Transom stories: Traverse City blacksmith is master of a ‘dying art’

Jul 12, 2018

Traverse City blacksmith Dan Nickels
Credit Brad Aspey

When Dan Nickels makes a mistake, he doesn’t throw it away. He keeps it. In fact, Dan puts his mistakes on display .


“I hang them on the wall,” says Dan. “They’re my education.”

Lining the walls are twisted hooks, fishing spears, forks, axes and shovels. Most of it’s rusted. Some of it’s falling apart. But all of it helped Dan get better at his craft. He’s a blacksmith and the owner and operator of Black Rock Forge in Traverse City. He’s been at it for about 30 years.

“There’s more to blacksmithing than one could even imagine because you never quit learning,” Dan says. “You learn every day from your mistakes, from others’ mistakes. When you're done learning, you're done.”

Dan is old school. He has long, gray hair that is tied up in a ponytail, and he wears silver-rimmed glasses. He smokes half a pack of cigarettes while I’m there. 

I tell him he should take a seat while we chat and get comfortable. He stands the entire time, with one hand resting on his anvil or fiddling with his favorite hammer. That’s his comfortable. 

I ask him if he considers himself a master. 

  “I don’t know,” Dan says. “I think a master’s determined by your peers as opposed to a structure that, you do this, you do that and then you’re a master.”

And what do his peers say about him?  

“They say I’m a master,” he says. 

 

"A railing is a ribbon to another place that you put your hand on and go from one place to another."

Dan gets good business. Most of his jobs are making custom railings for buildings and houses. He likes using wrought iron for the railings. He says it makes them elegant.

“Just the grace you can put into the curves,” Dan says. “You can make it flow. A railing is a ribbon to another place that you put your hand on and go from one place to another.”

Dan doesn’t have a cell phone or a website. He gets clients by word of mouth. He’s proud of his reputation. His workshop is strangely peaceful. When he’s not using his tools, it’s totally silent. It feels like we’re the only people for miles.

"Well, I’m 72 now and I’m in pretty good shape for a 72-year-old,” Dan says. “So I’ll keep going. A little slower, but I’ll keep going because it’s my life."

But he’s not sure blacksmithing has a future. 

“It’s a dying art,” says Dan. “I would hope it stays alive. I don’t know what to do with this place after I croak but it’d be nice if somebody took it over. It’s gotta go on. Too much is lost in modern technology. When our history is disappearing, we ought to keep some of that alive.”

Dan finishes showing me around his forge. He shows me the rest of his tools, and the railings he’s working on. He shows me the robin that has built a nest right outside his front door. He tries not to use that door anymore in case she gets upset and flies away. Then he spots the case of blue Canadian pilsner in the middle of his workbench.

He opens a beer.

“That’s how I finish every day,” he says. 

Romy Sher came to Interlochen in June for the Transom Traveling Workshop taught by Rob Rosenthal.