Thomas Latané has been creating elaborate hand-forged ironworks since he was in junior high, so one might think that at 58 he’d have figured out everything there is to know about shaping metal into exquisite decorations or practical tools. But he insists that he hasn’t.
“There’s always more to learn,” he said as he prepared to pound an 1,800-degree piece of glowing iron into submission on an anvil.
It turns out that the modest, soft-spoken Latané is the only one who hesitates to acknowledge that he’s a master of his craft. The National Ornamental Metal Museum named him its 2013 Master Metalsmith, an honor that includes hosting a display of his work at its Memphis headquarters.
“Latané is the epitome of the artist blacksmith,” the museum’s executive director, Carissa Hussong, raves in the show’s catalog. “Whether it’s a common tool, an elaborate door knocker or a Gothic lockbox, the attention to detail and ornamentation transforms the everyday into a celebration of material, tradition and the unexpected.”
Latané and his wife, Catherine, a tinsmith, share a small shop in downtown Pepin, Wis. Her work space is in the main store — “the heated part” of the building, he says with a teasing smile — and his blacksmith shop, which he built, is attached to the back.
Customers browsing in the store are encouraged to go into his shop to watch him work, but in chilly weather they need to be warned that whatever heat is present comes entirely from the forge, which, despite its ultra-hot fire, doesn’t radiate much warmth into the room.
“On cold winter mornings, I have to line up my tools along the front of the forge to warm them up before I use them,” he said.
The main store also used to be their home. A pre-Depression-era bank, it was split into two rooms by a wall they built. One of the rooms combined a sales area with Catherine’s workshop, while the other served as a living room/bedroom/partial kitchen. The bathroom was in the basement, and to get there they had to go out the back door and down the cellar stairs.
“The Murphy bed still folds out of the wall,” Latané said, gesturing toward a wooden panel along one side of the room. They lived in the building for 14 years, but when their daughter, Frances, was born, “we decided that this wasn’t going to work anymore.” They moved to a house about a block away.
“I must walk back and forth to the house at least six times a day because I need something,” he said. “I could never have a job where I had to bring everything I need with me in the morning. I don’t know how people do that.”
One of the talents for which he’s earned a national reputation is forging keys for antique chests. Locked chests are shipped to him from all over the country and, through a blend of experience, patience and lots of trial and error as he shapes the teeth to mesh with the locking mechanism, he makes new keys that could pass for originals.
“I try to make it just like they did,” he said, a process that typically includes adding intricate artistic flourishes to the key head.
He believes in doing things the traditional way — meaning by hand. He has trouble hiding his displeasure when talking about fellow blacksmiths who saw a large ornamental hinge he’d made and assumed that he had used a laser saw to cut it out of sheet metal. He started with straight rods of iron and pounded them into the elaborate twists and curls.
“I’m amazed by blacksmiths who take shortcuts,” he said. “Why are you in this field if you’re not in love with the work?”
There is an electric grinder in his shop, but it’s off limits for his metal work.
“I would never use the grinder to shape anything,” he insisted. “I only use it to sharpen my tools,” many of which he made himself.
There are a couple of other things he does not do. One is shoe horses, “but I get asked that a lot,” he said. The other is engage in the Hollywood cliché, entrenched in old westerns, of the blacksmith plunging a red-hot piece of metal into a bucket of cold water to produce a cloud of steam.
“That’s the other thing I get asked a lot,” he said. “People want to see me do it, but I do it very, very rarely. Doing that affects the hardness of the metal. I prefer to let it air-cool.”
Q: What are the best parts of the job?
A: I enjoy designing things, and finishing a job is always satisfactory. But sometimes there are a lot of struggles in between.
Q: What do you do when you make a mistake?
A: Start over.
Q: What got you interested in this?
A: I grew up in Baltimore. When I was in junior high, we took a trip to Colonial Williamsburg, and I was fascinated by the men who were demonstrating blacksmithing. I went home and built a forge in our back yard. My dad wouldn’t let me use cement because he didn’t want it to be permanent, so I used mud between the bricks. It would fall apart in the winter, so every spring I had to rebuild it.
Q: What were your other youthful passions?
A: Art and woodworking. I also was very interested in glassblowing — I think there’s something about me and fire — but you can’t go home and do glassblowing in your back yard.
Q: Having grown up in Baltimore, how did you end up in this part of the country?
A: Kitty (Catherine) is from Minneapolis. She remembered Stillwater as being very beautiful — which it is. But it’s also very expensive. We just kept moving down the river until we found a place we could afford to live.
Q: What motivates you?
A: I’m always trying to do something that I haven’t done before. If something’s too easy, it’s not interesting.
Q: Do you ever encounter people who don’t appreciate your artistry?
A: I was bidding on a project to design doors for a church. It was an old Norwegian church, so I went with the Christian theme of fishing and designed the boats to look like classic Norwegian boats. When I didn’t get the job and asked why, they said, “We can’t have Viking ships here in Packer country.”