Victor Andersen’s hands are large, powerful and often blackened by soot--testimony to the 46 years he has spent toiling away at a trade that has long been relegated to the stuff of Western folk legend.
Since his 12th birthday, Andersen has worked as a blacksmith. And now, at 58, he is believed to be one of only a handful of remaining full-time blacksmiths living in the county.
“I was born into it,” said Andersen, a second-generation smith who learned the trade by watching his father. “He learned the trade in the old country--Denmark.”
At work in his garage on South C Street, wearing steel-toe boots, blue work clothes, leather gloves and a skullcap, Andersen talked about his trade and explained to a visitor how he has found his niche in a high-tech world of computers and mass production.
He makes his living, he said, fashioning from iron the items or replacement parts that people cannot find elsewhere.
Lack of customers “has never been a problem. I turn down business all the time. You don’t have all the time sometimes, but I can take care of my regular customers.”
Still, the Colorado native said technological advances in farming and machine-manufactured tools have made him one of a dying breed. Many smiths have turned to specialty work such as welding, and few people have the time--much less the desire--to apprentice.
“It takes a while to learn a lot of different things, and people today don’t want to learn it all,” he said. However, he said there will always be a place for blacksmiths because manufacturers don’t make the more obscure parts people sometimes need.
As Anderson spoke, he rarely stayed in one spot for more than a few minutes, scurrying back and forth down narrow paths that crisscrossed through huge piles of metal scrap, boxes and iron-working machines.
“Too much stuff in here right now,” he muttered. “I had a good path through here.”
After grinding a shard of metal, spraying the floor with sparks, he walked to a squat furnace that sat glowing yellow-orange in the center of the garage. He pulled the end of a 6-foot iron bar out and slipped it into a low trough of cool black liquid, which erupted with thick white smoke and yellow flames.
“Fish oil. That’s why it smells so good,” he said.
For all the years he has run the shop, Andersen has worked alone, which he prefers.
“I don’t like hired help. With them, you gotta make sure they do it right. My boy worked for me a little. Then he wanted to go to a garage. There’s more action in a garage for a young fellow.”
Clearly, Andersen loves the work. “I don’t look forward to retirement. I really don’t. (The job) is something different all the time.” he said.
Last year, for example, he made a mobile barbecue that was big enough to cook a 600-pound steer. Before that, he made a five-handled shovel for a groundbreaking ceremony at a construction site in Placerville.
“The City Council, the property owner, they were all kind of fighting over” who would dig the ceremonial first shovelful of earth, he explained.
His more routine jobs include making a basketball post, backboard and hoop for a local church and fixing an exercise machine.
Longtime customer Ed Hansen, a Tustin resident, stopped by on a recent afternoon to order some decorative but sturdy iron brackets for his carport. Like many customers, he stayed to chat with Andersen, who had unsnapped his black plastic lunch pail and pulled out a sandwich and potato chips.
Nodding to all the ancient tools and wrought-iron scraps crammed in the garage, Hansen, a 47-year-old carpenter, said: “You can’t find this at Ace Hardware. This is--what would you call it?--something stopped in time. This doesn’t change.”
Hansen should know, he went to grade school across the street from Andersen’s shop 30 years ago.
Asked if he had ever considered changing jobs, Andersen answered that he never wanted to do anything else.
“It never entered my mind. If you got a pretty good trade, why throw it out? I’ve never been the type to get tired of it and need the change.”