Charleston Iron Work: Forging On

Amid the tower cranes and rapid high-rise development of downtown Charleston, the ambiance of the historic area draws thousands of people each year to experience cobblestone streets, horse-drawn carriages, steeples, single houses, shrimp and grits and wrought iron gates. While many think that blacksmithing and wrought iron is a thing of the past, Robert Thomas and the team at Robert Thomas Iron Design are proving otherwise, one hammer blow at a time from their Charleston-based studio. Their work on Southern First Bank (80 Calhoun) was recently recognized with a national Gold Medal award from the National Ornamental & Miscellaneous Metals Association. 

When 80 Calhoun was in design, the City of Charleston encouraged Senior Architect Margie Longshore to incorporate traditional Charleston craftsmanship; the building’s prominent position as the backdrop to the finely detailed Gailliard Auditorium warranted hand-crafted details throughout. With a stair feature inside and a goal to start with hand-crafted iron work on the outside and then continue through the twisting inside staircase – seen prominently from the outside – Margie contacted a friend with connections to the American College of Building Arts, who put her in touch with Robert Thomas. 

Together, architect and blacksmith collaborated to make the big idea work. Robert and his team built a 3-D computer model to accurately study the railing details and review final decisions with the design team and contractors. Once the staircase was in place, they took detailed measurements, built a framework and transported it back and forth as it was created and detailed to ensure a proper final fit. 

“It was refreshing to work with a blacksmith on crafted details as unique as this,” Margie says. “Forging iron itself is physically challenging, and watching them hand-produce it while anticipating the different conditions of the finished product really warrants a high level of appreciation for the details. Their work has become a stunning focal point and timeless feature for 80 Calhoun.” 

In a city that champions the work of Phillip Simmons and other blacksmiths from decades and centuries past, Robert Thomas and his team are forging forward, combining the old technique with new projects. His new book, The Art & Craft of the Blacksmith: Techniques and Inspiration for the Modern Smith is already an Amazon Top Seller, and has been featured nationally.

Check out this video to see him in action and learn more about modern blacksmithing:

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