Anyone who lives in the towns dotted along the Delaware River could probably tell you about at least one experience in which they felt the soulful draw of the river. Life along the river brings all sorts of unlikely characters together. In Mark Twain’s Huck Finn the river serves as more than just a setting, it’s a viable character, and though the Delaware isn’t as mighty as the Mississippi, it’s a powerful current in the art and life in the Lehigh Valley.
Nineteen-year veteran blacksmith and Durham resident Wayne Apgar demonstrates what it’s like to be inspired by the river. When he began ‘smithing in 1997, his focus was primarily inspired by the storied woods in which he lives in Upper Bucks County, just one mile from the Delaware River. But Wayne also enjoys the challenges posed to him by his clients. “I’ve done ornate banisters for mansions as well as simple shepherd’s hooks for clients’ gardens.” Regardless of his subject, Wayne’s work is more than cold iron; his creations exude the warmth and influence of life lived along the river; it reflects the relationships and good fortune presented to him.
Growing up on a dairy farm in Hunterdon County, Wayne’s always been rather accustomed to the rhythm of the earth. As a teenager, he’d leave his bed before dawn to milk the cows up at his grandfather’s farm. It was during his time on the farm that Wayne first started welding and working with iron. Recently, while drinking coffee on an early afternoon in my living room, Wayne told me about a tractor that he and his father and a friend built out of a v-4 Wisconsin engine. After more than thirty years, he could still name the parts and tell me exactly how they made it (which included stretching tractor tires over car tires for the tracks). As I listened to Wayne tell the story, his voice expressed the wonder that young boy must have felt working alongside his father as they created something out of a bunch of old parts. That’s Wayne—he often tells a story that’s beyond words. His art expresses that story.
His formal experience as a blacksmith began when he introduced himself to Gerald Birsesch by walking into his shop in Kintnersville one day in 1997. He’d been driving past the shop for years, and one day, “with nothing to do,” as Wayne recalls. He pulled into the parking lot and pulled up a stool and watched Biresch forge iron for “several hours.” “Watching him change the shape of hot metal with a hammer and anvil was magical.”
After meeting Biresch, Wayne’s dream burned a little hotter. “I started reading books on blacksmithing and going to demos of local blacksmiths, and I knew I wanted to have my own shop,” Wayne writes on his website www.durhamforge.net. Finding the means to accrue the tools and equipment would have been quite a task if it weren’t for Wayne’s karma. He had an anvil—his grandfather’s that was used to maintain and repair farm equipment, but it wouldn’t do for intricate work. As if the river knew that one of its denizens was on the verge of bestowing a gift on the valley, it presented Wayne an opportunity. A friend of Wayne’s who lived along the Delaware, just south of Easton told Wayne about an abandoned blacksmith shop on the farm he was living. “Everything I needed was all in one place: forge, anvil, tongs, hammers, and other assorted blacksmith items. I decided to utilize the stone foundation under my three-car garage as my shop.” The convergence of these influences—the farm, the friend, the river, the abandoned shop—makes Wayne’s work even more powerfully kinetic.
Wayne’s approach to ‘smithing reflects the early influences of Biresch, and after him, Dr. Bob Becker. When I asked Wayne who his mentors are, he cites those men first but adds, “The way ‘smithing works is that you’re influenced by people, but those people are also shaped by mentors, so your work is shaped by years and years of talent and style.” As a smith, Wayne’s method is open to the spiritual possibilities that occur when forging metal with a coal-fueled fire. When Wayne is working with fire and iron, he’s communing with the ancients.
One of his most defining moments as a blacksmith came when he melded his love for music with his love for fire.
A kind of alchemy occurred when Wayne met a local bass player named Big Al in the summer of 1997. Wayne had just started ‘smithing full time, and the timing was perfect for a challenging project. After a few months of beers, cheese steaks, and cokes, at the open mic at the Raven’s Nest near Springtown, Apgar invited Big Al to his shop. Al reminded Wayne of the farm where working quietly alongside each other was the best way to stay close to the task and the earth. He felt a connection almost immediately to this gentle giant. After a few visits to Wayne’s shop, Durham Forge (located just outside of Riegelsville in Upper Bucks County), Big Al noticed a mild steel guitar silhouette that Wayne had forged and left hanging on the wall. It was then that he planted the seed that he and Wayne could create a playable, fretless, iron-forged bass.
It seemed a fitting project for two guys who preferred plying their craft rather than talking. But when Big Al died suddenly in 2002, the bass was largely unfinished. For Al’s memorial, Wayne brought the bass to display near the casket. He added a few features for the memorial, including the silicon bronze “A” that is still featured on the instrument, but it remained a rough sketch of the bass they’d both envisioned.
After Big Al’s death, it took Wayne a bit of time to figure out how to pay tribute to the largeness of his friend’s soul. Wayne wanted to finish the bass that Al had hoped to play, but after his passing, Wayne had difficulty envisioning it. Or maybe it wasn’t the envisioning. Maybe it was that once it was done, it was a part of the past and as Wayne tried to make sense of the present without his friend, it was just too much to consider putting something else in the past.
Like many smiths, Wayne’s tenacious, but he’s hip to the subtleties in life. He’s not afraid of a challenge, but he recognizes the elements are powerful forces. Forging unforgiving iron has taught him how hard it can be to finesse obstinate matter, and uses his craft as a metaphor for life in many ways. “Relationships aren’t always easy and when I make a connection, it’s usually one for life,” he tells me. Big Al and Wayne resembled Oscar and Felix in more ways than one, and though they were an odd couple the river brought these two kindred souls together. Even Big Al’s premature departure from the earth couldn’t separate these two.
Wayne joined his vision of the bass with the personality of Big Al, and the bass started to come together over many months. In October of 2014 he decided the bass was going to play by their birthday, January 31. He missed his deadline by one week.
It was a combined local effort that brought the mythic-looking instrument to life. The story of the bass conjures the history of the blacksmith but makes it unique to the river valley. Blacksmiths have always been the doers of the community, whether it was horseshoes, weaponry, repairs, or artisanal trinkets. People called on them to create. Wayne took the vision that Big Al inspired and brought the bass to life but wanted the project to be a product of the river valley in which he lives and works. The group of people pulled to the region by the beauty of the river valley converged and their various passions brought the project to fruition. With the help of local luthier Bill Mitchell of the Guitar Parlor in Riegelsville, the bass debuted with bassist Mitch Shelly at the open jam at the Riegelsville Tavern. Big Al G’s finished bass is comprised of mild steel, stainless steel, copper and silicon bronze. It measures 54 inches tall and weighs 16 pounds. It’s not as big as Big Al, but the passion that went into its creation certainly is.
Wayne currently teaches lessons in his shop at Durham Forge in Upper Bucks County. As one who knows, his lessons make great gifts! He also teaches at the Touchstone Center for the Arts in Farmington, Pennsylvania. To learn more about Wayne, please reference his website www.Durhamforge.net or look him up on the Facebook under “Wayne Apgar.”