It’s a small fire, really, but it makes the coal glow red hot and turns a bar of steel bright orange — warm enough to shape, twist and bend. Sparks fly if it gets too hot.
Blacksmiths Frank Naples and Tim Crumley of A&M Welding — named for Naples’ daughters Anna and Mia — work in Naples’ shop in the woods behind his Lewisville home.
Crumley heats a piece of steel, then takes it to the anvil, picks up his hammer, and in minutes has formed a Colonial 12-sided ball -- a traditional circular design often used on the end of a railing, post or handle.Their tools are simple: a hammer and a 340-pound anvil circa 1860 from England. A foot-pedaled power hammer built in 1947 speeds up their work.
The two men together work on industrial projects, but it’s clear that the art of steel is their passion. What most people think of as wrought iron is actually mild steel. Wrought iron is a softer type of steel rarely used today, and the shop holds all sorts of steel in various states of shaping -- twisted rails, hand-chiseled basset hound faces and delicate lily petals.
In Winston-Salem, their work is everywhere: Old Salem, Bethania, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Wake Forest University, New Town Bistro and many private homes.
“It’s artistic iron,” Crumley said.
To look at the graceful curves of the scrollwork, the precise parallel twists of the rails, the details of the gar fish caught in an egret’s beak, it’s easy to forget this is steel.
“Back in the day, they called it magic,” Naples said, adding that some people were afraid of the local blacksmith with his burning fire. “It’s satisfying to do all this…It’s also real satisfying when you can fix a neighbor’s combine for him — or his tractor or his dump truck.”
Naples, 56, had been in the U.S. Army for three years, then studied welding at Forsyth Technical Institute on the GI Bill. Welding on a contract basis took him to the Coors Brewery in Elkton, Va., and in North Carolina, both at the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. power plant in Winston-Salem and a Proctor & Gamble factory in Browns Summit.
But he grew weary of pipe-welding work. In the early 1990s, he went to the John C. Campbell Folk School, where he studied blacksmithing.
Originally from Alabama, Crumley, 54, began welding when he was 14. His father had tools in their basement.
“He told me if I couldn’t afford it, build it,” Crumley said. By 19, he was a professional welder, specializing in boilermakers.
He moved to Lewisville with his wife, Cheri, and daughter, Jessica, and worked for Landmark Builders. He began working with Naples part-time about eight years ago and joined him full time when he was laid off about five years ago.
“Ninety percent of this takes two people,” Naples said. “When Tim came on we started picking up projects.”
The pair still welds.
“We have to do it to stay in business,” Naples said. “I like to say if we were just blacksmiths, we wouldn’t be making it,” and the same goes for welding. “Together it makes for a successful business.”
The work is hard and hot — the coal fire needs to reach 1,800 degrees to bend steel, and mistakes can be dangerous. Their worn hands have been burned before, and Crumley lost part of a finger on a grinder.
“We like to say there are things in blacksmithing that can hurt you; there are things in welding that can kill you,” Naples said.
Whether it’s fixing a tractor or making a railing, a set of fireplace doors or a blue crab sculpture, “a true blacksmith can pretty well do it all,” Crumley said.
Together, they have crafted steel that adds unique detail to historic and new homes and businesses throughout Winston-Salem and beyond.
“Hand forged isn’t perfect, but to the eye, it’s perfect,” Naples said. “The thing about blacksmithing…those pieces are touched 20, 30, 40 times. It’s a one-of- a-kind piece.”
Roger Armstrong, president of Fishel Steel Co., worked with Naples and Crumley on a project for Wake Forest University’s Welcome Center, and said, “I supply him a lot of steel.”
“For a little bit, he can put a different twist on it, or he can do a little architectural flair, where even though it’s the same rail everybody’s got, it will look different than anyone’s seen,” said Armstrong, the third generation in the family-owned business that began in 1930.
“The nice thing about Frank, he hunts down old blacksmiths, and he and Tim will go off and spend a day or two with them to learn a new part of their trade,” Armstrong said. “To me, that’s the interesting thing. He’s trying to learn something new every day.”
In fact, Naples and Crumley spent time in mid-October with Howard McCall and his son George in Greenville, S.C., learning how to make lilies out of steel.
“When you go to Mr. McCall’s shop, you bring your A-game,” Naples said. “There’s no, ‘It’s close.’“He wants to share. You do what he says, how he says it. He’s just an irreplaceable treasure.”
At New Town Bistro, Naples and Crumley built a trellis, and there, amid the vines that twist around the steel bars, hides a lobster holding a martini glass.
“I just let him (Naples) have the freedom,” said Kyle Agha, owner of New Town Bistro. “Dealing with the person that makes it is great. You’re not talking to a third-party middle man. He can really see the vision before I saw it. He knew, with our patio, there would be people there.”
The lobster gives customers something to talk about.“I compare him (Naples) to an old world blacksmith,” Agha said. “I imagine him standing over coal, banging steel. This day and age, that’s becoming a lost art, and it’s good to see someone that does it the old-fashioned way.”
Bob Pearl, who owns Robert Pearl Antiques and Restoration, has worked with Naples and Crumley on several projects in Bethania, including the Michael Hauser House and Jacob Loesch House, as well as the fence at the square in Old Salem.
“Having to forge handrails for the Kuehln House in Old Salem might have been the biggest challenge since the rails had to fit existing foot holes in the granite landing,” Pearl said.
Nancy Spencer, a member of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, worked with Naples and Crumley as they incorporated Christian symbolism in the base of the altar in the church’s garden chapel.
“I feel he’s a friend now,” Spencer said of Naples. “You just let him know, and he can do anything. They’re both the salt of the earth.”
“Honestly, I just love what I do,” Naples said. “I’d do it for free. I’ve had a hard way here, but I wouldn’t change a thing.”