Bigfork blacksmith Jeffrey Funk is working to keep his trade’s ancient skills alive, and working on a plan for the 28,000 pounds of Old Steel Bridge in his backyard
Story by Myers Reece | Photography by Greg LindstromGive blacksmith Jeffrey Funk a piece of scrap steel, and he’ll give you back a hammer. Give him a pile of scraps, and he’ll give you back a decorative gate. Give him a 19th century bridge, and he’ll have to think about it. After all, 14 tons of wrought iron is a lot.
In April, Funk and a crew disassembled the Old Steel Bridge and transported its 28,000 pounds to his Bigfork property. The bridge had spanned the Flathead River east of Kalispell since 1894 until it was decommissioned in 2008, after which it sat unused on the riverbank until Funk claimed it. He has analyzed and organized the disparate parts into piles outside his home and workshop. He marvels at the potential they hold. He just needs a little more time to figure out exactly what to do with it all.
“They don’t make wrought iron like that anymore,” he said recently at his shop.
Funk means that literally. Wrought iron is no longer commercially produced, meaning its admirers in the blacksmith community like Funk take it where they can find it. But they don’t usually find 28,000 pounds. The material is a far purer form of iron than modern steel, which has a significantly higher carbon content. A close look reveals a grainy texture that Funk likens to “bone marrow.” It’s attractive, malleable and increasingly rare.
“It’s fundamentally different than steel,” he said. “I love it, especially for architecture. I call it the old growth of iron.”
“I’d pay $5 a pound for it compared to $1 a pound for steel any day,” he added.
Whether it’s steel or wrought iron or bronze, Funk knows how to transform it into something lovely. Since launching his blacksmith career in 1977, his reputation as a metal magician has grown to the point where he’s almost too busy for his own good, even with employees. He recently wrapped up a series of gates for an out-of-state client that took one-and-a-half years. Awaiting him when he finished was a long list of new projects, including a burgeoning endeavor into agricultural tools and, of course, those 14 tons of bridge in his backyard.
“I’m just trying to catch my breath,” he said, right before showing two visitors a labor-intensive line of hoes and axes he’s actively pursuing. The term “catch my breath” seemed more like a conversational piece than an actual intention to rest.
But it’s that kind of breathless fascination with blacksmithing, born of endless curiosity rather than professional ambitions, that initially launched him into the field and has driven his work ever since. After learning to weld as a teenager, Funk became enamored with the idea of heating metal and shaping it. That simple, primitive impulse led him to the somewhat abrupt decision to become a blacksmith. With no training, at age 18, he bought an anvil and couple of hammers.
“I actually made my first tongs,” he said.
Since then, Funk has made many more of the apparatuses in his shop, including the propane-heated forge that all his creations pass through during their transformation. Also, he and his wife are avid gardeners, operating what amounts to a small farm on their property, and he crafts their agricultural tools in his shop. An advocate of sustainable lifestyles, Funk even made a bicycle-powered thresher to separate their homegrown grain from its stalks.
Unlike casting, where metal alloys are heated beyond their melting point into a liquid state and then poured into molds, blacksmiths use the process of forging, by which alloys are pounded and hammered into shape while still in their solid form, generally after being heated to make them more malleable.
“Casting to me is not nearly as interesting as forging,” Funk said. “With casting, you have a mold. With forging, it’s constant transformation.”
Throughout Funk’s spacious, warehouse-like shop are all sorts of tools and machines to pound, bend, punch holes, meld, and generally manipulate metal: hammers, clamps, tongs, anvils, welders, grinders. To an outsider, holding a glowing-hot chunk of steel with tongs over an anvil and smacking it with a hammer seems like brute work, but to him it’s a delicate process of metamorphosis, every bit as nuanced and subtle as a painter with a brush, just a lot louder.
When he’s speaking, Funk at times sounds as much like a geologist and chemist as an artist and craftsman. Terms like ferrous metallurgy roll off his tongue as casually as the carbon ratios of varying alloys. Wrought iron really brings the scientist out in him. Not everybody can grasp the specific wonder of wrought iron’s chemical composition, but anybody can appreciate Funk’s enthusiasm for it.
Still, the artist in him holds more sway than the scientist. Case in point: he’s not that interested in cataloguing data such as temperature.
“I don’t think in terms of temperature; I think in terms of color,” he said. “I calibrate by feel, not an objective measure.”
At other times, Funk alternately channels his inner historian and futurist philosopher, imagining a theoretical post-industrial world where blacksmithing skills are as vital as they were prior to the Industrial Revolution. He actually teaches a course at Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina on post-industrial blacksmithing, in addition to other blacksmithing workshops across the country.
“The world is changing and skills are getting lost so fast,” he said. “You can just buy everything now. People don’t think about making tools or making anything. But somebody has to know how to make this stuff. I don’t want those skills to be lost.”
Funk appreciates that wrought iron is more malleable than steel, and he’s also fond of its durability. Even though the Old Steel Bridge no longer met modern transportation requirements, Funk said it was still structurally sound after more than a century in use. The only part of the bridge in noteworthy deterioration, he said, was the foundation, which consisted of steel beams filled with concrete. He inspected every nook and cranny down to the last joint.
“You can see superficial rust on it,” Funk said, “but there’s no serious rust.”
He has precedent working with bridges. In the mid-1990s, he acquired the Swan River’s old Kearney Rapids Bridge, part of which he used as foundational infrastructure for his high-roofed shop. He said the Old Steel’s wrought iron could be used in any number of architectural undertakings, as well as niche projects like Damascus knives.
Funk is largely known for his architectural work, including gates, lighting fixtures, railings, fences, door hinges, fire screens, and more. He’s also adept in sculpture. The metal trout in both Kalispell’s Depot Park and Missoula’s Caras Park are notable examples, and he’s constructed multiple 30-foot-tall Aeolian harps, which are whimsical instruments played by the wind. He makes the harps’ copper wires on another homemade pedal-powered contraption that sends wire through copper lining as he rides an old-school Schwinn bike.
But now his attention is shifting micro, specifically to agrarian tools such as hoes and axes. The agrarian tools would be a significant career divergence if pursued in earnest. Funk would be stepping out of the realm of fine artistry and into utilitarian craftsmanship, which he says will require expanding his business knowledge. He’s still undecided on whether to fully take the plunge or simply dip his toes in the tool trade, but if the rest of his career is any indication, it’s easy to guess which way he’s leaning.
“I’m right on the edge of making that commitment, but I think the dye’s probably already cast because, basically, I follow my passion,” he said. “I’d like to fit into the economy a little differently.”
Funk will find a way to fit. If he can build a career from an impulse and an anvil, nobody should doubt whether he can make this impulse work, too. It’s trial by fire, and there’s not much he can’t forge with a fire.