Metal Head: Freedom Forge's Kirk McNeill calls himself an architectural metalsmith, but to others he's an artist
By Jory John
Posted: 08/21/2010 01:30:15 AM PDT
Master blacksmith Kirk McNeill is shaping a metal rod, as a demonstration for a visitor, with an 11-foot tall,
16,000-pound German air hammer. The sound is close to deafening but McNeill doesn't wear earplugs or goggles.
He handles the air hammer with confidence and precision, carefully eyeing the metal, which appears to have
liquefied under the heat. He shrugs and holds up the rod, which has changed shape, going from straight to
concave, resembling a tulip. He makes it look easy.
"People are weak," he said. "Machines are strong."
The air hammer, a 2,400-degree flame and the hundreds of metal tools that surround McNeill give his Santa Cruz
studio, called Freedom Forge, a medieval dungeon sort of feel. McNeill started with an anvil and some basic hand
tools in the early 1980s, and has been expanding his arsenal ever since. He knows his tools, he said, "like a captain
knows his ship."
McNeill, 56, calls himself an architectural metalsmith. He is, essentially, an artist who is also a blacksmith,
specializing in custom architectural metalwork. His work is broad in scope, including saleable items like detailed
gates, railings, furniture and sculpture.
For the past five years, McNeill has also gone through what he deems a "shark obsession," crafting 21 metallic
hammerhead sharks, which he will either sell or keep, depending on interest. Some of those sharks sit outside his
studio, frozen midswim, waiting for a shark lover to come along and take them home.
"I really like sharks," he said. "There are species that are hugely endangered. I try to do what I can to bring
awareness to their plight."
Another shark project, in progress, is his construction of a metal Great White Shark, which he named "Megan" after
cartoonist J.P. Toomey's character from the comic strip "Sherman's Lagoon."
Most likely, you have seen at least one of McNeill's pieces, firsthand, a metal sculpture called "Oceanic Life Spiral"
that sits outside of Bookshop Santa Cruz. McNeill admits that, occasionally, he will hang out nearby, gauging
reactions from Pacific Avenue strollers.
"I've sat there, with a cup of coffee, watching people's reactions to my piece," he said. "Because my work usually
ends up in a house, somewhere, it's nice to see it in public like that."
McNeill moved to Santa Cruz County from Berkeley in 1977, where he'd been working in construction. He enrolled at
Cabrillo College. where a forging and tool-making class, taught by artist Verne Caron, helped determine much of
McNeill's next 29 years.
"At that point, I thought blacksmiths only made horseshoes," McNeill said, laughing. "I had been doing sculpture,
already, with bronze and wood. But I really got into blacksmithing full time at Cabrillo. It felt natural immediately."
At first, McNeill wanted to make his own tools for stone carving. But his interest expanded and soon he was
obsessed with metalwork of all sorts, he said. Around this time, McNeill began hand-forging gates and railings out of
steel, copper and other metals, many of which had intricate details such as animals and birds worked into the
pieces. McNeill moved at least three times in the next five years and, while living in Freedom, he decided to call his
studio Freedom Forge.
McNeill also began attending National Blacksmithing Association conferences and, in 1990, got the chance to study
in Germany at the International Teaching Center, where he refined his art.
"I learned a lot about production, tools and power hammers, although I'd studied some of it before," he said. "I
wanted to learn more and saw the opportunity."
That same year, McNeill officially gave up full-time construction work when he fell off a roof, crushing both of his
heels. He spent eight weeks in the hospital, recuperating, having six surgeries in the process. It still sometimes
affects the way he walks, McNeill said.
His work, however, has only become more ambitious. McNeill works between 30 and 40 hours per week, except
when he's finishing a major project for somebody -- a recent example included a steel entry door, made for a client
in Maui -- where he worked up to 70 hours per week, he said.
"It's all really high-end work," he said. "I don't compromise."
McNeill, who lives in the Santa Cruz Gardens neighborhood with his wife, takes immense pride in the traditional
handwork of blacksmithing, an art that was struggling in the '60s and '70s.
"Blacksmithing was all but dead," he said. "It's made a comeback, though. People are interested, again."
The blacksmithing community is tight knit, McNeill said. He knows of eight full-time professional blacksmiths in the
Central Coast area.
"I pull people in if I need help with a big project," he said. "There are so few of us, relatively speaking, who have the
At this point, he is also making "art for art's sake," which includes sculptures, sharks and otherwise. He has enough
in the bank to "coast for a bit," and isn't stressing about his next big job, he said. He just puts the work out there, he
When asked if he's made a piece he'd never consider selling, McNeill opens up a vault and pulls out a sword that he
constructed a few years back. He smiles with pride.
"When I was a kid, I always wanted a sword," he said. "So I made three."
With clients, McNeill will oftentimes work on the brainstorming process, helping them come up with ideas. His longest
project, he said took four years, off and on, spent on a single gate for a driveway. His shortest, on the other hand,
are smaller tasks that take no longer than a week.
Caron, McNeill's first teacher who continues to teach the same class at Cabrillo, said McNeill is an artist, first and
"He does very good work, which is extremely unusual," Caron said. "It's really great that he's been able to make a
career out of it. It's a very intensive process."
While McNeill remains a one-man studio, he does teach aspiring blacksmiths, once a week, many of them coming
down the hill from UC Santa Cruz. He also continues to attend blacksmithing conferences.
McNeill also has taken up tai-chi to stay balanced and calm, he said, which has helped him relax and get his work off
his mind, which he can obsess about.
McNeill realized, this year, that he's getting older, that he only has so much time to work.
"My work is extremely demanding, physically," he said. "You need to be in pretty good shape. I've been absorbing
impact for 30 years. At the same time, I never want to stop learning. If you stop learning, you die."