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Businessman finds joy, focus in his blacksmithing shop

Steve McGrew’s devotion to blacksmithing is evident in this meticulous gate, which he built for his pool. (Dan Pelle)
Steve McGrew’s devotion to blacksmithing is evident in this meticulous gate, which he built for his pool. (Dan Pelle)

Eclectic is one way to describe Steve McGrew’s interests. He runs two companies, but his interests include geology, robotics, lasers, optics, genetics and snowboarding.

But like many guys who reach their 60s, McGrew has fallen into one major sideline and passion. For him that’s blacksmithing.

Since 1991 he’s owned and run a business in Airway Heights that researches and creates cutting-edge holographic printing systems. The company has six workers and also does special-order equipment manufacturing, including holograms used by companies that need a way to prevent counterfeits or knock-offs of key products.

Still, New Light is his day job. His more energetic focus is his blacksmith’s shop, where McGrew spends many evenings and weekends.

Asked why it’s so addictive, McGrew doesn’t hesitate. “When I’m forging, it takes all my attention. When I’m working the forge, it makes me use everything I know and have. I love it. It’s flow.”

Several years ago he started a business, Incandescent Ironworks. He teaches classes on blacksmithing and generally makes custom-ordered pieces. The business is a one-man shop, and McGrew says it’s close to actually making money.

McGrew fell into metalworking after taking a trip to China nine years ago with his wife, Sharon, and son, Ben.

Ben saw a sword and asked his dad to buy it. McGrew told his son they didn’t have room to take one home, but that he’d make one himself. “I had no idea how to make one,” McGrew said.

Instead of shaping the metal through forging, McGrew bought a piece of steel and shaped it by file over a period of three weeks. Three files and three pairs of gloves later, the sword was made.

After that McGrew acquired a welder and started reading and paying visits to regional artisans who offered sessions for would-be blacksmiths. He soon had his first forge, and from that point he was committed.

He doesn’t plan to make it a full-time job. “I am an ‘artist-blacksmith,’ and I enjoy doing projects that require me to develop new techniques.  Hopefully I’ll never do a production run of more than about a dozen of one item,” he said.

McGrew is probably among a handful of similarly minded serious semi-amateur blacksmiths in the Spokane area. If you search online for professional blacksmiths around Spokane, the listings don’t produce any names.

The closest one, at least in recent years, worked in Kettle Falls, McGrew said.

In addition to offering classes, McGrew has hopes of helping area artisans start a blacksmithing collective.

He said he’s not ready to direct that project, but he’ll help make it happen and encourage it.

“It would be a place for people to come, share ideas and learn from one another,” he said, noting he’s heard of a similar blacksmithing co-op in Seattle.

To make it happen, someone will have to find a suitable building in the center of town. McGrew would donate some tools and contribute time to help teach classes and serve as a mentor.

People who know McGrew well typically pay a visit to his smithy. Some, like retired Eastern Washington University biology professor Don Lightfoot, stick around and become regulars.

After retiring a few years ago Lightfoot took one of McGrew’s weekend classes. “That class was great. Steve’s a good and very clear teacher,” Lightfoot said.

He’s made a variety of metal pieces, including a salmon-shaped metal sheet that serves as a strikingly original serving plate for fish.

“I had to use a spring punch to make the scales (on the steel plate). It took me four days to do it,” he said.

Another regular is Larry Schultz, who found McGrew’s work through the Web. Wanting to make a knife, Schultz donated a large collection of iron cable and asked Steve to help him get started.

Schultz, a goldsmith with Teneff Jewelry in downtown Spokane, now makes weekly visits to the McGrew workshop.

“I really enjoy it,” he said. “Working with metal is a challenge. It pushes me into achieving a certain level of accomplishment that I find satisfying.”

Like Schultz, McGrew prefers to learn skills by tackling something new. His current project is making a Canary knife, a rustic design with distinctive handle decorations.

McGrew said he’s also moving in the direction of doing furniture and architectural ironwork like ladders, gates and railings.

One of his proudest productions is a sculptural piece called “Dandelion,” which McGrew donated to the earthquake museum in Chengdu, China. It was inspired by hearing a poem written by a Chinese poet affected by the deadly 2008 Chinese earthquake.

The piece became a silver and steel construction representing a dandelion emerging from a cracked boulder. The year of the quake McGrew traveled to Sichuan province and donated the piece to the museum in person.

To create the flower, McGrew welded old bicycle brake cable to look like seeds. He frayed the ends of the seeds, creating the appearance of tiny metal parachutes.

One of the small metallic seeds is pulling away from the rest, creating the impression of being a second away from blowing away in the wind.