modern day blacksmith

A large garage surrounded by abandoned industrial buildings, Stephen Douglas ignites the propane forge he uses to heat metals he welds for customers.

The chamber becomes so hot you can hear the gas burning.

He places a steel rail into the forge. “It takes a little bit of time to heat up,” he says.

Douglas is fashioning a fence for a customer. It’s part of his work as the owner of Dark Waters, a blacksmith shop in Carnegie. The 34-year-old Mt. Lebanon resident has been in business for almost four years. He makes railing and fencing for property owners in the greater Pittsburgh area, along with creating metal artwork for local galleries and exhibitions.

Douglas enjoys the variety of projects he undertakes. “I get to meet them and see the house,” he says. “That’s where the adventure is…to come up with an idea for the house—something finely crafted that works for the customer and for me.”

Like his forebearers who fashioned swords and shields, Douglas first got into blacksmithing to equip himself for fights and jousts with other would-be knights. Involved with the Society for Creative Anachronism, an organization dedicated to reenacting medieval warfare and culture, he needed to make armor for a mock battle.

Blacksmith Stephen Douglas

Douglas shows the helmet he made for the joust back in 2002 and reflects on his beginnings as a blacksmith. “For a young guy it’s fun to make armor, and from the creative aspect, it’s interesting to think of what era it will come from,” says Douglas. He researched the design for the armor he wore, which took nearly nine months to make, in books and museums.

Douglas worked as a carpenter and remodeler for a few years before training under a blacksmith in 2009 after seeing an ad on Craigslist looking for a metalworker.

He turns his attention back to the forge and removes the steel rail, which has an orange hue from being inside the 2600 degree Fahrenheit chamber for just a few minutes.

Before beginning a project, Douglas spends a lot of time interviewing customers and determining what they like. When Christopher Watson, who used to live in Mt. Lebanon, contracted a porch-railing project to Douglas, they spent four evenings together talking about what he wanted. Douglas incorporated plants and leaves into the railing because of Watson’s passion for gardening.

“His receptiveness to our individuality and ability to customize it set the guy apart,” Watson says. “His personality and devotion came out in his work. It’s an art to him. I really enjoyed the process because it was like art. I feel like I was commissioning a piece of artwork.”

Douglas takes a hammer and smashes the rail on an anvil to make it curl at its end. Sparks fly as he strikes the bar, pounding it with a musical rhythm. He then returns it into the furnace to reheat.

David and Bonnie Brown of Mt. Lebanon were pleased with his professionalism and work ethic when they asked him to design railing for their porch. Douglas came to their house and read through their architectural books, one of which featured work by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, a noted Scottish architect and artist.

Bonnie Brown calls Douglas’ work inspiring. “I would be amazed if I could find anyone else who could do what he did,” she said. “When I’m on my porch, I feel like I’m in Scotland looking at Mackintosh’s work.”

Once the rail has retaken an orange hue, Douglas takes it out of the forge and places it in a vise, twisting the rail to give it an artistic look.

Douglas has showcased his work at various festivals, including Mt. Lebanon’s Art in The Park (now called The Artists’ Market), where he won numerous awards. Elaine Rosenfield, one of the event’s coordinators, says Douglas was unlimited as an artist. “I don’t think there are too many people who do what he does with metal,” Rosenfield says.

After finishing the one rail, Douglas dips it into a barrel of water. The hot metal hisses when it hits the cool liquid.

Leaving an imprint on Mt. Lebanon is a rewarding aspect of his job. When others drive through town, they see period houses with elaborate railings. When he travels through, he sees years of his work. “Seeing the things I make for people in my hometown really keeps me up,” he says. “That’s what gives me a sense of pride… By the time I’m done with this business, I’m going to be able to drive through various neighborhoods and see an art collection out in the open that has a purpose.”

Portrait by George Mendel