Columbia blacksmith begins new business

Saturday, December 22, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST
Justin Tattitch owns Whiskey Barrel Forge Blacksmith & Primitive Arts. He mostly makes tools but is starting to make more art pieces. He hopes to one day become a full-time blacksmith.

COLUMBIA — He shares a garage with a landscaper and is only two months into his new business, but Columbia resident Justin Tattitch is excited to be on his way to turning his blacksmithing hobby into a career.

Tattitch, 28, is a forester for Quality Forest Management who would like to become a full-time blacksmith. He started his business, Whiskey Barrel Forge Blacksmithing & Primitive Arts, two months ago and works out of a friend's garage in north Columbia. He stores his forging tools there and does blacksmithing work when he has time off from his job.

"I have been busy," Tattitch says. "I’ve been doing roses and fire sets and trying to juggle between that and making a living with forestry to pay my bills and everything."

Tattitch takes orders from customers and friends and makes iron and steel ornaments and tools using a coal forge that his blacksmithing teacher, Christian Sullivan, lent him. 

Metal roses have become something of a specialty in Tattitch's repertoire. He's working on a hanger for a bird feeder that will feature a metal vine with metal roses and leaves wrapped around it. He plans to give the piece to his mother, Kaci Tattitch, as a Christmas gift.

To create a forged rose, Tattitch lays a metal bar with a series of teeth on the coal fire until it's hot enough to be shaped. He spins a knob on the side of the forge to control the blower feeding air into the flame. When the bar is hot enough, he pounds the teeth with a hammer to shape them into petals. Then he uses a hammer and an anvil to create a spiral stem.

"It's almost like rolling up a small tortilla," he says.

Tattitch enjoys the hiss of the searing metal when he splashes it into water to cool and harden it. Finally, he uses pliers to tweak the pedals after carefully heating the tips, which are thinner than the rest of the rose. The process demands patience and precision, but Tattitch is fine with that, especially when he's forging a gift for his mother.

"I'm going to be making roses for the rest of my damn life for her," he says with a laugh.

Blacksmithing isn't the only fascinating thing about Tattitch. Boar tusks dangle from his ears, and a piece of antler from a deer he shot adorns his chin as a labret piercing. Tattitch is into body modification.

He's also into bones. He wears a necklace of boar tusks, bear teeth and bear claws he has collected over the years from friends, some of which he exchanged for metal products he blacksmithed himself. He enjoys the primitive look of the tusks and claws.

Tattitch is from St. Louis and graduated from MU in 2007 with a degree in parks, recreation and tourism with an emphasis in natural resources. He started learning how to be a blacksmith when, at 17, he began working for a Boy Scouts Ranger program. Rangers are older Scouts who focus on outdoor living skills, backpacking, shooting and, of course, blacksmithing.

"That was probably the best time of my life," Tattitch says. "If I felt dirty, I just hopped into the creek.”

Tattitch spent three summers working as a staff member for the Ranger program, including the summer after his freshman year at MU. He used the time to hone his blacksmithing skills through trial and error and eventually taught the craft to younger Scouts.

"I just absolutely fell in love with" blacksmithing, he says. "I can absolutely say the Boy Scouts is the reason that I am the person I am today."

Tattitch also loves history. He counts historical re-enactments, backpacking and canoeing as additional hobbies. He says his family name originally was Tatic, an error he jokingly blames on "someone at Ellis Island."

He comes from a family of engineers; his dad, Stephen Tattitch, is an engineer, as were both his grandfathers.

"I definitely have that (engineer’s) mindset a little, but I just don’t have the bloody math skills for it," he said, adding that his father and his older brother, Brian Tattitch – who has a post-doctorate in geochemistry – are perfectionists.

"It’s hard to be a perfectionist and be any type of actual artist," he says. "I kind of let it go with the flow a little bit."

Tattitch has learned that as a blacksmith, flaws in the early stages can be fixed later or even used to take the product in a new direction. It's something he appreciates about the trade.

When he first started blacksmithing, he would leave a knife in the forge too long and the fire would "melt the blade clean in half." So, he'd make a smaller knife instead. Other times, he might start to make a straight blade and wind up with a curved one, a result of his hammer blows.

"It's all about knowing how the metal is going to react to each stroke of the hammer," he says, adding that his knives usually turn out well regardless of how they stray from his original intent.

Tattitch credits Sullivan, a 32-year-old resident of St. Charles whom Tattitch met as a Boy Scout, with helping him learn to become a blacksmith. Sullivan has a degree from the Art Institute of Chicago, where he formally studied blacksmithing, and started teaching Tattitch the trade in 2002.

"He was eager to learn, so it made it easy," says Sullivan, who works as a production designer. "I think he’s got all of the basics out of the way and has started to refine his own metal design."

Blacksmithing has allowed Tattitch to forgo buying Christmas presents for his loved ones. Instead he forges gifts for them.

"I don't do mass production of anything, but people ask for generally a lot of knives, fire set tools and stuff like that," he said.

Kaci Tattitch recounted that her son forged a knife for his first nephew when he was born three months ago. Joshua Tattitch, who is Brian Tattitch’s first child, can expect to receive a handmade knife from his uncle when he is old enough, a knife specially blacksmithed for him on the day he was born. 

"I'm just really proud of (Justin)," Kaci Tattitch says. "He's found something he's passionate about and turned it into a business on the side."

Kaci Tattitch said that since Justin Tattitch took up blacksmithing, she has reconnected with her own art skills. She used to draw and create pottery.

"He inspired me a little bit to do art work again," says Kaci Tattitch, who lives in St. Louis and works for Peaceable Kingdom, a company that manufactures children's toys.

Blacksmithing has even aided Justin Tattitch’s love of history. He often forges items, be it a knife or another tool, for historical re-enactments he does with close friends. His favorite era is the French and Indian War.

He hopes to forge all of his own tools one day, something he said is one of his "absolute favorite things" about the art of blacksmithing.

"It’s one of the only art forms where you use that art form to make the tools so you can do that art form," he said.

"You can make anything, anything you can think of. It might be difficult, it might take time, but you can do it out of metal."

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

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