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Sandau to give blacksmithing demonstrations

By Carol Stender

Date Modified: 10/07/2013 7:19 AM

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MADISON, Minn. — Some called Gene Sandau goofy when he started his blacksmithing hobby. They told the Madison policeman there weren't plows to sharpen any more.

It didn't deter him from making iron creations that have brought customers from across the country to the west central Minnesota.

Everything he makes — from the benches, tree guards and metal grates for the town's bank, church and cemetery signs, wildlife pictures and urns —is custom ordered and designed.

During "The Meander," the Upper Minnesota River Art Crawl Oct. 4-6, he's inviting the public to his shop. Sandau and Nick Johnson, who is learning the craft from him, will give blacksmithing demonstrations.

His fascination with blacksmithing might have started when the Nassau farm boy saw blacksmiths at work. The youngster reveled in the trips he made to town with his father. He watched the men remove heated iron from the red-hot coals of the forge and pound it on an anvil into the pins and parts for farm implements.

After he moved to Madison in 1964, he worked in grain bin construction and as a welder before joining the Madison Police Department in 1968. In the midst of his 30-year law enforcement career with the city, Sandau started his blacksmithing hobby.

He built his own forge, starting the construction in the basement of his north Madison home. As he started working on projects, Sandau began crafting his own tools. He made his own hammer using the metal from a truck axle. Coil springs from cars have been shaped into the tools he needs.

When his blacksmithing projects and tools quickly took over half the garage, Sandau built a shop onto the garage. It's now the center of his creative efforts. The forge and his tools are located at one end and a creative space is at the other, he said.

Fellow blacksmith enthusiasts Keith Johnson and Roger Cook shared their knowledge with Sandau as he developed and refined his skills. He continues the iron craft discussions with others through two blacksmith associations in Minnesota.

The self-taught blacksmith is sharing his knowledge with others. He teaches the basics. He's mentored Nick Johnson. Johnson may one day take over when Sandau can no longer handle the physical strain blacksmithing causes.

Customers bring their ideas to Sandau who creates the final designs on paper and cardboard. He admits that sometimes he stares at the blank paper for awhile. His wife, Latain, offers her own ideas. He welcomes her suggestions and says a woman's point of view is important in the design. She has a creative eye, but focuses her talents on weaving, knitting and crocheting — often from the wool she spins herself.

Once he has the design, Sandau sketches it to scale using "good ol' 8th grade country school arithmetic," he said.

The mathematical details are important as he considers the size, slope and length. Once he gets the customer's approval on the final sketch, Sandau starts the blacksmithing process.

He purchases Pocahontas Grade 3 coal through the blacksmith associations. The coal he has used in past projects, which has turned to coke, keeps the coal from smoking, he said.

Sandau is focused when he works on a project. He has to be as he bends and twists the hot metal into shape.

The pieces are custom painted at a local auto body shop. Indoor items receive a clear, satin finish of wax to keep the iron from rusting, Sandau said.

He doesn't advertise or keep an inventory of his creations. All sales are through word of mouth and are one-of-a-kind items.

Sandau completes between eight to 10 projects a year, he said.

A decade ago he joined a group of area artists in Milan where they made plans for the first Meander. It's grown and now includes 45 artists. Those visiting the artists and viewing the artwork travel a wide area from Benson to Ortonville and from Danvers to Granite Falls to see the artists.

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