Modern Masters of Ye Olde Arts
By Kristi Kates | Oct. 28, 2017
It’s a given that work, like life, was far more difficult in the past than it is today. With a long list of modern equipment and refined tools to help us complete tasks and create products, it’s a wonder that some of our age-old arts have survived. Here in northern Michigan, however, there’s a number of artisans ushering their classic crafts into the modern age. Here’s a look at four talented local craftsmen and their work then and now.
Curt Regentin, Harbor Springs
Curt Regentin of Shopcraft in Harbor Springs takes on knife sharpening in the modern age with a penchant for research and an eye for detail.
In ancient and medieval times, craftsmen used coarse whetstones to sharpen knives, usually using rectangular ones for small knives; large circular whetstones were turned with a handle to sharpen larger items like swords. When abrasive stones weren’t available, some cultures sprinkled sand onto a flattened piece of wood and used that to sharpen a blade edge.
Regentin’s draw to knife sharpening started as a change of pace. After teaching English for 26 years (24 of them in Harbor Springs), he decided he needed to try something different, and joined the industrial arts teaching staff at Harbor Springs High School as a woodworking and drafting instructor.
“That’s where I first learned about knife sharpening,” Regentin said.
Now retired from teaching, Regentin has been expanding his home workshop, gardening, and working in his small orchard, favorite features of his Harbor Springs home with his wife Jeanne.
“But when doing those activities, I’m alone a lot of the time,” Regentin said. “So I thought I needed a little extra human contact.”
Enter Cyndi Kramer and the Harbor Springs Farmers Market. Regentin asked Kramer if she’d be interested in a knife sharpener at the market, and she was; he started four years ago, and is now a big hit.
“Curt has been incredibly successful at the market, with everyone from chefs to home cooks, gardeners, fishermen and hunters using his services. We are super proud that he is a vendor with us,” Kramer said.
After starting on a simple work table at the market and finding it inadequate, Regentin built his own knife-sharpening cart from scratch, equipping it with his Tormek sharpening machine and other gear. He utilized online videos to hone his knife-sharpening skills.
“I had to learn more about angles, bevels, and burrs (on the knives),” he explained. “I’m constantly trying different techniques, so there’s a fair amount of experimenting happening.”
His motorized, water-cooled sharpening machine is a far cry from the typical whetstone, although it uses the same principle of utilizing an abrasive surface to sharpen. “The Tormak can be changed from one grit to another, but I typically sharpen on the fine grit,” Regentin said. “A 10-inch diameter wheel lasts for about 1,000 knives, so by the end of a summer farmers market season, that 10-inch wheel has been ground down to about 7 ½”.”
Regentin starts by looking at the shape of the knife, noting that various styles of knives and serrated blades have to be handled differently.
“I’ve done it enough now where it takes just a look, and I can even tell if they’re washing the knife in the dishwasher, which I discourage,” he said.
He also ends up repairing knives fairly often. “Some people use the tip as an impromptu screwdriver, so I have to fix that, or maybe they’ve put a serious nick in the knife,” he said. “Cleavers are also a challenge.”
Even more challenging was what he called his “most interesting” customer to date.
“A woman found a sword at a yard sale, and she bought it for a relative of hers who was getting married. She wanted this 36-inch-long sword sharpened to cut the cork off of the end of a champagne bottle,” said Regentin. “So I’ve met some really interesting people. But it’s the craft itself that is most satisfying. Every time I’ve finished sharpening and buffing a knife, and see that I’ve achieved that nice, sharp edge — that’s the goal.”
Find Out More
Find Shopcraft on Facebook, or visit Curt Regentin at the Harbor Springs Farmers Market — in downtown Harbor Springs in summer and at the Harbor Springs Middle School through fall and winter.
David McConnell, Kalkaska
At North Woods Forge in Kalkaska, David McConnell brings blacksmithing into the modern age by adapting some traditional techniques that he’s literally forged in fire.
From the medieval period onward, most towns had a village “smithy” where the local blacksmith would make and fix iron tools, weapons, and accessories. The usual fuel to fire up the blacksmith’s forge was charcoal or coal; today it’s most often natural gas or acetylene. But the blacksmithing methods themselves are very close to the same.
McConnell’s road to blacksmithing literally started in a car. He and his dad were on their way back home to Alba from a trip downstate when they spotted a sign on the side of the road that simply said “Event.” On a whim, father and son followed the sign to Hartwick Pines State Park and logging museum, and found themselves in the middle of an event called Black Iron Days, a gathering of several dozen blacksmiths (among other artisans). “I was instantly hooked,” McConnell said.
McConnell, by trade a machine repairman who fixes industrial machinery, said he has always enjoyed “making stuff” on his time off.
“So to see these guys taking something as strong and as unwilling to move as metal, heating it up, and bending into whatever they wanted was really inspiring,” he said.
His first task was to find an anvil. “That was a long search,” he said. “Anvils are so expensive, and if you do find one, chances are an antiques collector has already snatched it up.”
When he finally hold of one, he next needed to build a forge. His initial forge was fueled with coal. He still uses it today. “I prefer it, actually — you can take your time and let the coal do the work.”
But he also has a propane gas forge to supplement his work, crafting a wide range of items out of steel.
“I can make knives and knick-knacks, axes, hatchets, and ornamental items like handrails for staircases — I actually like those best, as there’s so much you can do with them,” he said.
His blacksmithing skills have snagged him some national attention, too. He was featured as one of the competitors on the History Channel’s blacksmithing show, Forged in Fire. His episode aired earlier this year.
“You know, I’d never been out of Michigan, but because of the show, I got to go stay in Manhattan, filming the show in a warehouse in Queens, New York,” he said. “The intensity was crazy. Once they started filming us, with all the forges fired up, there were no breaks.”
McConnell was one of two finalists. The Talwar sword (a curved sword originating in India) that he crafted out of high-carbon steel didn’t win, but he said that being on the show was a remarkable experience regardless.
“Forged in Fire marked a lot of firsts for me,” he said. “First time flying in an airplane, first time in a big city. The judges were awesome guys. And being on TV didn’t bother me — I just focused on what I was doing.”
Thanks to the publicity from the show, he’s selling a lot more of his handcrafted knives and tools these days. But in talking with him, it seems he would’ve been just as happy doing the same kind of work back in the 1800s.
“We have so much better technology now,” he said, “it’s easier to pick a skill up and learn it on your own, on the internet. Back then you’d have to find the opportunity to apprentice under a master blacksmith, which would’ve been a feat in itself. But in the ‘good old days,’ I’d still be doing this, just in a much more utilitarian way — making hinges, eating utensils, fire pokers, chains and nails. Really, I can make anything under the sun.”
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Jay Bavers, East Jordan (pictured)
Longtime local craftsman Bavers of Jordan Valley Glassworks has fine-tuned this vintage skill to a beautifully high level with a focus on color.
Glass itself has a long and unusual history, from its natural occurrences via lightning strikes and volcanic eruptions to the first glass blowing techniques invented by the Phoenicians in 50 B.C.
Fortunately for today’s glass blowers, they’re not prevented from traveling as Venetian artisans were back in the late 1200s, so that their glassblowing knowledge would be safely kept within their home city.
Jordan Valley Glassworks was founded back in 1911 in Brooklyn, New York, by Jay Bavers’ grandfather, Nathan. “I am the one who brought it here to northern Michigan,” said Bavers, who grew up out east but had Midwestern ambitions.
“I told my grandmother when I was eight years old that when I grew up, I’d set up my own glassblowing shop in the country, by a lake,” he said. “And that’s exactly what I did.”
Bavers, who attended the College for Creative Studies (CCS) in Detroit, would travel Up North on his time off and ended up settling in East Jordan. Glassblowing moved north with him, and since then he’s established himself and his crew as award-winning artisans.
“I’ve always loved the furnaces and the molten glass,” he said. “There’s just something magical about blowing glass.”
Bavers and his fellow glassblowers make their own glass out of a mixture of sand, soda, and lime cooked at 2,600F degrees. What makes his glass especially stand out is its use of color, which Bavers said is derived from metal oxide powders.
“We use gold to get red color, copper to get green, cadmium for yellow, cobalt for blue, and aluminum for white,” he said. “And once you have those prime colors, you can make any color.”
To craft a blown glass piece, a bit of molten glass is attached to the end of the glassblowing pipe. More molten glass is added as needed, and then the colors are picked up from a steel table, where the powders are carefully arranged.
“We roll the hot glass in the powders, and then melt in the color in the furnace,” explained Bavers. “Next, we use tools like awls and tweezers to twist and design the glass. Once we have the color and design where we want it, we blow it up, and shape it as we go.”
The hot pieces rest overnight, and are then brought into a cold room to be cut, drilled, and wired together to complete the designs that Bavers and his team have designed.
“We make cups, oil lamps, Christmas ornaments, sun-catchers, garden items, and rondels [flat, circular glass artworks], all the way up to large items like wall sculptures and chandeliers,” he said. “We probably do four or five huge chandeliers — 450 pounds each— a year, mostly for private homes, banks, and businesses.”
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Steve Montero, Rapid City
Not content with modern mass-market goods, Rapid City’s Montero keeps the natural appeal of wood intact in his handcrafted furniture at Torch River Rustics.
Outside of primitive times, ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman craftsmen were the first to properly utilize wood to craft furniture much as we know it today. They used familiar techniques and components like carving, mitres, and joints, as well as tools like saws and chisels, in their woodworking, often decorating pieces with ivory inlays and gold leaf.
Before his current life as a woodworker, Steve Montero was a software engineer. But after fulfilling the dream of his wife, Lori — to build a log home — the couple needed furniture that looked right in the rustic space, and that’s where Montero’s life took a turn.
“We looked at how expensive complimentary log furniture was, and I thought, well, I can make it myself,” he said. “After I’d made a few pieces, some of our friends wanted me to make furniture for them. Then friends of friends wanted furniture. And it snowballed from there.”
Montero found making furniture much more relaxing than the computer business. He left the computer industry and started crafting furniture full-time in 2003. He’s not formally taught, but instead pulls his woodworking knowledge from lessons taught by his dad, Francis, and from his own experiences.
“My dad could fix or do anything,” Montero said. “I can do shoestring mechanics, building, plumbing, and electrician work today because of my dad, and from him I also learned how to not be afraid to do anything. Plus when I was a teenager, I worked in a hardware store, so I learned a lot from the customers there, too.”
He sources his wood — mostly white cedar — from swampland on his own property and that of neighboring friends in the Rapid City area. Then, in his home workshop (built in his garage), he transforms the wood into everything from night lights, lamps, and chairs to bookshelves, desks, benches, picnic tables, and dining sets. Many of his specialty headboards even have twigs carefully woven in to the design.
“The biggest challenge is in finding the right wood,” he said. “Most of the stuff I make is custom made, specific to what the customer wants. For instance, one person wanted a 14-foot-long picnic table, so I had to find wood that would cut into 14-foot lengths. That kind of thing.”
The tools of his trade are similar to the tools of yore. Two of his favorite tools are the tenon cutter, used to cut tenons, or little connecting dowels, out of the ends of logs, and a draw knife, a woodworking hand-tool that he utilizes to peel the bark off of the exterior of the logs.
“I also use saws, sanders, various drills to drill holes for the tenons, and a lot of glue,” Montero said. “The phrase I always use is ‘screwed and glued.’ I use both screws and glue so that the pieces fit tightly together without gaps.” His wife assists by using her artistic skills to help stain and finish the pieces, adding engravings as needed.
And much like the good old days, no two pieces of furniture are the same. “They’re all definitely unique, because I’m not a mass producer,” he said. “And I focus on a very rustic style of furniture. If I was an old world woodworker, I’d still be making the same stuff I do now, and actually using similar tools — but the biggest difference is that now, all of our tools are made out of metal.”
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