A short science lesson…
Every little spark in the night sky is working toward generating iron, and they’ll die violently for the effort. Iron –allofit–comestousfromlong- dead stars that spent their lives fusing hydrogen into heavier elements until producing that iron, which can’t give off enough energy to counteract the gravity of a star. Forming iron is about the last thing any star does; after that, it swiftly collapses through its own gravity well and explodes as a supernova, spectacularly seeding the universe with the iron it made.
It’s somehow comforting to know that from that chaos, Duncan Stephenson forms this raw material into exquisite knives, jewelry and works of art. Duncan is an unassuming 25-year-old, gauged and tatted. White scars – signs of his trade – criss-cross his hands. Jeb Jeb, an energetic dalmatian/chow mix, is never far from his side. With partner, Luke Rayson, Duncan runs Horn & Heel metal smiths, producing custom crafts of steel, copper, silver and gold. Horn & Heel – named for the respective ends of an anvil – specializes in knives and blades.
“I saw an old trench knife at a gun and knife show,” Duncan recalls, explaining how he first became interested in blades. “I wanted one. I realized I could make it.”
He presents a number of sooty knives, freshly forged and ready for wooden handles to be riveted to the hilts. Duncan is both fiercely proud of his work and critical of the output. “I’m very conscious of the utility of the finished product. I want it used. When I make something, I always see what I can do better. Every great piece was due to lots of failures. You learn from your mistakes.” He fingers a cache of discarded rings and jewelry in a small wooden box.
Duncan has learned his lessons well. The precision and craftsmanship poured into his art are unmistakable. Planning and drawing the knife is only the beginning. He spends hours heating and shaping steel bars, often evaluating and reworking a piece while still glowing hot. Duncan describes the fabrication of each knife as intuitive based on how it looks and feels, the weight and the balance. Then there’s the nerve- wracking quenching process, during which the blade is cooled in oil or water to harden it. If not careful, quenching will change the shape of the tool so meticulously crafted. From there, the artist will select wood, fit handle to hilt, and drive through metal rivets, often scrawling elaborate shapes into the wood for the new owner.
“I see metal differently. I see the care and craft. When I go to the art museum, I’m the one always inspecting the frame.” Duncan’s breath rises on the crisp December night. Jeb Jeb gnaws a stick in Horn & Heel’s backyard-cum-metal shop. A small shed smelling of smoke occupies one corner. Strewn across a work table are all manner of pliers, clamps and hammers. Beyond, dry leaves blow about the base of an anvil and small furnace. Duncan casually pushes a steel bar against a grinder, showering his boots in orange sparks, mimicking the distant iron factories, shining though the bare branches far above his head.