DARBY – The sound of a metal hammer clanging against a piece of white-hot iron on an anvil echoes through the intense heat of Darby blacksmith Dave Harper’s shop. Sparks fly to the floor, and a fiery forge blazes a few feet away.
He only has a few precious seconds to accomplish what he wants to do. As the metal slowly cools, it becomes less malleable, so Harper finally puts on his face shield and sticks it back in the 2,000-degree flames. Then he waits.
“Being a blacksmith is sort of similar to the stories you hear about law enforcement in a way,” he explains. “It’s a lot of sitting around waiting, with short bursts of a lot of activity where you have to do 10 things at once. That’s why I try to find things to keep myself busy while I wait for it to heat back up again.”
With that, he moves quickly to another project.
Harper, a lifelong South Valley resident and 1979 graduate of Darby High School, owns and operates Longstory Studio on Longstory Lane, about 7/10 of a mile up Tin Cup Road from Highway 93 south of Darby.
“The name is a long story,” he explains with a sly smile. “But the short answer is it came from an odd-looking desk I built.”
Using homemade tools and the forge, Harper hammers, cuts, bends, shapes, twists and folds recycled metal to make art pieces, custom furniture, range hoods, signs, railings, gates, tools and other miscellaneous projects. His shop is decorated with a full-size metal rooster, metal pinecones and metal trees with old bike chains as the pine needles.
He worked as a welder as a kid, and taught himself the craft of blacksmithing because he loved to collect old wheelwright and blacksmith tools. He has antique tools for repairing wagons and wagon wheels, and his blacksmithing methods are similar to how it was done in the 19th century.
Harper has a weakness for scrap metal. He uses old boilers, grain silos, car parts, wagon wheels and any other scrap he can find.
“I saw a truck going through town the other day with a pile of metal on the back, and he stopped at a red light, and I was just tempted to stop him right there and make him an offer,” he said.
Harper and his wife travel to different states, visiting ghost towns and claiming treasure that would normally be viewed as trash.
“That’s the problem with being a blacksmith,” he says, holding up a small, jagged piece of iron that he picked up from his shop floor. “Most people would look at this and just think it’s not even worth the effort of throwing away. But to me, it’s valuable. I can use this. I have to keep it for something.”
Harper, who also has a background in woodworking and taxidermy, used scrap wood to build a false facade on the front of his shop that resembles a beautiful, restored ghost town.
“I probably wouldn’t do it again, because of how much time it took, but I’m glad I did it,” he said. “I wanted to have my shop in downtown Darby, but location also means money, so I decided that if we were gonna have the shop in the backyard, it’s at least gonna have some character.”
Harper said that there are hundreds of blacksmiths in Montana, but it’s a slowly fading art. There are ways to cut metal with precision lasers, but he still prefers the old-fashioned way and a lot of elbow grease.
“I’m not really what you would call technologically savvy,” he said. “If I need something, I just make it.”
Reach reporter David Erickson at 363-3300 or email@example.com.