Tools and Time: A Conversation with Blacksmith, Zach Lihatsh

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Zach Lihatsh is a blacksmith who has trained with teachers from Italy, Germany, Sweden, Estonia, and throughout the United States. A recipient of a 2019 SFA Master-Apprentice Artist Award, Lihatsh is teaching the trade to apprentice, Austin Rose, a former student of his at Pima Community College. BorderLore editor Kimi Eisele spoke with Lihatsh in mid-March, in the early stages of Tucson’s shelter-in-place response to the pandemic. His insight into hard work, experimentation, and tool-making offers useful wisdom for these times.

How did your work as a blacksmith begin?

I was infatuated with old rusty things as a kid, often playing around in old barns and abandoned buildings. I’d bring home stuff I thought was cool and would try to make sculpture with it. At some point I started welding stuff together. After some experimentation I felt I had reached a limit of what could be done, tacking together old discarded steel. I started looking at old hardware and realizing, “Oh, you can move this material like clay.” I believe most people think of steel as linear, it has a hard edge; it’s cold, it’s unyielding. Steel is often what the world around us is built of and we relate to it as structure and barrier. Right now, I’m seeing this chain link fence across the street. We pass guard rails on the road every day. All these objects that direct and limit us in our daily lives. There is nothing extremely emotive about these elements. They’re not organic, they don’t flow, but when you heat steel up to over 2000 degrees, it becomes malleable. You strike the material with a hammer once or twice and it becomes something completely different. You’re claiming something that came from the earth, a natural elemental thing that we’ve wrestled into these linear shapes, and by interfacing with it, we turn it back into something that’s relatable in a human natural way.

You’re already answering my next question. What is it like to work with something so hard and unyielding?

I love and enjoy effecting material in this way. It does take a toll on my body. I know I’m going to reach a certain time in life where I’ll need a backup plan. I’ll have to move toward making small decorative and ornamental objects and jewelry and tabletop sculpture, when my back and shoulders don’t really allow me to do what I’m doing now.

What kinds of things do you make now?

I do some public artwork. I made a 10-foot cicada, which is now near Tucson High School. That project combined forging and fabrication. I also do industrial design and make tools for other blacksmiths, metal workers and jewelers. I make a variety of utilitarian objects such as hammers, kitchen tools, fireplace sets, hand tools and household hardware. I recently made a table in the Ward 1 office for Lane Santa Cruz. I used sections of turn-of-the-century rebar that came out of the old Fourth Avenue underpass when they tore it out. Back in the day rebar wasn’t like what we know now; it was a one-inch-solid square bar that was twisted. I think the twisting would both harden it and give it a little registration in the cement. I was able to use that to make the table legs. I try to use reclaimed objects or material when I can. I made a bunch of meat cleavers that were featured in Martha Stewart’s holiday buyers’ guide a couple years back. They were all made out of repurposed leaf spring, a shock absorbing spring taken from an automobile.

Right now, I’m doing a residential project where we’re building new steel and stone gabions. I’ve actually got another table commission based off that one at the Ward 1 office. I have a gate that I’m designing right now for a home that’s going to incorporate influences from Frank Lloyd Wright as well as patterning from Navajo rugs. My shop mate Troy Neiman and I are working on a large public art project on the Rillito bike path right now. It’s a pretty major county project that we’re hoping to finish in the next two to three months. It’s less blacksmithing and more fabrication, but its influences are the Catalina Mountain hoodoo rock formations. It also references a lot of illustrations by Peter Parnell, who illustrated the stories of Bird Baylor. His work was 2D and color, and what we’re doing is steel and cement, but we’re hoping the color comes from sunset and shadows. It’s an homage to Bird Baylor, a phenomenal community member and human being, just so prolific and a kind of endemic treasure to this area.

That sounds really beautiful. I can’t wait to see it. Can you talk a little bit about your education? You went to Prescott College and then to Austin, Texas?

I knew there was this guy, William Bastas, teaching classes at Austin Community College, so I moved there, lived on my friend’s floor for a few months, worked in a bike shop, took all the classes I could, just trying to absorb as much knowledge as I could. I built most of the tools that I’m still using now while I was taking that class. That’s something special about blacksmithing.

I have an apprentice, Austin Rose working with me now. He’s been making tongs, and before that he was making hammers and set tools. In this field, you work with someone understanding and learning these skills and while you’re doing that, you build your own set of tools. It doesn’t always happen everywhere, and I think you see it more in Europe, where there is still a strong journeyman culture.

As you’re working on jobs, maybe you’re hitting a wall trying to make one shape and you’re like, “If I had a better tool, it would make it a lot easier.” So, you go make the tool. And then you finish the project, put the tool on your rack and, you know, another object comes along, and before you know it, you’ve got this rack filled of all these weird-shaped tools. I’ve made some tools I’ve never used again and others I could not live without.

Largely I’m self-taught. That’s the best way to get good at blacksmithing and forging. You just start and continue. I think that’s a hard lesson for people to learn in the age of being overstimulated by information constantly. I say to students all the time, “Knowing is not the same as doing.” I’ll show someone how to do something, and they’ll get really frustrated because it’s not working out the first time. It’s this notion of instant gratification, where everything is at your fingertips, but that doesn’t apply to the physical world and yourself. You don’t watch a Kung Fu movie and expect to go home and expect to have that same physical prowess. When I taught at Southern Illinois University, I’d have students who, on the second day of class, would be like, “I can’t do it.” And I’d be like, “What do you mean you can’t do this? You put maybe like, six hours of time into it. I’ve put the last few years of my life into it and I’m still learning new stuff every day.”

It takes time. Standing is a constant state of falling and regaining composure. You know, you’re never standing completely still. If you close your eyes and try to stand completely still you will always feel yourself moving. I feel like it’s kind of like that—you’re going to reach a point where you get so used to swinging a hammer you don’t think about it, and that’s when you evolve to the next skill.

I love that. Standing as constantly falling and regaining your balance. I never thought of it that way.

I did a lot of trial and error on my own. After I graduated from Austin Community College, I moved back to Tucson and started working on my own. I was getting a lot more work as a fabricator. I realized I was never going to hone my skills as a blacksmith constantly taking on fabrication jobs, so I used a master’s degree as as a period of time to work out the shopping list of ideas that I had, and to develop my own voice. I went to Southern Illinois University, which if I’m not mistaken, is the only master’s degree in the United States that has a blacksmithing component. I was student teaching the whole time I was there. I was also able to go do a semester at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. That was really important. The whole model of education there is really different. There is a greater theoretical base, so someone might make one or two small pieces, but then there’s a very lengthy philosophical esoteric discussion that happens around it, as opposed to here, where I feel like there’s less of that and more of the physical body of work.

I visited the Estonian Academy of Art and after I graduated, I went back to Estonia to do a residency, which was awesome. My work there came out of my own research from grad school, which focused very much on borders. In Arizona, we live on the border with Mexico and Estonia borders Russia, and there’s been ongoing tension there for years. In ecology, when two ecosystems collide, they create a third ecotone, where you find a little bit from both sides and usually also some uniquely indigenous life that doesn’t exist in either. So, my thought was, “What new space is created along a border? And how do you subvert those things? How can we take these things that represent areas of division and subvert them in ways that create areas of connection? I have done this in my own work taking a sculptural approach to border infrastructure as well as with maps and cartography.

I read up a little on the language of blacksmithing and it’s a treasure trove. Upsetting, bending, punching. Can you talk about some of the terms you use in the shop?

Upsetting is definitely a thing. That’s when we force material back into itself, to build mass on the end of a bar or in the middle of a bar. It’s something we do all the time. If we’re forming a scroll on the end of a bar, to make the spaces in the spiral even, you hold it up to the light and squeeze it. That’s where the term, “Squeeze the daylights out of it” comes from. If you’re tempering steel and get it too hot, you’ve “lost your temper.”

A drift is a tool that has a middle section, which is like a profile that you want to make a hole. So if you make an eighth-of-an-inch hole in something and you want to stretch that hole into a half inch, you have this thing that’s like a cylindrical in different shapes, different profiles, depending on what you want, but it could start at quarter of an inch then open up three quarters of an inch and then tapers down again. So, you can hammer that through a pre-existing hole in the material while it’s hot, to open it up. Then the drift eventually pops out the other side. Once, when the drift popped out the back of some material, I caught the drift with a pair of tongs, looked up at friends, and said, “Catch my drift?” I said it as a joke, but we were like, “Oh, right, that makes sense.” Which is another beautiful thing about the craft. Ideally you work with other people—someone’s holding a piece of hot material and another person’s striking or maybe even three people work together to make a larger difficult shape. Often vocal communication can disappear between workers. It’s really cool to see people who’ve been working together for years. They just get into this hive-mind state, just doing it, and it flows.

We spoke two months ago, in the early stages of quarantine in Arizona. How are you faring?

My daily life has not changed much. I travel from my home to my shop pretty exclusively. I have been very busy with both paid and unpaid labor. Besides myself, there is my apprentice and shop mate in my space. We take precautions. We installed a hand sink outside the shop.  I was hoping to start teaching classes in my shop but I have put a hold on this for obvious reasons.

Are there any tricks of the trade or blacksmithing wisdom that might be applicable to this moment for the rest of us?

I think it is important for people to focus on their strengths and capabilities. To support those closest around them and support each other. It’s a strange time and I hope there will be more people working with their hands, growing their own food, and supporting local economies and neighbors. I think patience and communication is key.

(header photo: Steven Meckler)