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Stone Mountain master blacksmith wrests art from iron

It’s hot when you walk into the studio at 951B Main St. in Stone Mountain. Really hot. The door is left open on nice days and box fans whirr as you see why: there’s a blacksmith forging right in the gallery space.

Separated from the delicate glasswork he also makes, Michael Labbe-Webb pounds on a railroad spike. It’s red-hot, but not so hot it emits sparks. That means it’s overheated and the sparks just make a good photograph, he said.

“It’s just fun to work,” he said. “It continues to amaze me, 35 years later, that I can take something as rigid as a piece of steel and manipulate it the way that I do.”

Labbe-Webb started blacksmithing in 1976 as a way to get involved with the Society for Creative Anachronism, or SCA. He wanted to participate in full-contact sword fighting but found he had to obtain period-appropriate — that is, medieval or Renaissance-style — armor.

“And, I was broke,” he said.

The SAC believes in “studying by doing,” so, Labbe-Webb bought materials and learned from another SAC member. He eventually made a full suit of armor that hangs in his workshop today.

“I had so much fun doing that that I just kept doing it,” Labbe-Webb said. “If you want to learn how to do something [in the SCA], it doesn’t cost you to learn how to do it. You buy the materials but someone else will teach you. You don’t want to spend a lot of money on it and find out you don’t like it.”

Labbe-Webb liked it enough that he has been blacksmithing since. Mostly as a side hobby, appearing at craft shows and doing demonstrations. However in 2009, he was hired as the last master blacksmith at Stone Mountain Park before they transitioned away from living history demonstrations. He met the park’s master glassblower and added that skill to his repertoire.

In September 2012, with support from the Smart Inc. Arts Incubator program, Labbe-Webb opened the gallery and started selling his creations. He uses found materials such as nails and railroad spikes, as well as new steel purchased from local suppliers to make everything from knives to necklaces to pot racks.

One of his popular items is a business card holder made from an old horseshoe. It’s kind of a reflection on where he started as a blacksmith, learning to shoe horses.

“I could make the horseshoe, but making the horseshoe and then making a businesscard stand out of it doesn’t give it as near as much of a story,” Labbe-Webb said. “People say, ‘Oh, this is a used horseshoe,’ and there’s a story that comes out of that.”

In addition to selling his work, Labbe-Webb also teaches classes to adults, focusing on ways they can take up blacksmithing at home. A vice grip, a ball-peen hammer, some pliers and a heat source – for small things, a gas stovetop or for larger ones, a shop torch – are all Labbe-Webb said one needs to get started blacksmithing. Those materials can’t make up a suit of armor, but it’s enough to make a coat hook.

“I don’t make a lot of money on classes, partially because it costs so much to run the shop,” he said. “Classes are $50 an hour and a typical class is two hours, and it’s $40 per hour to run the shop. I’m not making any money off of that but what I am doing is passing on the culture and bringing a new generation of blacksmiths into the world.”

Part of what drew Labbe-Webb to blacksmithing is the desire to make something organic, natural and homemade. He said he dislikes the “plastic culture” and disposable home goods.

After the space-age 1950s and ‘60s, he said, people wanted something more tangible and unique than what was being mass-produced in factories. Glassblowing, woodcarving and blacksmithing, among other old arts, had to be re-introduced into the American landscape because most artisans were not producing.

“There are more blacksmiths in America today than there were before we had cars,” Labbe-Webb said. “It’s a great hobby. If you start off the way that I teach people, it doesn’t cost you a lot to get into it, and you can do little things like this [coat hook] all day long without it costing you much.”

Labbe-Webb said he makes the most money from custom designs. He has made everything from garden gates to mailbox stands.

“It’s only been about six years of my life that I’ve done art as a full-time or mostly full-time profession,” he said. “There are days where I make things I had no idea in the morning I was going to make them.”

 

This article originally appeared in The Champion Newspaper.

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