Peace and calm radiated from Lee Pisarek’s face as he rhythmically pounded the piece of red hot iron with a mallet wrapped in his large, skilled hand.
A metallic, slightly smoky odor saturated the blacksmith shop at Fort Vancouver National Site, adding another layer to the historic accuracy of the place.
Re-enacting a profession from 1845 is about as far away as you can get from the battlefields of Operation Desert Storm, where Pisarek severely injured his right leg after getting caught between a mine field and artillery fire, which “didn’t go well,” he said with an odd smile.
But for the Army veteran, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, learning to become a blacksmith has been a fulfilling way to use some of the same mechanical and technical skills he worked with in the service, he said.
“I was a lifer, I expected to stay in for 30 years, but in 1992 after my injury I opted for the early-out program,” said Pisarek, who joined the service in 1982.
His military job, as a field expedient weapons instructor, was something he really enjoyed, and it was hard to give it up, he said.
“(It) requires looking at an object for what it’s capable of, not necessarily for what it’s designed to do,” Pisarek said.
Volunteering to work as a blacksmith has given him a new creative outlet, and a way to fulfill the same mechanical and intellectual curiosity, he added.
In the Army, he could take items he found and turn them into weapons.
In the blacksmith shop, the 49-year-old takes scraps of metal and turns them into useful tools for the fort’s gardeners, cooks and other re-enactors.
His new profession might not pay, but it has helped Pisarek focus his energy positively, and working at the fort lets him inspire others as a teacher and historical re-enactor.
He hopes more young people will check out the shop so he can share his fascination and enthusiasm for craft trades, he said.
Outlet for active minds
Pisarek has always had an engineering bent. As a kid he and his brother used to take apart toys, bookshelves and other items in their shared room and put the pieces together in odd ways to make their own contraptions, he said.
“My grandfather gave me an empty toolbox when I was 8 years old,” Pisarek said. “Then for an entire summer he taught me hand tools. Only if I proved I could use it was I allowed to add a tool to the box.”
That handyman skill and creativity is something blacksmiths have always relied upon, said Craig Webster, head of the Fort Vancouver Trades Guild, which supports volunteers and staff that work in the carpenter and blacksmith shops.
“In 1845 nobody ever went to a blacksmith with blueprints,” Webster said. “Today, if you go to a machine shop you have to have the design worked out. But if you went to a blacksmith, you’d go to them with a problem and they’d try to find an engineering solution to meet your needs.”
At the fort, blacksmiths, who were professional tradesmen that lived in the city, made things such as beaver traps, ax heads, agricultural tools and kitchen items like stirrers, spoons and pot lifters, said Webster and Mike Twist, a park guide.
“There’s a stereotype of blacksmiths as brawny men pounding on things all day, which is true,” Twist said. “You needed a lot of strength, but these guys also needed high levels of mechanical aptitude, three-dimensional thinking, physics.
“If they saw something, they’d have to be able to break it down to parts and reproduce it,” he added.
That way of thinking easily rises to the surface for Pisarek.
He even built his own prosthetic leg support out of fan blades, Velcro, lock washers and bolts when he was in the Veterans Affairs hospital awaiting a medical splint for his injured leg.
“When the physician in charge of prosthetics over there saw it, he said ‘Who made this?’ He was impressed. The only thing I couldn’t figure out was how to get better calf support,” Pisarek said.
Before he found blacksmithing, Pisarek did some tinkering with goldsmithing and other jewelry making. But once he saw a blacksmithing demonstration at the fort, he was hooked, he said.
“The concept of manipulating the metal I already understood,” Pisarek said. “The specifics of creating a J hook or a nail, the way they used to do it, they taught me that. And this is maintaining a skill set for future generations to see. I don’t want this skill set to be lost.”
Expanding his knowledge and finding creative ways to make things has also helped him keep some of his PTSD symptoms — like his sense of restlessness — at bay, he said.
Watching Pisarek smile and answer questions from throngs of curious kids passing through the blacksmith shop on a Wednesday afternoon, it’s readily apparent that his time at the fort has been therapeutic.
“My grandfather made a comment to me once,” Pisarek said. “You don’t curse the darkness, you light a candle. Do something about it.”
Not gone, not forgotten
It might seem like a trade skill for the history books, but blacksmiths continue to work commercially today, although their tools and products are a bit different than they were in the pre-industrial age, Twist said.
“There seem to be two classes of blacksmith that I’m familiar with,” Twist said. “You have the historic blacksmith who’s interested in history and reproducing historic artifacts, and then you have the artisan blacksmith, who caters more to the art or architecture world.”
In poor countries and in some rural areas of the United States, though, the tradition of the blacksmith using burning coal and an anvil to heat and shape metal lives on, he said.
“There was a low point in the late 20th century when people, at least in rich countries, were doing blacksmithing less and less than ever before,” Twist said. “But there’s been a bit of a resurgence recently. It actually is becoming quite a popular activity. And there’s a demand for it.”
There are about 450 members in the NorthWest Blacksmith Association, including several in Clark County, said Ike Bay, a member who volunteers at the fort.
“A lot of them make custom knives, architectural elements, abstract art or even things like candelabras or candlestick holders,” Bay said. “Most of the blacksmiths around here use propane for fuel, not coal. Propane is cheap and available.”
Despite modern advances, learning to become a blacksmith is often done in a more traditional manner — by becoming an apprentice to a professional or volunteering at a place like the fort, as Pisarek did.
Part of what Pisarek said he appreciates about his apprenticeship and his time in the blacksmith shop is that he can use his skill and growing knowledge of history to inspire others.
Shop classes in schools are almost nonexistent in today’s world, and it’s sad that most kids are growing up without even basic knowledge of how to use tools, he said with a frown.
“It’s inspiring to see kids come into the shop and realize they can manipulate their world,” Pisarek said. “Parents, they hear their kids get excited about this and they want to encourage them to do more.”
Kids over age 16 and adults can volunteer at the fort and learn how to become blacksmiths through the fort, although the park is working through a few changes and won’t be ready to accept new volunteers until late August or September, Twist said.
Still, Pisarek said he’d love to have more young helpers when the fort is ready for them.
“They can come in and work with somebody like me and learn everything,” Pisarek said.
And while he still gets jumpy during fireworks or when he hears loud noises, Pisarek, who is a married father and lives in Hazel Dell, said he’s much more at peace with his world after taking up the new skill than when he was diagnosed with PTSD about 10 years ago.
“As long as nobody threatens me or my family, I’m a happy guy,” Pisarek said. “I like to stay as happy go lucky — and busy — as I can.”