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Issue Date: February 2008

Heavy Metal Master

Blacksmith Ken Roby melts cold iron into delicate, one-of-a-kind creations that claim places of honor in both high-end private homes and highly visible public spaces.
Chuck Bowen
Traditionally, black metal is not there to look pretty. It exists to do a job — a hook on which to hang your hat, a screen to keep logs in the fireplace, a railing that helps you climb the stairs. The images conjured are not what comes out of Ken Roby’s Auburn Township workshop: delicate leaves and vines, spiraling gates and … is that a staircase?

“When steel is 2,000 degrees and red hot, it might as well be clay,” Roby says. “You can do anything with it.”

Under Roby’s artistic eye and forceful hammer, iron becomes more than a material of simple utility. Blacksmithing allows him to blend form and function in a way that other artistic mediums do not.

He pulls out thick binders full of his installations: massive, ornate staircases at a home in Bath Township; modern-looking railings at former Browns coach Butch Davis’ home; the restoration of the gates at the Hungarian Cultural Gardens near University Circle and the entrance for Judson Manor.

Roby also creates hand-forged birds (with nests), leaves, snakes and other nature-inspired art. His historical renovations commonly require metal in sizes that aren’t manufactured anymore. His re-creations must often be built with cobbled-together source material.

“The nature of being a blacksmith is you’re constantly having to figure out how to make something,” he says.

Roby, 45, was born in Chagrin Falls and graduated from Hawken High School in 1981. Since then, metal work is all he’s really done. He got his start as a farrier — a person who makes and fits horseshoes.

“I had no interest in iron work,” he recalls. “Who the hell wanted to do iron work?” But, eventually, he began working at the forge and made one of his first custom creations for a Medina home about 10 years ago. The work has not stopped since.

“I like forging metals,” he says, his curly white hair standing out against the black of his hands. “The whole thing’s an adventure. Sometimes, I’m not really sure if I’m working or I’m playing. It’s better than having a real job.”

But it has become a full-time occupation. Roby’s work fetches prices with a lot of zeroes, and it is work. His shop stands as a testament to the ancient and recent history of physical art. Four anvils and scores of hammers sit scattered among scraps of steel and a 2,200-degree coal fire.

“The old hammer and anvil hasn’t changed much,” Roby says, though his work has been augmented by modern innovations. Closer to the door, his two employees, Sera Balmat and Shannon Mallory, grind and weld long pieces of bright aluminum for a table and a wall-hanging. Power ham- mers from the 1900s stand next to industrial-strength punches. Roby even modified the auger on his Bobcat construction machine to twist larger pieces of steel.

With all these tools and a little fire, Roby can create nearly anything in this workspace. Most of it will be useful. All of it will be beautiful.

“You’re only limited by your imagination and the money you want to spend,” he says. “And some laws of physics.”

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