By Lisa Truesdale
Hephaestus was a pretty important guy in Ancient Greek mythology. When he wasn’t lounging around on his throne atop Mount Olympus, he was toiling away in his volcanic workshop beneath Mount Etna. As “god of the forge and the master of fire,” he was a hardworking blacksmith, handcrafting custom metalwork for the other gods, such as thrones, tools, swords and suits of armor, and it’s rumored he helped forge Zeus’ legendary thunderbolts.
Throughout civilization, blacksmiths played a crucial role in society. Many villages had that one person with an almost god-like power to forge just about anything from iron and other metals. They were relied upon for things like weapons, horseshoes, farm equipment and, much later, nails for construction. Then along came advancements in technology and manufacturing, and by the turn of the 20th century, these master craftsmen were no longer being commissioned at such a steady clip. Blacksmithing—just like sewing, weaving, leatherworking and candle-making—eventually became more of a hobby than a profession.
Although it’s difficult to know how many professional blacksmiths there still are in the world today, it’s easy to find two of them right here in Boulder. The current co-owners of McLean Forge and Welding, Ray Tuomey and Paul Szlyk, maintain that not only is blacksmithing still an in-demand job, it’s one they truly love. They’re dedicated to keeping the master craft alive while also helping to beautify homes and businesses with their handcrafted railings, gates, security doors, sculptures and other custom metal pieces.
Tuomey first used McLean’s services back when he was working at a solar company and needed awning brackets and other fabricated metal parts. He became friends with Szlyk, a trained blacksmith who had worked at the shop, and as Tuomey became more interested in the forging process, Szlyk taught Tuomey some essential skills. Tuomey already had an impressive art background—majoring in art and art history in college, and maintaining an artsy side business called Rejas Designs—so he was a quick study.
When the two discovered that then-owner Barrie McLean was thinking about retiring after more than 30 years, they decided to form a partnership and buy the business from him. Tuomey and Szlyk took over in January 2017, keeping both the name and, as Tuomey says, “the spirit of the place.”
Old World, Not Old School
While Szlyk manages the bustling workshop and performs much of the hands-on work with a staff of six, Tuomey maintains the front office, the books and the shop’s legendary personalized customer service, while also offering design inspiration on new projects. “I’m the face of the business, and I also enjoy using my creative skills,” he says. “Paul is the brains behind the complicated math and artistry of our craft.”
McLean’s specialty is railings that blend function and design, or at least that’s what they make the most of, says Tuomey. “We also make a lot of security doors and gates, and we take on small welding projects. We’re able to repair metal tools, equipment, gates and furniture that would otherwise be sent to the landfill.”
Although a few general contractors and interior designers regularly refer clients to McLean, most of its customers come by word of mouth, or simply by chance. Tuomey tells the story of a man who stopped by the shop to schedule a repair of the nail clippers he uses on his llama. “When he saw the other types of work we could do, he ended up commissioning several custom pieces for his home.”
Tuomey and Szlyk agree that education is the most important component of keeping the master craft of blacksmithing alive. They’re both still learning as they go—“Sometimes, we have to first make a special tool for a job before we can even start the job,” Szlyk explains, and they continue to educate others whenever possible.
“Ray and I co-create with our clients,” Szlyk says. “Most people have a basic idea in mind, and we work closely with them to come up with something that incorporates any existing fixtures and matches the age of their home and their personal style.” Through it all, they’ll happily answer any questions about the trade that a customer might have, just like the many questions Tuomey asked (and Szlyk answered) back when Tuomey was a customer.
“The hands-on artistic work that we do at McLean is not high-tech, but it’s Old World and it’s ageless,” Tuomey says. “We refer to it as ‘analog beauty in a digital world.’”
Tools & Terms of the Trade
Here are a few words you might hear if you hang around McLean Forge and Welding.
Anvil A large block of metal with a flattened top surface upon which another object is struck.
Baluster/Picket/Spindle A pillar or column, often decorative in design, in a series supporting a rail.
Balustrade A handrail/railing supported by a series of balusters.
Forge A type of hearth used for heating metals to be forged, or the workplace where such a hearth is located.
Forging The process of working metal into a desired shape.
Lamb’s Tongue The decorative curved end of a railing.
Newell Post The central supporting pillar of a staircase.
Powder Coating A finish coat that is applied as a free-flowing dried powder and then cured under heat.
Quenching The process of quickly bringing heated metal back to room temperature to prevent a longer cooling process from changing the metal’s structure.