Warren Rinehart deftly turns hot metal into cool sculpture

When visitors to the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Ferrisburgh come to the museum’s blacksmith shop to see how metal rings, nails, knives and other steel items were made for the maritime trades, they might see Warren Rinehart giving them a short demonstration using a piece of clay that is maybe one inch by four inches. With more than four decades of blacksmithing behind him, Rinehart is methodical and precise as he wields his hammer.

“I say, ‘Do you see a leaf in this?’ Then I forge a taper, and then make a stem and flatten it out and then (I hold it up and say) ‘You’ve got a leaf,’” he says.

“Whatever you can do with clay you can do with hot metal.”

But working with hot metal is quite different than working with clay. In practicing his craft, Rinehart heats up the mild steel (if that is the material at hand) to 1,500 degrees, and then he uses his limited time to bang away on the piece before it cools and hardens and he has to heat it up again.

“To do good blacksmithing it takes some good thinking and tricks and the like,” the Kansas native says. “Like any craft, it requires your attention and you have to learn how to move the metal.”

So it’s not all just whacking away on a resistant alloy; there is definitely an art to this trade.

Warren Rinehart, 76, fabricates all sorts of utilitarian metal pieces, including this candle stick, but they always have details that show the Middlebury resident’s unique view on the world.

Independent photo/Trent Campbell

“Moving muscles is the least important thing” in blacksmithing, Rinehart says. “There are all sizes of blacksmiths.”

One of the first essentials of forging metal is getting the metal hot enough so that it’s easy to move it around.

“It’s not difficult when you know what you’re doing,” Rinehart says encouragingly.

Once he started blacksmithing in the 1970s, it took him a couple years at the forge before he became competent.

But who starts blacksmithing, anyway? Rinehart decided he needed to learn the art of shaping metal after he bought a couple of Belgian draft horses to work his farm outside Utica, N.Y., had them shoed and then one horse threw a shoe and Rinehart had to hire the ferrier to do it again. He had to wait more than a week for the smith to find time to come back, so Rinehart determined that he’d learn to do it himself. He eventually bought himself a gas-powered forge and got someone to teach him the basics.

He found out he wasn’t very good at shoeing horses, but he did have an affinity for the forge. Lovers of the metal arts should be thankful. Over the years, in his spare time, Rinehart has honed his skills and his aesthetic sense as he fabricated many beautiful pieces of art that are now in both public and private collections. Some of his work is utilitarian — graceful metal railings, clever lamps, candleholders, gates — and some are quirky reflections of nature — waterfowl, birds, leaves, flowers. Recently the Sheldon Museum of Vermont History in downtown Middlebury put on display Rinehart’s “Crane,” which can be seen beneath the flowering crab apple tree near the entrance of the museum’s Park Street garden.

On the porch railing at the Middlebury condo he and his wife, Vickie, share is a Rinehart-made fanciful steel frog named “Homer” who seems to be pursuing another whimsical frog named “Gladys” up the balusters. A metal railing he created for a friend includes more frogs and a fox and a bird.

Decorating Rinehart’s porch are two metal frogs — “Gladys” on the left being pursued by “Homer.” The humorous depiction of the amphibians belies their hard steel construction.

Independent photo/Trent Campbell

When he and Vicki moved to the Residence at Otter Creek, Rinehart brought a 6-foot-tall crane with them because he couldn’t bear leaving it at their previous home in Charlotte. He installed it on a 6,000-pound rock near the entrance, where it still watches over those coming and going. His favorite work at the moment, he says, is probably a loon, maybe 3 feet long, floating on a lake with some cattails rising in the bird’s wake — all metal with a modest paint job. He made it a year ago.

Reinhart’s oeuvre includes many birds: a redheaded woodpecker, various cranes, a clever crow, songbirds. Why all the birds, Warren?

“I don’t know,” he says. “I just make what I find interesting.”

Rinehart developed his skills by taking various courses around the country to learn more and better techniques. He also travelled to Czechoslovakia in the late 1980s and spent a month living with a blacksmithing master and his family, learning more techniques. A few years after that he went with a group of American smiths to Israel to learn at the forge of the renowned Uri Hofi.

“At a class you see a person doing something that you do, but they do it so much more efficiently and the end product is so much better that you try to copy them,” Rinehart says. “That’s why you go to class.”

Using an artistic eye and a practiced hand, Warren Rinehart turned cold steel into a majestic loon floating on a blue pond among flapping cattails. Below, the artist loved this steel crane he made so much that when he moved from one home to another he took it with him. Now the towering bird stands sentry on a rock next to Lodge Road in Middlebury.

Independent photos/John S. McCright

He’s taken a lot of classes. He also teaches basic forging classes, working at the LCMM with students from the Northlands Job Corps a couple times a week. A good student can learn enough to earn a certification in nine months. And he has taught a weekend course in forging at Middlebury College during the January term a couple times; everyone leaves with something they’ve made — a hook, for instance.

Warren Rinehart’s love of “moving” metal is in some aspect a secondary facet of his life. Now 76 years old, he was an orthopedic surgeon in Utica for 29 years. He moved to Vermont to retire in the early 2000s, but after six months got tired of being retired at went to back work at UVM’s Fletcher Allen Hospital for two years, which turned into 10 years. He finally retired from medicine for real about four or five years ago.

He seems reluctant to draw much comparison between his vocation as a doctor and his avocation as an artist. “When you’re through with a piece of metal, if you find you made a mistake you just start over on it,” Rinehart observes. “You can’t do that with a patient.”

After four decades of blacksmithing does he make a lot of mistakes? “Not a lot,” Rinehart says. “I’m pretty good at being spot on.”

Over the years he has been pulled away from blacksmithing from time to time by other things, but he always comes back.

“I love the forging process,” he says. “The options of what you can do with it are endless.”


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