Councilman Forges Way Back to Solvang

Posted by on July 3rd, 2011

Bang! Hammer rings against steel. Bang! Another blow hits, this time sending molten slag streaking away from the hammer. Bang! In the glow of a forge, the hammer strikes now fall in rapid succession, taking an unassuming bar of steel and creating something more.

The man behind the anvil – hammer in hand – is Hans Duus; blacksmith, Solvang councilman and the owner of a new gallery in the Danish town. He continues to beat his hammer against the red-hot end of a steel bar held by his gloved hand at his shop in Buellton.

Sun trickles into the room, diffused high above by skylights, through seams in the corrugated siding and a red glow emanates from the roaring forge. Take away the gas line running to the forge, the modern vice, electric grinder and it would not be hard to picture a different place in history. Duus moves back to his forge and places the cooling steel back in the heat, using techniques passed down to him from generations of blacksmiths before.

Like many in their late teens, Duus took up his profession despite the protest of his mother, who had high hopes of the Ivy League. However, instead of attempting to make a living selling T-shirts outside of rock concerts or as an abstract performance artist, he tuned his rebellion into a career that has spanned decades.

“As far back as I can remember, I’ve been building things,” Duus says, now sitting in an office chair discussing the history of his business and what is next. Duus got his first anvil when he was 10, but it was a welding class in high school that solidified his love for metal work.

After deciding the typical offerings of summer jobs weren’t for him, he began to search for work doing what he loved. He eventually found that work with Old World Metal Craft, an erstwhile blacksmithing workshop in Solvang. He was trained in much the same way as blacksmiths have been trained for hundreds of years – through an apprenticeship with blacksmith Walter Christensen. Christensen himself had learned the trade as an apprentice in Europe during the 1930s and trained his apprentices in an old-world style.

“For the first two years, he didn’t let me touch a hammer; it was quite formal,” said Duus. “It was to see just how interested a young person is, if you can do hard work for little pay and keep interested.” It’s something that stuck with Duus and something he looks for in his own employees and students.

“I ask, why are you here? It’s not about the money, it’s about learning.” Learning and education are important to Duus, who teaches welding and metal work part-time at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria. He also sits on the advisory board for the college’s industrial technology department.

However, this doesn’t stop Duus from working hard at his own blacksmithing. He started the company that bares his name in 1982 and continues to work in his Buellton shop, hammering, shaping, designing and forging metallic creations.

He continued with a specialty he learned while working for Old World Metal Craft, decorative lighting, creating high-end pieces for grand homes and hotels. Duus said his focus is on producing quality products. “Things you only have to buy once,” he says. His new shop in Solvang offers handcrafted items that range from fireplace screens to weathervanes, along with his line of fixtures.

It’s hard to peg Duus down. He’s not an industrial blacksmith, he doesn’t work on ploughs or sharpen swords, but he isn’t strictly an artist, either. His work combines both creativity and function. He likes the Danish word “kunstsmed,” which roughly translates to artist-smith.

What really excites Duus is the large scale. Duus found a niche during the 1990s building boom in Las Vegas. “Vegas was fun,” he says reminiscing about his work at some of the big names on the strip, including the Monte Carlo, Luxor, Excalibur and Mandalay Bay.

“The biggest we ever did was a 32-foot chandler for the Aladdin,” he said.

The most complicated? That would be a project he worked on for the Wynn. He points to a picture of the creation. It looks like a collection of ornate light cages that might be at home on top of a Victorian street light, and it’s difficult to get a sense of scale until he mentions that his employees could stand up inside the housings.

The chandelier looks ridged in construction, but Duus said quite a lot of engineering work went into making it flexible. If the lamp really was solid, the vibrations in the large building could break it. Duus said in addition to being his most complicated project, it was also the most time-consuming.

With booms in real estate always come busts. When the global economic crisis slowed, it also slowed the demand for the furnishings in those buildings. Duus isn’t isolated from the impact but didn’t let it keep him from looking for new opportunities. “It allows you to get out of the box and ask, what opportunities have you walked away from when you were fat and going to the bank?”

For Duus, one of those opportunities – one he had been considering for a long time – was opening a show room locally. “It seems if you live in the Valley, you have to go to Santa Barbara or L.A. to get anything.”

Duus does cater to Southern California but his new gallery is focused on the Central Coast. “If you really want to see my work, you can come here,” he said.

The new gallery on Alisal in front of Tower Pizza is also something of a homecoming for the councilman. Duus said when he joined the Solvang City Council, one of his driving goals was economic development. With his new business, he now has a personal investment in the heart of downtown Solvang.

Duus is quick to point out that he isn’t opening his gallery as a good deed to the community, but because he thinks it makes good business sense. He adds that he brings elements of Iron Art and the Lamplighter – back to Solvang.

Again in his workshop, Duus takes the metal rod from the forge. The end, still glowing hot, has taken on the distinct look of a curving leaf. He carries it to a vice and twists, bringing the leaf perpendicular to the rest of the bar. Now bending, now grinding, he continues to work.

“Steel is thought of as a hard, cold, unmovable object. But take it to its plastic form and what it can do still fascinates me. You can bend, squeeze, pull, compress – you’re only limited by your imagination.”

This article was originally published on Jan. 13, 2011 in the Santa Ynez Valley Journal.