DeKALB – Lucio Bortolin can count on one hand how many good blacksmiths he knows, leaving his other hand free to stoke coals heating a piece of steel to 2,000 degrees so he can mold it with a pounding hammer.
Bortolin is head blacksmith at the Joseph F. Glidden Homestead's Phineas Vaughan Blacksmith Shop, where he and four apprentices offer demonstrations of the ancient art of blacksmithing twice a month through October.
Bortolin began his blacksmith career in Argentina in the 1970s. From Argentina, he moved Brazil and later immigrated to the United States. He's been the head blacksmith at the Glidden Homestead at 921 W. Lincoln Highway in DeKalb for the past two years. He also runs his own blacksmithing company, F2 Industries, in Sycamore.
“I love it,” Bortolin said standing next to the forge used for heating metal. “You mold. You put your personality in the pieces.”
At the blacksmith shop in DeKalb, Bortolin shapes pieces of steel into decorative, twisted rods for hanging plants or birdhouses. Those pieces are sold at the homestead's gift shop. He often works with other material such as copper for interior design or architecture jobs through his personal business.
The blacksmithing club at the Glidden Homestead consists of four members other than Bortolin.
Andrew Collins, 32, of Cortland, has been part of the small group for nine months.
“I just like working with metal in general,” Collins said. “Working with my hands in general is peaceful and enjoyable.”
Blacksmithing doesn't pay the bills for Collins, who works as an operations supervisor at Northern Illinois University. He prefers it that way.
“I'm just keeping it as a hobby,” Collins said. “I think doing it as a job would take some of the fun out of it.”
Hobby or not, Collins tries to be precise when he forges the metal. On Sunday, he grabbed his heated metal – known as a workpiece – from the hearth with a pair of tongs and placed it in a metal vise. Next, he slid another small bar through the hooked end of the end of the workpiece closest to him. With several short bursts of energy he twisted the workpiece, giving the formerly straight rod now a swirling design.
The whole process takes only a few minutes.
As for when someone, such as Collins, can expect to become a master at the art of blacksmithing?
“Never,” Bortolin said. “After four or five years, you're pretty good, but there's always something to learn.”