Moose Lake Star Gazette - Serving Carlton and Pine Counties Since 1895

By Lois E. Johnson
Moose Lake Star-Gazette 

Art comes in all shapes and sizes ... and metals


February 7, 2019

Lois Johnson

Leon Torkelson pounds the hot metal on the antique anvil that his father and grandfather once used.

"Clang! Clang! Clang!" was the sound in Leon Torkelson's blacksmith shop as he pounded on a piece of hot metal to mold and shape it into a key ring on Wednesday, January 23.

Torkelson pounded on the metal time and time again to mold it until the metal cooled. And then he turned and placed it in the hot coals of the forge to heat once again. The flames in the forge rose as Torkelson turned a crank on the bellows to add oxygen to the fire.

The process was repeated many times over the next hour. The doors to the garage, where Torkelson has his workshop, were open. The temperature that day in the late morning was 10 degrees. Sun shone into the garage from the open double door.

"The garage fills with smoke if I don't have the doors open," he said. "I don't work out here on days when it is below zero but on days like today, it isn't too bad in here with the doors open."

A hood captures most of the smoke from the forge and takes it out through a chimney.

Torkelson pounds the metal piece on an antique anvil once used by his father and grandfather. He is the third generation on the family farm located west of Willow River.

A vise that his father and grandfather once used stands nearby. He has cleaned off years of accumulated grime and mounted the tools on solid bases for his own use.

It all started four years ago when a co-worker asked Torkelson if he had an anvil and a vise to sell.

Torkelson replied that he had a small cast iron anvil.

"It was given to me so I gave it to him," he said.

But that request got him thinking. He had some of the tools that he needed, and he just needed to add the forge and more tools for his new retirement hobby.

"I took a class in blacksmithing in Duluth," he said. "And I read books about it."

Torkelson also spent time adding to his tools. An old Model A wheel rim was mounted on a post with a wheeled base. A band of metal was found to make the outer edge of a tool organizer and welded to the rim. It now holds all of his hammers and tongs, and is located just beyond the anvil, where the tools are in easy reach.

A large table made of steel is located in the center of the garage. An antique blacksmith's vise, purchased from his brother-in-law, is mounted on one corner of the table.

Torkelson's projects are the result of spending long hours in the shop, working with the different metals and molding and shaping metals into finished products.

"When you think of a finished product, you have to think in backwards about how to get it there," he explained.

"I am planishing, knocking down the high spots and straightening," Torkelson explained as he worked the hot metal with the hammer. " Of these two hammers, one is a two-pound and one is a pound and a half. One is a three-pound. Those three are the ones that I use the most."

One hammer had a crosswise peen and another had a vertical peen on the opposite end from the hammer head. The peens were wedge-shaped.

"I use for spreading the metal," said Torkelson. "This part is made for spreading and that part is made for spreading. It all depends on how you use it."

As he pounds, Torkelson hits the right spot with accuracy.

"That's muscle memory to hit the metal in the same spot each time," he explained. "It comes from experience, like it would with a carpenter pounding a nail. It is used in virtually everything to do with sports and other activities. Muscle memory builds as you work with it.

"At the Lakehead Harvest Reunion in Esko, by the second day I was hitting better than the first day and it got better as time went on."

Torkelson is a member of the Lakehead Harvest Reunion and works in the blacksmith shop during the steam show in the summer and for the two weekends before Christmas when the club hosts are hay rides and other activities.

"I had a couple of examples of several different items, so if people wanted them so they could buy them or, if necessary, I could take orders and make them," he explained.

"Two ladies bought all that I had and ordered more. I made stocking holders for the mantel of the fireplace and sold them all. They could hold a lot of weight."

Torkelson also has a gas forge.

"It works good but I haven't done anything major with it," he said. "I use it for making small hooks from horseshoe nails. I can put them in there and get them up to temperature and work with them."

Torkelson keeps his eye out for pieces of metal that could possibly be repurposed into something else.

"I pick up random pieces of metal that I might be able to use someday, he said. "As you are doing something, you can see the possibility of something else."

He showed a metal piece from a broken mop that he had saved. And there are treasure piles of metal scrap around the 115-year-old family farm.

Trees on the farm have been harvested and planks from the trees provide the base for some of the coat racks that Torkelson has made.

"I cut the tree, David (his nephew) sawed the log, I ran it through the planer, sawed the board into the right shape, and I added an oil finish," he explained.

Railroad spikes were bent and screwed to the wood on one coat rack, and horseshoes are featured in some of his pieces.

"Those horseshoes came from the ranch in Nevada," he said. That's where his wife, Julie, grew up. He picked up the horseshoes and horseshoe nails on recent visits to the ranch.

Blacksmithing has an ancient history.

"It goes back to Bibical times," said Torkelson. "Metal working started then. It progressed and changed throughout the years. For me, this is the closest that I can come to art."

For more information, contact Torkelson at the Spruce Grove Forge at 218-428-8046.


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