Colcha Embroidery and Encrusted Straw Applique'

Art In New Mexico header

Un Herrero y Una Hojalater*:
New Mexico Metalworkers
in the old tradition


By Laura L. Carlson
(* A Blacksmith and a Tinsmith)

If Santa Fe blacksmith René Zamora advises you to “hold your temper,” he’s most likely not referring to your attitude. Tempering involves heating iron to a very high temperature and then cooling it to make it harder. It’s one of several special, time-tested techniques that he employs in his Santa Fe studio-forge, where he painstakingly crafts hardware and other items in the Spanish colonial tradition.
photo of Rene and his forge

Blacksmiths were essential members of early Spanish explorations and settlements in the New World. The smiths shod horses and repaired armor for Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, Juan de Oñate, and all those who followed. A smith also made nails, hinges, locks, branding irons and agricultural tools. He repaired daggers, swords, and guns; made scissors, pots and griddles. He was indispensible.

“By hammer in hand, all crafts stand,” René quoted.
photo of blacksmith tools

Early New Mexican blacksmiths usually weren’t master craftsmen, as were their brothers in Mexico. They had to cover all the differentiated jobs a smith did: farrier, armorer, locksmith, and more. In the 1600s and 1700s, only a few dozen smiths worked in the borderland province of New Mexico, and most of those were in Santa Fe.

Santa Fe is still a good place for blacksmiths, René said. It’s a relatively wealthy community that supports the arts, attracts tourists, and allows artists to make a living.

René came to his art through the building trades. Born and raised in Santa Fe, he learned the old ways of working with wood and hand tools from his grandfather. Later, he took classes at the Santa Fe Vocational School when it first opened and learned construction and furniture-making. Since then, he’s always had a woodshop. When he became interested in the old styles, he searched for quality hardware to use on his furniture and couldn’t find it. That was when he decided to make it himself.
photo of Rene firplace screen

He took an intensive course at the Turley School of Blacksmithing in Santa Fe, and “couldn’t get enough of it.” A few years later, in 2001, friends encouraged him to enter the Spanish Market, a juried exhibition of colonial-style arts and crafts. Soon he was winning awards.

René works in a sturdy studio made of recycled bricks and boards on Siler Road, between a woodworker and a scrap-metal business. He fires up his handmade forge with coke, a soft coal that burns very hot. Instead of wrought iron, which is too weak and isn’t made any more, he uses an alloy of iron and another metal, such as molybdenum. The rods are heated past red-hot to a lemon color, approximately 2400°F. It took him years to be able to read the colors, to work the iron at the precise moment. Hammering the metal when it’s too cool can cause it to shatter or break.

Using tools he made himself, René hammers and chisels the hot iron into desired shapes and designs. It doesn’t take a great deal of muscle, he said, to pound the glowing metal on the anvil. Knowing where to hit and striking with the proper velocity are more important than brute strength. Women as well as men can be blacksmiths. He knows several women smiths, and has taught smithing techniques to girls as young as 13 years old.

photo of welding

René researches his patterns and mostly makes household hardware, but also fabricates decorative items like crosses. They are clean designs, functional, with fancy touches like twisted handles, leaves, and curls. For the 2008 Spanish Market competition in late July, he made an intricate lock and lacy faceplate, all of its many parts created in his forge. “I start with the key,” he said, “and unfortunately, I can only make one per lock.” Turned sideways, his keys form a small “z,” a signature trademark of his work.

He’s done well at the Spanish Market: an honorable mention in revival arts ‘02; second place revival arts ‘03; first place, revival arts ‘04; and utilitarian awards, collaboration, in both ‘05 and ‘07. The last award was for a locking lid on a friend’s chocolatera, an urn-shaped pot made to keep precious chocolate safe from prying hands.

After the Market, he’ll be teaching a blacksmith class at Ghost Ranch in the fall. “That’s what it’s all about,” he said with quiet pride. “You really can’t do this and keep it to yourself.

René Zamora does commissioned work and can be contacted at 505-424-0443.

* * *

Another Spanish Market award winner, Cleo Romero, sat among her glittering tinwork creations and recalled how she got started. She’d been in carpentry, too, working with her father in her spare time, making chests and other furniture. It was the day job that didn’t work out so well. For nearly 30 years, she’d worked at a bank and had endured four robberies. During the last one, a bandit put a gun to her head. She promptly of tin sculpture

She slipped and fell in a parking lot, and then her father became quite ill. While taking care of her father and herself, Cleo had some time to reassess her life. She’d always liked crafts and working with her hands. In 2001, she took a tinwork class at Northern New Mexico Community College and found herself really drawn to the art. She started small, making little frames for saint pictures and selling them in Bernalillo, while living the life of a “starving artist.” Her family encouraged her to try to get into the Spanish Market, but she wasn’t sure she was good enough. Cleo was turned down the first year, but she honed her craft and tried again. In 2006, she not only was accepted: she won first place in her category! In 2007, she received an honorable mention. She also won an award at Expo New Mexico.

photo of cleo in the mirror

Tinwork, she explained, came to New Mexico via Mexico. Tin was hard to come by in the Spanish colonial period and was considered precious. This “poor man’s silver” didn’t become easily available until after 1821, when Mexico took over the territory and the Santa Fe Trail opened up. Castaway tin cans from trade with the US army became sources of material for tin art, and later, thanks to the Industrial Revolution, sheets of inexpensive tin reached the frontier. The art reached its zenith during the US territorial period in the late 1800s, and then disappeared again, to be revived in the mid-1900s.

Due to its light weight, tin was primarily used for decorative objects: nichos (similar to shadow boxes), picture frames, lanterns, sconces, and candelabras. At first used in religious settings, tinwork quickly spread to homes. During its heyday, New Mexican tinwork had several distinct styles, named after the areas in which they were developed. The styles combined pictures, strips of wallpaper, mirrors, or reverse-painted glass with the decorated tin. Rio Arriba Painted Workshop featured flowers, while Isleta Tinsmith was lacier; Mesilla Combed used painted, parallel lines. Valencia Red and Green, Taos Serrate, Mora Octagonal, and Rio Abajo were other major styles.

Cleo has researched them all. She goes to museums or libraries and pores over old books until she finds a design she wants to try. Next she draws on paper, cutting out the various pieces and fitting them together in a process she likens to “playing with paper dolls.” Once the design is finalized, she cuts the pieces out of metal sheets of #28-30 tin, careful not to nick her fingers on the sharp edges. Next she creates the patterns with various-sized hammers, chisels, and cutters. Some patterns are bumped out, others are incised, curled or stamped. There may be glass panels which are painted with folk art patterns or lined with pretty papers, or she may apply a mirror. Catholic funeral cards or other saint images may be inserted into fancy frames. After soldering everything together, she cleans and polishes the work with acetone, steel wool, or even a toothbrush. A small piece can take several hours to fabricate. The large pieces can take days.

Her workshop, a spare room in her home, holds a strange assortment of tools. Anything can become a tin-working tool, she explained—a piece of broomstick, an old electric toothbrush for polishing, even the fake credit cards that come in junk mail can help her create patterns. There are glass cutters, jewelry tools, pliers, and quilting rulers in the drawers and boxes under her worktables. The essentials, though, are a nail, tin snips, and a hammer. “That’s what you really need,” she said.
photo of tin

Most of her pieces are one of a kind, except for her tin boxes—she’s had many requests for those. Beautiful on the outside, the silvery boxes open up to reveal a velvet-lined interior and a surprise—a lovely, 3-D tin rose on the inner lid. One contest entry she created was a complicated, leafy arbor with a wooden santo inside. She’s also completely covered end tables and lamps with patterned tin, combining her carpentry with her new skill. Her designs are wonderfully detailed, rendered with skill, and mirror-shiny. Her sold pieces hang in Bishop’s Lodge and private homes all over the country.

She has only one regret in starting this new career, which she dearly loves. “I wish I’d started doing it when I was younger,” she said.

* * *
For inquiries about any of her works, contact Cleo Romero at 505-753-2143 or 505-690-4673.

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