Shop Talk: Blacksmithing with CJ Forge

Between hammer and anvil

Oct 1, 2014 at 1:00 am

Chances are you crossed paths with CJ Forge without even knowing it. You might have been browsing their wares at a festival or maybe you caught them doing live demonstrations at Scrap Revolve outside of Traffic Jam a few weeks ago. This Hazel Park shop gets around.

But what you probably didn't realize is that CJ Forge is a blacksmithing shop, which is actually something that's exceedingly rare these days. With a small, yet highly talented staff, they can make just about anything out of steel using nothing more than hot coals, a few tools, and (a lot of) elbow grease.

Kevin Keena opened the shop. He's the lead metal fabricator, with nearly four decades of experience under his belt. He got started in other types of metal work, but was attracted to the craft of blacksmithing. He met Owen Creteau Jr. and learned the trade from him. Creteau is something of a master at blacksmithing. He started in 1976, working at Greenfield Village's Cotswold Forge, one of the oldest of its kind in the country. He's honed his skill for almost 50 years and to watch him work is truly amazing.

The staff is filled out by two younger blacksmiths, Donnie Miller and Karen Quinn. Miller got started just by wanting to take some classes, but Quinn's story is a bit more auspicious. She was signed up for a blacksmithing class at the College for Creative Studies when she came across CJ Forge doing a live demonstration. She jumped right in and ended up demonstrating the art later that same day. Since then, she's dropped out of CCS because she's mastered all of the school's trade knowledge.

But what exactly does a blacksmith do, and why is it so important? Blacksmithing is a historical trade that harks back all the way to biblical times. We've quoted Keena before saying, "every sword in the Bible was made by a blacksmith" and the statement still resonates. Apart from weapons, blacksmiths also made tools, hardware, and decorations. In fact, until the world became industrialized, every single nail was made by a blacksmith.

"The number of nails you had in your front door used to represent how wealthy you were," says Quinn. "The more nails you had, the richer you were."

Nowadays things are made en masse by machines, but the art of blacksmithing still serves, somewhat surreptitiously, although Creteau says it's been gaining popularity since the '70s. CJ Forge doesn't make nails, but from steel they can craft just about anything you can imagine.

If you catch them demonstrating at a fair or festival, you'll most likely see them making bottle-openers and key chains, perhaps a coat hook, or some other decoration. But that's just a portion of what they can do. Inside their shop, they can craft anything from a set of huge, intricate gates to a dining room table and just about everything in between. There's essentially no limit to what they can do.

The forge also makes parts for inventors and makes and fixes tools for other blacksmiths. Recently they even "stole work from China," landing a job making parts for an interior designer who had some very precise specifications.

The shop also does work for historic homes. They recently made "every hinge for every door" for a customer in South Lyon. Their Old World style of design simply meshes well with the way older homes were built.

A quasi-public establishment, CJ Forge allows guests to come in to watch the smiths work, but you'll need an appointment. Because essentially everything they create is a custom job, customers are welcome to visit the shop and browse their spec pieces in order to get a better idea of what they want.

"If they have a vision," Keena says, "we make it come to life."

One wall in the shop is adorned with a host of items, from snake-like wall hooks to roasting trivets to drawer pulls to fireplace sets — again, just a small selection of what the shop can offer. Some of their coolest items might be those fashioned from found or recycled parts. A horseshoe corkscrew might be our favorite. Creteau even fashions some of his own tools from found rebar, which, let's face it, is pretty cool.

Other tools and machinery in the shop are old too. We probably don't need to tell you that things aren't made as well as they once were. Anvils used for forging are old, traded to and from other blacksmiths at conventions and meet-ups of the Michigan Artist Blacksmith's Association.

The shop also offers classes on a one-on-one basis. There isn't a set schedule, but if you're interested you can call the shop for more details. — mt

CJ Forge will be showcasing at the Novi Home Improvement show at the Suburban Collection Showplace on Oct. 11.