When most of us think of blacksmiths, we envision wagon trains and men in thick leather aprons shoeing horses. Less than 100 years ago, one-fourth of the population listed their occupation as blacksmith. Today, smithing is a lost art, occasionally on seen at Renaissance festivals or living history museums.
How did an occupation once so essential become so scarce in the modern world? Today, factories produce most of the metal used for tool manufacturing and building. Necessities like nails and hinges are mass-produced and can be picked up at the local hardware store. But we still need blacksmiths to create one of a kind, works of art that cannot be churned out by machine. Decorative ironwork – gates, chandeliers, candle operas, door handles, and more require someone deft with a hammer and a keen understanding of temperature and tempering. These high-quality pieces are a labor of love and craftsmanship.
That’s where Don Bukar comes in. A former law enforcement officer, Don has always had an affinity for blacksmithing, and after his retirement from the sheriff’s department, he was able to pursue his path full time. He set up shop in the shed behind his house, and he's been working there for nearly two decades.
Glancing around his shop, you might mistake it at first for a cluttered, dusty farm shed, but on closer inspection, the tools of Don's trade come into view. Defining the small space is a collection of hammers, tongs, and files, many custom-made by him for a specific task. But the center of the show is the large forge that distinguishes this shed as the domain of a master craftsman. The forge used to belong to Don’s father-in-law. He saw it poking up out of the ground, cleaned it up and put it to work.
Don is creative that way. He turns found objects into useful elements for his wife Terri’s wedding event business. What he can’t find, he makes. When Terri needed a cart for a wedding, Don made one her a vintage cart with old iron wheels.
But his real passion is making items for people’s homes and businesses. The best part of his work is seeing a customer's reaction for the first time and knowing that what they were seeing, "was exactly what they had pictured and I was able to make it for them.” He's made pieces for people all over the country, but seeing a client’s personal reaction is always a highlight of his work. Don also likes the idea that his work will live on, “iron is going to outlive any of us, and there is something rewarding about the idea that my work will live on well past me.”
And, he enjoys sharing his skills with others. While blacksmithing is far rarer today, than it was 100 years ago, there has been a resurgence of interest in the skill. Don teaches at a local high school, sharing his blacksmithing and welding skills with future generations.
He finds it particularly rewarding when “former students come back and say that I, gave them a skill and this skill has provided them with a life they wouldn’t have otherwise had. That is probably the most rewarding aspect of this work.”
Don is more than just an ironsmith manipulating metal into various designs to please his customers. He has also helped to shape lives with the imparting of his skills to others.
You can see Don's work at Monte Sano Lodge where he recreated the metal work for a recent restoration.
Photo credits: All photos in this article except the interior shot were taken by April Stanley of April Stanley Photography. Big thanks to April for working with us on this story and an upcoming special wedding supplement.