stewart said.

He built his forge – a blacksmith’s studio – as well, which sits next to his house tucked away in the mountains west of Whitefish. Though his wife, who deals with all the business’s paperwork, and he live in their house, sometimes Stewart feels like he lives in the forge.

“I don’t have any spare time,” he said. “I’m booked for many months.”

When Stewart says “booked,” he means it in the most literal sense. He could work seven days a week – which he often does – throughout the fall and still barely keep up with his packed schedule. He tries to take a break sometimes, he said, especially after laboring daily in this past summer’s smoke and heat. His forge is located near the boundaries of the now contained Brush Creek fire.

“It’s very, very, very tiring,” he said. “It gets pretty oppressive.”

His work can be seen in private residences throughout the Flathead, as well as in local businesses. He rarely does out-of-state, or even out-of-Flathead, business and when he does it’s only small projects like fire tools. His larger projects are so precise, he said that he needs to be part of every step of the installation process after the ironwork is completed. When his railing goes up in a house, he’s there.

Stewart was born and raised in England. His father was Scottish and his mother Spanish, a combination of influences that shows in his unique ironworking style. Ranging from gothic to contemporary, his style is strongly European with hints of his own personal touches. Some of those touches come from an employment background that includes eight years as a motorcycle mechanic and a stint with British Voluntary Service Overseas – the British equivalent to the Peace Corps – as a blacksmith instructor in Kenya.

He speaks about motorcycle mechanics with the same tone he uses to describe art like his ironworks.

“There is a bit of affinity with it,” he said. “It’s form and function.”

Stewart heats his selected piece of steel until it is glowing red, using a propane-powered oven or occasionally a more traditional oven that burns coal, coke or charcoal. The traditional oven isn’t as efficient, Stewart said, because it takes much longer to heat up and because coal is so expensive in Montana. But he likes to mix up the traditional and the modern, which is also his philosophy on welding.

Stewart prefers to melt and fuse all the different steel pieces of a work together in the oven. Sometimes, however, he needs to use his electric or gas welder.

“I’m not one of those purists,” he said. “There nothing wrong with (welding), as long as you use it appropriately.”

What he doesn’t do is buy parts that are already formed and then weld them to his own work, which some blacksmiths do. That, he said, is the difference between a fabrication shop and a true blacksmith forge. For example, if he wants to add steel grapes to a piece, he could buy the already forged grapes at Pacific Steel. Instead, he buys the raw material and forges his own grapes. He thinks a blacksmith, with enough persistence, skill and of course heat, can forge most anything from steel.

“You treat it a bit like clay,” he said. “Difficult, stubborn clay. Anything goes, pretty much.”

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