Julie Henry was in her 20s when she began an apprenticeship with a blacksmith in Petaluma. She was the youngest person by at least 10 years in Toby Hickman’s shop, and the only woman working alongside seven men.
“Toby was what you’d expect of a blacksmith — 6 feet, four inches, big beard, big belly and a big voice that could be heard across the entire shop,” Henry said.
But neither her age nor her gender afforded Henry special treatment. She had to earn her way, the same as the men.
“I was taught a new skill every week or so and was expected to come in on my own time to practice and perfect it,” Henry said. “Only then would I be allowed to work on projects going out of the shop.”
Now a mother of three young boys, Henry is a self-employed “contemporary” blacksmith. What drew her to the trade? Henry’s answer is simple: the dirt, the grit and the warmth of the fire.
“I’ve always been really drawn to flames the same way some people are drawn to the ocean,” Henry said.
To create her work, Henry uses a gas forge to heat metal and then a hammer and anvil to forge and shape the metal.
“The iron gets pretty hot so you need tongs to hold it,” Henry said. “I also use files, punches and chisels, as well as power tools such as grinders, sanders, drills and a welder.”
One of her most recognizable pieces here in Napa (and one of her personal favorites) is at Jax Diner in downtown.
“It’s a silhouette of the Jax mule in the vineyards with copper overlay,” Henry said. “J.B. Leamer, the owner of Jax, is a really great guy to work for — lots of cool ideas.”
Henry also recently completed a sign for the new Beckstoffer Barn at Connolly Ranch.
“The first blacksmith shop I worked at did mostly commercial work and I prefer those jobs over residential,” Henry said. “When you are dealing with a restaurant or interior designer they understand the language, possibilities and pricing better and generally have a team available to install my (mostly) heavy work.”
When working with clients, Henry will sketch her ideas, and the clients choose what they like. While she prefers commercial work, one of Henry’s most interesting pieces was commissioned by a local woman shortly after Napa’s earthquake in August 2014.
“Her antique hutch had fallen down, and only one mirrored piece remained intact,” Henry said. “I reconstructed an outline of the hutch out of metal and memorialized the remaining mirrored piece in the middle.”
The mirrored piece, Henry said, needed to be reset in the existing lead.
You have free articles remaining.
“I disassembled and reassembled it all — all the while thinking about the original crafts-person who had built it,” Henry said.
Having an apprentice learn the blacksmith trade from a mentor is an important tradition in Henry’s line of work.
“Blacksmithing is a craft that is passed down from person to person,” she said. “You can see the lineage through the work from master to apprentice, through generations. Similar to how a head chef and sous chef would make similar tasting soup.”
While wood and metal shop classes are often on the chopping block with tight school budgets, Henry believes they’re an essential part of school curriculum, and that girls, in particular, should be encouraged to sign up.
“I always struggled in math, and I think the expectation for girls and women is that it’s OK if you’re not great at math (and sports to an extent),” Henry said. “That being said, if someone would have shown me how an inch was split up I would have understood fractions. If I had been trying to build a chandelier I would have understood radius, diameter, etc.”
Shop classes, she said, are essential to learning applied mathematics and engineering.
“Even now I use math from the start of the job,” Henry said. “I sell a job based on a scale drawing. Then I need to order the metal — layout and measurement. Even while forging I’m working within mathematical parameters.”
Henry is originally from the Midwest and went to college at Southern Illinois University (SIU) in Carbondale, Illinois.
“I was majoring in ceramics when I discovered blacksmithing and was smitten from the start,” she said. “SIU has a fantastic metals program and draws talent from all over the world.”
Her first teacher in Carbondale was a man with a slight frame — about 5 feet 4 inches tall and 130 pounds.
“He showed me how to leverage my weight so I could move metal as efficiently as someone much bigger than me,” Henry said. “Blacksmiths are salt-of-the-earth people and my blacksmithing community has always helped push me along on my journey — no one has ever tried to hold me back or tell me I couldn’t because I was a woman.”
For Henry’s three sons — a set of 9-year-old twins and a 5-year-old — mom’s job is pretty awesome. She’s already begun teaching her boys the basics of her craft.
“They have been at the anvil since about the age of 4. And yeah, they love it,” Henry said.
“I think all blacksmiths understand they have a duty to pass what they know on to the next generation. Or else the craft dies. I hope to be in the position when my kids get a little older to take on an apprentice and teach them what has been taught to me, so they can teach to someone else.”
Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.