You wouldn’t think roses would be thriving on a gray January day, but the kind Dan Crabtree makes don’t need warmth or water. They are made of metal.
Somehow, the forged roses look as delicate as the real thing, their curved petals painted in shades of red, pink, yellow and orange. Patterned leaves bend as if they were reaching for the sun.
Dan, 26, along with friend and fellow blacksmith Scott Delorme, also 26, displayed their handiwork on a long metal table in the garage where they work. The former auto body and mechanic shop is on the property of Dan’s grandparents in rural Lebanon.
A knife with a curled handle sat in the midst of the roses.
“I’m working on it right now,” Dan said. “We call it a drop point hunter. It’s a real lightweight camping knife. I made it out of a file. Old metal files, I recycle them into knives ... I started playing with metal many, many years ago and just love it.”
Dan, whose business is Crabtree Forge, specializes in ornamental ironwork, such as gates and doors, sculpture, tools and, his signature item, roses.
That afternoon, he and Scott showed the process of how the flowers, well, come to life.
Growing a metal rose
The blacksmiths begin by cutting the petal and leaf shapes they will form from large pieces of sheet metal. They use a grinder to get rid of pieces left behind by the cutting process. Dan created an electromagnetic table from an old microwave to hold pieces in place while they work.
“I had to read stuff on the Internet. Most information that came up was out of old microwaves. A battery charger is the power source for it. When it’s switched on, the table becomes magnetized, holding the leaves and petals in place so we can grind them and remove slag material.”
We are trying to make it easy on ourselves. We have to be inventive. ... There’s always a better way if we sit there and talk about it enough.
Scott Delorme on creating solutions
“We are trying to make it easy on ourselves,” said Scott. “We have to be inventive. ... There’s always a better way if we sit there and talk about it enough.”
“There’s a lot of ways to skin a cat,” said Dan. “A million different ways to do something. We do a lot of trial and error.”
Across the room, a forge glowed hot. Dan and Scott, both wearing protective glasses, used long tongs to heat the small shapes and make them malleable.
“The working temperature of the metal can get up to 3,500 degrees,” said Dan. “It gets hot enough to melt steel if it sits in there long enough.”
Next stop, a giant trip hammer as loud as it is large. They insert dies they’ve made to give texture to cut-out leaves. The leaves vary in size just like they do in nature.
“You put the sheet metal in,” said Dan, “the hammer comes down, hits it and gives it that texture.”
Bam, bam, bam!
A second set of dies gives the leaves their ridges. They hammer the ends of the leaves on the anvil and meld them together.
There are dies for petals, too. Dan and Scott hand-punch a hole in the center of each petal.
“We do that one at a time,” said Dan.
Next, it’s time to weld. A vice holds the rose in place.
“The sepal (the little star shape on the bottom of the rose) is the first piece that gets welded, then petals to sepal, then onto the stem,” said Dan. “That’s when you form up to make the rosebuds. ... That’s one thing I had to learn.”
The garage, open on one end, was cool that 45-degree day. Much colder and they heat the room with a furnace that burns old motor oil and wood.
Midway through, Dan’s grandparents Don and Georgianna Crabtree, came in to watch. They live across the road.
“I think it’s nice,” said Georgianna as her grandson soldered. “I like this, boys. He’s out here pretty often. He always had an interest in it.”
From swords to roses
When Dan was a young teen, he liked medieval knights and swords. That sparked his interest in metal work.
He asked his dad Mike about it.
“How did they make those things? ‘Dad, let’s make a sword. Let’s do that again.’”
Mike Crabtree, who has a construction business, and works on race cars, was happy to oblige. The next thing Dan knew, they were building the forge by welding metal planks and angle iron together and tracking down tools. He learned the basics on the Internet, bought some books, took welding classes at Southwestern Illinois College.
Before I could drive, Dad would drive me to classes at Mount Vernon (at the Illinois Blacksmith Association shop), the second Saturday of every month. It was called a hammer-in. Guys would get together, make stuff, share ideas.
Dan Cranbtree on how he got started
“Before I could drive, Dad would drive me to classes at Mount Vernon (at the Illinois Blacksmith Association shop), the second Saturday of every month. It was called a hammer-in. Guys would get together, make stuff, share ideas.”
Soon, he was making make steak turners, barbecue tools, knives and gates that he sold through craft shows.
“I love a big project,” said Dan. “Whenever I do a gate, it’s something special.”
The more custom work, such as ornamental scrolls, the better.
“At one point, I decided I needed to know from a professional.”
His grandmother remembered watching a PBS special on blacksmithing.
“I called up PBS, and said, ‘Could you send us that DVD?’” said Dan. “I got to the work (of John Medwedeff) and I was struck. This is wonderful.”
Medwedeff has been producing public sculpture, sculptural fountains, architectural ironwork, and furniture for more than 25 years. Dan tracked down John’s phone number and peppered the Murphysboro blacksmith and artist with questions.
“He said, ‘Slow down. I got a guy who quit. If you want to come down and learn, I might find a place for you.’”
Dan worked with John for five years, sometimes living in Murphysboro, sometimes making the 3-hour round trip to John’s shop.
“That was really interesting. I learned a boatload of information working with John.”
When John came up last summer to restore sculptures at Godfrey’s Lewis & Clark Community College, he asked Dan to help.
“It was a neat job.”
Now, Dan is the teacher, showing Scott how to weld. The two have known each other since fifth grade at Summerfield Grade School.
“That’s the big hurdle, to learn how to weld nicely,” Scott said. “I can stick pieces together, but there’s so much more to it.”
Petals and metals
The key to a successful rose? “Start with a good pattern,” said Dan. “Make sure the center is in the center.”
Sounds simple, but before Dan created the pattern, he spent a lot of time studying roses.
“There are so many different roses out there. They form tight buds out to fluffy buds. There was a rose competition in St. Louis. I had a great time walking around looking at the roses.”
Making roses is a blacksmith tradition. Ten years ago, Dan took a class at a blacksmith shop in northern Illinois where they were primitive and made of old paint can lids.
4 Hours to make a rose
3,500 Degrees the working temperature of metal can reach
“That got me interested. Grandma liked them. You always want to make them to give as gift to the girls and stuff. I started selling a couple here and there. One day, we started painting them, playing with different colors.”
He refined the process.
Now, roses are his signature item. Unpainted steel roses sell for $65; painted ones for $70; and multicolored for $95.
What is most popular?
“It’s pretty random,” said Dan. “We never know what someone will want. They could choose their favorite color or their girlfriend’s favorite color. Some prefer a crazy paint job that gives it a modern look.”
Sue Kurtz, of Mulberry Grove, bought a yellow one.
“Every time I have company, Everyone compliments a lot on them,” she said. “He does really good work. He has made other stuff for me. I have a barbecue fork hanging up by my barbecue pit. I have my TV on a little oval table. The rose sits in front of my TV. I see it every day.”
A rose takes about four hours from start to finish. Their favorite part is fashioning petals.
With acetylene torch in one hand and a pliers in the other, they bend each petal into place, starting in the middle of the flower and going around. Sharp edges? They soften with the torch.
“This is where you can spend a lot of time and get carried away,” said Scott. “I do a lot. You just get into the zone.”
“This is the best part,” said Dan.
That day’s rose was a winner.
“Now it’s ready for sandblasting and painting,” said Dan. “It’s a nice one.”
“It’s so much fun,” said Scott. “How could you look at this and not want to go into making these?”
- About the business: Dan Crabtree and friend Scott Delorme use a variety of metalworking techniques, both modern and ancient, to make everything from roses and sculptures to knives, barbecue tools, garden trellises and decorative gates. They also provide custom fabrication and repair services in ferrous and non-ferrous metals.
- Where to see their work: Tiadaghton House, 111 W. St. Louis St., Lebanon, and on their website, crabtreeforge.com
- Contact: 618 210-1024 or 618 580-6065 or email@example.com