Ad-Agency Chief Hammers Out a Sideline as Blacksmith

Michael Stelzer of Marlin Co. Forges Sweat and Iron Into Sculpture

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If you liken Michael Stelzer's idea of fun to hell, you wouldn't be too far off the mark. The temperature climbs into the "thousands of degrees" when Mr. Stelzer fires
Michael Stelzer, president of the Marlin Co. ad agency in Springfield, Mo., spends his spare time in his blacksmithing barn.
Michael Stelzer, president of the Marlin Co. ad agency in Springfield, Mo., spends his spare time in his blacksmithing barn. Credit: Rick Adair
up the coal forge in his backyard barn and immerses himself in one of his blacksmithing projects.

And it's something the president of Marlin Co., a Springfield, Mo., agency whose main client is Starbucks, dismisses with aplomb. "Most of the heat goes up and out," he said, adding, that "you drink a lot of water and sweat a lot. And in the wintertime, [the blast of heat is] great because my barn is not heated."

Mr. Stelzer, 54, is part of small group of artisans plying this once-commonplace trade. Thirty years ago, the Artists-Blacksmiths Association of North America started with 20 blacksmiths; the nonprofit organization now has more than 5,000 members from five continents.

150-year-old coal forge
A lifelong interest in sculpture led Mr. Stelzer to take a welding class three years ago at a local tech college. A year later he found himself at a farm auction bidding on a 150-year- old hand-crank coal forge. His $135-bid won.

The 94-year-old seller showed Mr. Stelzer how to use it and gave him a 50-pound bag of coal that had sat in his barn for more than 50 years. "Then I just read up on it, made an anvil [which weighs 175 pounds] out of a scrap piece of train rail, experimented and became hooked."

So far Mr. Stelzer has made everything from decorative coat hooks to a 20-foot-long deck railing and a fire pit, with a process he calls iron-working because it combines traditional blacksmithing with welding.

Red hot iron
While welding involves a torch blasting a hot arc of electricity to mold metals, Mr. Stelzer said, blacksmithing is the process of heating metal in a forge with intense fire until it reaches a point of pliability, determined when it turns red hot or yellow. He then uses tongs to move the material to an anvil.

And "then you knock the heck out of it-boy, what a stress reliever," he said. "You can shape and forge it to any configuration you want."

Mr. Stelzer's pencil sketches translate into sculptures made from gathered materials such as copper reclaimed from roofs during home renovations and metals collected at junkyards. Recently he made a totem pole from forged scrap iron, reclaimed wood and steel ingots from a Colorado gold mine .

Projects can take anywhere from an hour to 40 hours to complete, which doesn't include time gathering materials.

Safety issue
Safety is always an issue. He wears glasses, a leather apron, leather jacket and fireproof gloves to shield him from the sparks.

"You don't get a second chance if you accidentally burn yourself," he said, adding that once he wore tennis shoes and an ember ate right through the shoe and his sock. The burned sock now hangs in his forge as a reminder.

Luckily, Mr. Stelzer lives on a 150-acre farm outside Springfield, at the edge of the Ozark Mountains, where he's 20 miles from an Amish community where he can buy his supplies and has no neighbors within earshot to complain about his hammering.

What does his wife, Judy, think of the racket coming from the barn? "She's a good sport about it," he said, adding that storage is becoming an issue. "You can't vacuum our home because there are so many sculptures everywhere."

Apprentice son
In the apprentice tradition, Mr. Stelzer, who has three sons, is training his youngest, 14-year-old Evan, in the art of metalworking, the early results of which, he said are promising. "He really has a good eye from playing video games."

And while Mr. Stelzer said that someday he wouldn't mind finding a gallery to exhibit his work, right now he's enjoying the personal and commissioned pieces that come his way.

"My biggest influence in this endeavor is advertising, thinking conceptually," Mr. Stelzer said. Whether he's making ads or molding metal, "it's still about engaging people."

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