The village blacksmith in the 21st century
By Andrea Granahan
“Under a spreading chestnut tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a might man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawney arms
Are strong as iron bands.”
Longfellow’s iconic 19th century description of a brawny, independent character has come to define a blacksmith to many of us. David Hamilton, 64, isn’t exceptionally brawny and is a lot more brainy than Longfellow’s guy, but nonetheless he is a 21st century blacksmith plying his ancient trade in Bodega.
His 1200 square foot blacksmith’s shop is a labyrinth of wood, metal and striking sculptures surrounding his two forges, his “power hammers”, his anvils and his hand tools. There are narrow paths through his collections of materials and tools. He is more than a blacksmith. He is an artist, a woodworker, and an antique collector. His shop Hamilton Trading Co. is in the heart of Bodega. Many of his tools are antiques.
“I love tools,” he said.
Hamilton, born in Texas, grew up as an army brat in a family of five sibling army brats moving from place to place watched over by a devoted mother as his father served in the military. He settled in northern California and went to college to study art, eventually earning an MA from San Francisco State.
“I needed to learn the hand skills I needed to create the things I wanted to make. I always wanted to teach, and I found I was my best student,” said Hamilton. He established his shop 14 years ago, and began amassing his collection of materials.
Discovering early on that “fine artists often are obliged to support themselves in other ways” he took up his trade. He is a member of the California Blacksmiths Association and the Artists Blacksmiths Association of North America.
“They are teaching groups keeping the craft alive,” he explained.
His makes decorative gates, wrought iron furniture, wine racks, railings, roof trusses, door hardware, and component pieces for other craftsmen to work into their designs. He repairs antiques. His woodworking and smithery has appeared in such magazines as Fine Home Building and Sunset. He and his life partner Joy Fibben, who is a former movie set painter, have worked with famed gardener Scott Columbo to create award winning displays for the San Francisco Flower Show.
Hamilton owns a cattle ranch in Montana near his brother Bob Hamilton’s ranch. He travels there once a year usually and his brother tends the cattle in his absence while he works in Bodega.
One type of tool he enjoys demonstrating is a power hammer. He has two, both dating from before World War II. Power hammers are rated by the weight of the moving hammer head, not the machine as a whole. His 250 pound hammer actually weighs 5000 pounds. He can work the head with a foot control while manipulating the metal with two hands.
“Blacksmiths often wish they had three hands,” he laughed as he shaped a piece of metal and the hammer resounded through the shop.
As he repairs antiques he takes them to his shop, and even sometimes put some of his “rusty gold” old tools up for sale.
But his first love is creating the sculpture he makes – metal abstracted figures and torsos that capture the rhythm of a dance.
The blacksmith shop is not open to the public. Hamilton Trading Co. is at 17175 Bodega Hwy. in Bodega and is open in winter Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 12 to 6 p.m. From mid-June to mid-September it is open six days a week 12 to 6 p.m. Closed Wednesdays. Hamilton can be reached at 876-3184 for commission work.