Story By Katie Canales | Photography by Timothy Douglass
Originally Lee Welding Company, SteepHollow Forgeworks has been in business since 1978 and is operated by brothers Jeff and Alan Lee. The business solely provided commercial welding prior to the brothers attending Austin Community College’s metalworks program and integrating blacksmithing into the business.
“[I thought] we didn’t need blacksmiths anymore,” says Alan. “I couldn’t have been more wrong.” Alan’s perspective of blacksmithing as a dead art transitioned when he realized metal can be heated and beaten in a way he’d never seen before.
Blacksmithing fascinated Alan and Jeff, and they soon decided to shift the focus of their business by applying blacksmithing techniques. “At the same time, I found out that there’s this thing called self-expression in art and, holy cow, all of a sudden I found out I could put myself into each of these pieces…it became a lot of fun,” says Alan.
The guys at SteepHollow Forgeworks mostly forge with steel, which is iron with carbon. Carbon is used to harden the usually soft iron. To forge the steel, the metal is heated until it assumes a plastic-like consistency and can then be manipulated into the desired shape or form.
A machinist puts a piece of steel into a machine, which then shaves away excess metal from the desired result. Alan explains how the mass of the material used by blacksmiths doesn’t disappear; it is rearranged. “If you know what you’re doing, using forging techniques that are thousands of years old with just a few simple tools, you can manipulate that metal to what you want to do with it.”
The steel then needs to cool and can be reheated and further manipulated. Blacksmithing is a procession of steps, with each heating and reheating leading to the next step in the process.
Among the first things Alan made using blacksmithing techniques is a Friedrich Cross, which now rests on his wife’s dresser. “It’s a cross that’s made in a way that it’s cut from one piece of metal with no interruptions. And, I made it out of a dinky little piece of metal. It’s ugly as can be,” says Alan with a chuckle.
Alan’s son Carlton created his first sculpture when he was 8 or 9 years old. After working part-time at the shop and managing the Grand Stafford Theatre in Downtown Bryan for three years, Carlton is now working in the shop full-time with his family.
“It’s almost natural now. It’s something they’ve truly passed along to me that no one could ever take away,” says Carlton. “The knowledge to build, the geometry, the life lessons that come with working in the shop with family.”
Alan, Jeff, and Carlton all contribute their own strength to the business: Jeff, his natural instinct for welding and fabrication; Alan, his business savvy and general work ethic; and Carlton, his youth and energy. “He has more control of the right side of the brain than the rest of us,” says Alan. “Art is fun, but for Jeff and me, it has to be a discipline. For Carlton, it’s natural; it’s more instinctual.”
February 20, SteepHollow Forgeworks will host the annual Combo-Demo, a conference joining blacksmithing groups from across the state and southern region that strives to preserve the art of blacksmithing. The event is open to the public and features demonstrations, an art gallery, vendors, food, and live music. “Blacksmiths are very gregarious human beings, and we like to get together in bunches [and] hang out with each other,” says Alan.
SteepHollow Forgeworks has hosted this event for the past six years, with each conference attracting 250 to 300 people. Additionally, SteepHollow Forgeworks has gained a social media presence, drawing blacksmiths from around the world to “like” their page.
“…One thing that blacksmiths pride themselves on: being able to make their own tools. After all, they make everyone else’s tools as well,” says Alan. “Very few of the other crafts could survive without the help of the blacksmith.”