If learning the ancient art is still on your bucket list, look to Adlai Stein

Whether mending a hem or making your own pizza, the pandemic has pushed many to hone practical skills at home, often at an accelerated pace. Remember how quickly folks went from baking sourdough to brewing their own beer?

But there are still some skills you can’t learn on YouTube, skills in which public interest has faded amid advancing technology, and that still require the guidance of a steady, experienced hand to master. So if learning blacksmithing is on your bucket list, Adlai Stein is your man for all things metal.

“I used to go to the Met in New York with my grandfather and look at the arms and armor. I loved history, but was also fascinated by Tolkien and tales of King Arthur,” Stein said. “That sense of adventure was always in my head, and I joined a medieval reenactment group called the Society for Creative Anachronism. That’s what got me started in blacksmithing, and I've been doing it ever since.”

The artistry of ancient weapons that captivated him as a child inspired the hobby that eventually overtook his occupation as a paralegal. But even after swapping a suit and tie for a hammer, it still took Stein years to master the tools and techniques to become a full-time blacksmith.

Stein started off teaching classes at the Idea Foundry in Franklinton, but soon outgrew the space, relocating his studio, Macabee Metals, to a larger shop off of Central Avenue, where he launched the Central Ohio School of Metalwork. In addition to private lessons, workshops have opened the door to those whose interest may be tempered by apprehension. From sand-casting to crafting railroad spike knives, everyone leaves with skills and an individual experience you won’t find elsewhere — and a finished memento forged by their own hands.

“The maker movement has really changed the perception of products that are made by hand, and the people who make them,” Stein said. “Things that used to be viewed as inferior unless they were mass-produced are now in demand. People want to know how things are made and who makes them.”

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Blacksmithing was already enjoying a bit of renaissance even before the pandemic. Now in its eighth season, the History Channel series “Forged in Fire” has emerged from cable television curiosity to become a top-rated show. Stein competed in the third season and later helped prepare another local contestant for the unforeseen challenges of the competition. He’s also been a featured speaker at TEDxColumbus, sharing his journey from artist to educator.

“Blacksmiths are such a tight-knit community of people. We really don’t compete against one another. We're all doing our own thing,” Stein said. “You may go to a knife show where you know everyone there making handmade knives, but they’re all unique. It's kind of like going to the Arnold [Sports Festival]. You don’t get mad because someone enjoys the same thing you do. It’s a chance to learn from one another.”

When you’re swinging a hammer and moving hot metal from a forge to an anvil, social distancing is second nature rather than an afterthought. Slowly shaping an abstract slab of steel into a purposeful profile, quenching the blade, then grinding and polishing it to a refined finish takes about four hours. But much like “Forged in Fire,” it’s time that goes by faster than you think. Beneath the controlled chaos there’s a sense of Zen to the entire process, equal parts art and science. What may have started as a one-time indulgence might just become your new favorite pastime.

Though Stein admits that the perception of blacksmithing — one somewhat perpetuated by the show — is one centered on “40-year-old white guys with beards,” interest in the craft doesn’t fit a predictable mold. Exhibitions at events like Summer Jam West cast a wide net, and over time his students for private and group classes have leaned decidedly younger and more diverse, with some even professing an interest in pursuing a career as a blacksmith.

“I have 16-year-old girls who come in and kick ass, and 40-year-old men who get tired and walk out. Some people think it’s all about strength, when it’s really about accuracy and patience,” Stein said. “It takes someone who is fearless to be able to look at 1,800 degrees of metal and say, ‘I am going to move this with a hammer.’ It’s a different kind of strength. The strength of character.”

For more on the Central Ohio School of Metalwork, including upcoming workshops, visit cosommetalwork.com