In other words, Hunter Dahlberg has every teenage boy's dream job.
Dahlberg is a blacksmith, an ancient profession that has survived the industrial, agricultural and high-tech revolutions. Blacksmiths like Dahlberg afford locals an opportunity to order one-of-a-kind forged products made for purposes that range from decorative to daily use, and sometimes a little of both. iPhones and propane tanks aside, it's a trade that has retained many of the tools and techniques of its earliest practitioners.
Apparently, the stereotypical burly blacksmith "look" is still in style. At 6 foot, 2 inches, Dahlberg is a big dude with massive forearms. Without knowing him, you might confuse him for a rock climber turned motorcycle gang member.
What surprised me, though, was the organization and artistry that Dahlberg has cultivated inside his industrial studio. When we met, he was working on a set of iron slats that will one day decorate and support a large wooden door on a new brewery in town. Most of Dahlberg's projects are contract jobs for area residents and business. And unlike a welder, Dahlberg forges his pieces, using handmade rivets to join the various iron materials.
"Welds are ugly - I don't like looking at them," Dahlberg said, but admitted that part of his distaste for welds stems from his deficiencies in that realm.
Though welding, or fabricating, is a necessary evil for things like handrails, he employs it only for fine tuning.
Dahlberg's handrails prove he's no one-trick-pony. He's made full sets of stairs with rails to match and in styles that run the gamut from post-modern to a hammered, hand-wrought iron that he calls "rustic contemporary." You can see the same spectrum of styles in his other works, which range from furniture, to sculpture, to home accents and architecture. He even provides lessons for young, aspiring blacksmiths.
For a big, dirty dude, Dahlberg is disarmingly sensitive and genuine. And while this may be "man's" work, he's happy to share his craft with school children, which he does several times a year.
"Watching their faces light up - it's amazing," he said. "We all want to feel proud about something we've done."
Dahlberg's interest in teaching was so strong that he originally pursued a Masters in education, but decided to bag the idea in 2004 in favor of apprenticing for Les Michel, a New Mexican blacksmith who became Dahlberg's mentor. After working with Michel for six weeks, Dahlberg had an epiphany.
"Oh man, I just want to be a blacksmith!" he remembers thinking. Somewhere a propane tank went on.
Eight years later, surrounded by heavy tools and heavy metal, Dahlberg hasn't looked back.