Martin Gabbert stares at the piece on his anvil, a small red-hot bar of metal with a ball at the end. With a breath, Gabbert begins striking the bar with a steady rhythm, not the great swings that are seen in a movie, but small precise blows. With each blow, the bar gets smoother and rounder. The piece that Gabbert is making is not tool, but a hook, a simple yet beautiful hook for anything from a jacket to keys. Martin Gabbert, now retired, is now
a hobbyist blacksmith, a job that has been made almost completely obsolete.
As time goes on and technology improves, whole professions become obsolete. This has been the way of the world for centuries, especially in the 20th and 21st Centuries, as jobs that were once done by hand are now done by machines. An NPR story pointed out that this was seen in industries as diverse as lectors who read newspapers to factory works and were later replaced by radios and MP3 players to switchboard operators who routed phone calls.
What do people do when their entire career has become obsolete? For some, it is time to move on, go back to college or vocational school or start over. For the older generation, it may be time to retire and rest, or maybe even continue their craft out of their home or workshop, since it is what they love to do. It is what they will do until the day they die.
In Eugene’s Trainsong neighborhood, there are two men with very different backgrounds, yet both are artist in obsolete and dying art forms. Bob Giles and Martin Gabbert are both retired and are both artisans of old arts.
There is Bob Giles, a third generation typesetter, who currently runs BnS letterpress in a shed behind his home in Trainsong. Giles, who was around printing and typesetting all his life, started out as an apprentice in at the Corvallis Gazette-Times when he was 12-years-old running a machine spitting out 300 degree lines of type that would later become the words on the many pages of the Gazette-Times.
Gabbert, on the other hand, didn’t start smithing until he was in his 50s. Now 72 and retired, Gabbert began smithing as a hobby to unwind after work. While Gabbert is a newer smith, he still has 20 years experience and a respect for the old tools of the trade.
Gabbert came to smithing because he fell in love with the feel of steel and the artistic possibilities were almost endless. Gabbert takes simple pieces of metal and shapes them into life-like roses and vines that twist and wrap around base structures as if they have grown. Working metal is an art that dates back to the earliest days of civilization.
Typesetting is the art of forming words and lines of type with molds and hot lead. In the past, most typesetters worked for newspapers and anything else that needed to be printed went through a typesetter.
Bob Giles, having started his apprenticeship in the early 1960s, is one of the last generations to have been trained primarily with the old style of typesetting and living and adapting through all of the new forms of typesetting. “Everyone of the generation that trained me is dead, and my generation will be gone soon,” Giles said lamenting the end of 20th Century typesetting.
Giles, now retired, does small jobs in the backyard press he has set up in a shed at his home in Trainsong. The shed is a museum to 20th Century printing with many different type machines and presses. The walls are lined with cases of type. Unlike today, where access to many different typefaces and font sizes is just a click away, one typeface plus three font sizes can take up a floor to ceiling California cabinet. Giles’ hand slide along the drawers of one such cabinet. Barely looking, he opens a drawer and begins pulling out molds of different letters, arranging them quickly and with precession that shows a deep connection between him and what he is doing.
While Giles’ skill impresses, he does not feel that he is a master. “I make too many dumb mistakes,” he said pointing to an out of commission Linotype machine that was broken by one such mistake. With only one mechanic left in the country that can fix a Linotype machine it seems that the machine will remain broken for a while.
Giles continues to place the letters into a form then places the form into a Ludlow machine that makes a lead line of type the can later be used on his press for anything from a newspaper spread to a flyer.
It all started with a class and Gabbert was hooked. He had never really worked with metal before. While his grandfather was a master smith, Gabbert never had time to learn from him. Then Gabbert began to apprentice under his instructor. It was not an intense apprenticeship. It was more a series of classes that were centered on technique and around a central project. Then Gabbert began to collect tools. He began to buy second had tools and repair them. “This vice was completely destroyed, [the leg] was bent into a U shape,” Gabbert said pointing to a vice that looked used but in great condition.
Gabbert’s garage, like Giles’ shed, is a museum. Vintage car signs decorate the wall, with two forges set-up along one side. A classic coal forge that can heat metal to the point where it can be forge welded to another piece of metal dominates the room. It is large and takes time to heat up. Next to it is a modern propane forge that Gabbert uses more often now. It is faster and more constant temperature. It glows red, until Gabbert plunges a piece of metal into it then green flames jump from a small vent in the side as bits of slag are vaporized. Gabbert waits, tongs in hand, until the metal reaches an optimal temperature. He removes is quickly and smoothly and begins hammering.
Giles has lived and worked through the radical evolution that typesetting has gone through
in the last 50 years. When he began, the typesetter unions and guilds ruled the industry making sure that the newspapers of the country were run with unionized shops. A union printer at that time was able to go to almost any shop and find work as a substitute printer or even full time work. This is what Giles did when he first moved to Eugene, working most of the year for the Register-Guard. He remembers “tramp printers” who would spend their time going from shop to shop living on the road. Yet, as technology changed and began to threaten jobs, the unions considered going on strike. The problem was that the technology that was threatening jobs was also much easier to maintain and operate and didn’t require the level of skill that many of these typesetters who were going on strike. “A lot of very skilled people lost their jobs in those strikes,” Giles said. Giles, who was still young, was able to adapt to the newer tech and the Mac Pro desktop that sits on a desk in the corner of his shop show that he still is doing the 21st Century style of typesetting along with manual typesetting.
Smithing has been around almost as long as people have used iron and then steel. The original process was placing ingots of iron into white-hot coals and then beating it with a hammer, shaping it and folding it into itself. The main purpose of smithing was to make tools, horseshoes, and the occasional decoration. Other than casting, smithing was the only way shape metal until the invention of welding. Today, the main purpose of smithing is artistic with occasional objects like horseshoes coming out better if smithed.
Smithing is a dying art if it is not already be considered dead. With the loss of apprentices and newer more efficient ways of working with metal, the act of heating, striking and shaping metal may be at a close. Gabbert may be one of the last of his kind.
The same may be true for Giles. There is a melancholy to Bob Giles’ work. He knows he is the last of a line, “None of my kids caught the bug [for typesetting],” Giles said not knowing what will become of his collection of presses and type machines. The sun is setting on the era of manual typesetting. It lives on with hobbyists and old professionals like Giles, but it to may have pressed its last note.