Crafting the Valley
Photography: Kirsten Shultz
Blacksmith Bob Wiederrick
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Meet the hands that garner calluses and broken nails to create the intimate touches in our environment, and get into the hearts that drive them.
Bob Wiederrick - Blacksmith
Robert “Bob” Wiederrick’s homemade forge looks like a pile of used bricks. But when he plugs it in, it turns into a pile of used bricks with blue flame flickering across the floor of its mouth like serpents’ tongues, and sounds like a jet engine. Beside the forge stands a 1930’s Hay-Budden anvil, built by a company in Brooklyn that’s long defunct. Hammers and tongs hang on both sides of the forge like iron icicles. A long tank of water lies beside it, waiting to quench the steel when the tall, deliberate blacksmith removes it from the forge and hammers it into the ropes, knots, vines, and the high relief or silhouetted animals and landscapes that characterize his work.
As a designer and fabricator of custom fire screens (and stair railings, furniture, and chandeliers), Wiederrick is one of the most collected local artists in the Wood River Valley. He’s built more than 1,800 screens; the work he turns out of his south Hailey workshop has been sent as far away as Germany and featured in two books.
Naomi Kobrin, owner of the Los Angeles-based firm Naomi Kobrin Architectural Design, discovered Wiederrick several years ago when she saw photos of his work in the glass advertising cases in front of Atkinsons’ Market in Ketchum. “It looked like very, very good quality work,” she recalls. She called him when it came time to do the fire screens for a client’s Sun Valley home. “This particular client loves the best that I can bring to them.”
Wiederrick’s signature pieces include scenes from nature that complement the grand lodge architecture of the Rocky Mountains. His subject matter is not a contrivance, but stems from a deep love of the wilderness and being out in it. He’s an avid hunter and fisherman; three quivers filled with arrows hang in his office, along with many bows and a shotgun. “Tomorrow is opening day of deer season,” he says happily, “and I’ll be up at 4:30 in the morning.”
The 42-year-old artist didn’t realize he wanted to pursue blacksmithing until after he graduated from Idaho State University in Pocatello, although he’d been drawn to metalwork “from the first time I was introduced to it in grade school. We did some copper foil project,” he explains. “I did an underwater scene, complete with a little treasure chest, in high relief. I still have it.” An Air Force brat who completed high school in Salmon, Idaho, when his father retired, he went to college to study pre-architecture, but found he was enjoying his art classes more than his engineering classes and majored in metals and jewelry making. “I’m not sure my parents thought that was a real good deal,” he says. He enjoyed working in gold—in fact, he forged wedding rings for himself and his wife, Michelle. But there were a lot of goldsmiths out there, and he needed to make a living.
When he and Michelle arrived in the Wood River Valley in 1988, the novice metalworker got a job at Triumph Metalworks. “I learned a lot,” he says. After a year, he was the senior employee, and felt ready to forge a path of his own. He identified a niche crafting fine metal home accessories and focused on more intricate design. “I wanted to apply to my metalwork the design and attention to detail that I learned doing jewelry.”
Although he owns a power hammer, he hammers all his materials by hand. Kobrin admires the undaunted, old-fashioned integrity Wiederrick applies to his craft. “There’s the rest of the world’s pace, and then there’s Bob pace,” she says, laughing affectionately. “He doesn’t take any shortcuts. I think that’s how he makes such fine work.” Wiederrick seems to enjoy the company of his medieval-looking tools, which squat or tower around the studio like benign guests at a Halloween party. He points out a treadle hammer nearly as tall as he is, topped by a 60-pound lead weight that can be dropped onto hot steel to shape it. “I picked all the lead up off the shooting range in the springtime,” he says, pleased with himself. He finds tongs at antique stores. “Other people are hanging them on the wall,” he says. “But I’m using them!”
Blacksmithing is a noisy trade: if you call the shop, you can hear the rhythmic ringing of metal on metal in the background. Wiederrick’s wardrobe includes a set of AM/FM headphones to protect his ears. He grins slyly as he claims that’s not the real reason he wears them: “My helper likes to crank the stereo all day—so I need to wear them just to save myself from that.” And it’s probably no louder than home: he and Michelle, who runs the “business end of the business,” are raising two children, Joe, 12, and Ana, 7.
In spite of the antiquity of many of his tools and techniques, Wiederrick constantly experiments with materials and methods and defends his modernity. “I was at a comedy show in Sun Valley,” says Wiederrick, and when I told the comic I was a blacksmith, he said ‘Wow, that’s kind of archaic.’ But I don’t use a coal forge,” he points out in a mischievous tone. “That’s the really traditional way.” >>>
Visit www.custom-firescreens.com to see more of Wiederrik's work