Nol Putnam is pictured with his latest work in progress: a
nine-foot tree sculpture bound for display on the deck of a
Past open fields and rambling houses set high on a ridge, past horse fences and cattle silhouetted against the misty Blue Ridge Mountains, a visitor turns onto a dirt road, slowing down in the approach to White Oak Forge.
A tall, welcoming figure strides through the forge’s high wood doors. Proprietor and blacksmith Nol Putnam extends a sturdy hand, etched and blackened from 25 years of coaxing metals into some of the most captivating decorative ironwork in the region and beyond. Putnam’s work adorns public institutions and private residences. For the Washington National Cathedral, he designed and crafted gates of breathtaking beauty, scale and detail. He has produced a formal Rococo-style staircase for a private art gallery in a home in Rhode Island; a minimalist forged-brass driveway gate for a Rockefeller estate near Tarrytown, New York; and a spiraling outdoor sculpture for a private garden in Gettysburg. With fire, hammers and primitive tools, Putnam creates works of elegance, delicacy, even whimsy. His small pieces—pierced ecclesiastical spice boxes, swirling salamander door handles, forged-metal vases filled with wispy grasses—also demonstrate his versatility in shaping rigid metal into lively, useful forms.
Putnam’s current project, a nine-foot-tall sculptural tree, lies partially completed on a workbench in his forge in Rappahannock County, Virginia. The object’s spidery branches and curling leaves extend into space with such energy and force that it seems ready to straighten up and magically connect to its tree-trunk base resting on the floor. Once the piece is finished with small creatures and a light, it is destined to command the center of attention on the deck of a suburban Maryland home.
“I’ve never done anything like it,” Putnam says, his clear eyes sparkling with delight. “Each job is different. Each has it own set of problems.” He relishes new challenges. From initial sketch to finished metal, Putnam works entirely by himself, almost exclusively on commission and on his own schedule. A self-taught blacksmith, Putnam won his first major commission in 1982. When an architect asked if he could do a curving stair rail for a new house in McLean, he replied “sure” and spent many sleepless nights figuring it out. Because of structural complications on site, he discovered another “big nightmare” with installation—the only job where he had to forge a piece indoors. Ten years later, Putnam installed the third of his gate designs for Washington National Cathedral’s columbarium. The exquisite Folger Memorial Gate explodes on two sides with 84 forged-metal blossoms. Rivets holding the crossbars together are all decorative and varied: one depicts Yoda from Star Wars.
“It had to be consistent with what was there, but also with the time we were doing it,” Putnam explains. His design was inspired by the Gothic-style cathedral and its majestic grilles and gates, designed and executed by Samuel Yellin, America’s 20th-century giant of ornamental ironwork, in the classical European tradition.
These days, Putnam is developing minimal sculptures still in maquette form. One is shaped to suggest an elongated figure, another the wind. Both, he says, “are intended to explore a line in space using blacksmithing techniques.” Whether his designs are representational or abstract, he adds, “I don’t try to mimic; I try to suggest with hot-forged ironwork.” The word iron is used loosely, since wrought iron, a fibrous material closest to pure iron, is no longer commercially available. Like most blacksmiths today, Putnam works mainly with mild steel, an alloy of iron and carbon. It comes in different grades, some for small objects, others to support greater loads.
Demonstrating the process, Putnam picks up a steel rod, places it between tongs, and moves to the fire. As the flaming coals turn from bright orange to yellow heat—indicating a temperature of 2,100 degrees—the metal becomes pliable. He then places the glowing metal rod between forging dies of an air hammer, turning, flattening and shaping it to the desired size. With rods of smaller dimensions, he forges by hand with a hammer on an anvil, a 3,000-year-old process.
Tools of the trade line walls and cabinet drawers at the forge. “I probably have 10,000 tools,” says Putnam. “Every job requires new ones. You can’t go down to the corner hardware store and buy these anymore.”
Before becoming a blacksmith, Putnam taught high school for 14 years in the Berkshire Mountains. As chairman of the history department, he bought books for the library. One, The Art of Blacksmithing, became his first instruction book. Since then he has taught hundreds of others at blacksmithing workshops from Richmond to Colorado. He has received awards from the Virginia Society of Architects and Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art and Architecture. His philosophy remains: “Iron should be beautiful, while unobtrusive and functional. It should lift your spirits. So much iron we see is clunky and heavy, with too much shiny paint. It takes time to show how delicate the work can be, yet still strong.” Wearing jeans and a work shirt, his hair graying as if seared by the burning coals, Putnam remains youthfully curious. He observes, “I’ve learned on the job. It has taken 35 years, and I’m still learning.”
Writer Tina Coplan is based in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
Nol Putnam’s work is available at Caulfield Gallery in Washington, Virginia. He can be reached at White Oak Forge LLC; phone (540) 636-4545. Putnam is scheduled to speak at Washington National Cathedral on May 10 at 10 a.m. His lecture is titled “Forged by Fire: Flora, Fauna, and Fantasy in Wrought Iron.” For details, phone (202) 537-6200.
The self-taught blacksmith imparts delicacy and beauty
on large commissions such as a stairway in McLean.
A small, whimsical ecclesiastical spice box.
The Brown Memorial Gate is one of three gates Putnam
created for the Washington National Cathedral’s columbarium.