Making money out of metal


Local blacksmith Keith Toms is ready to share his work again. Toms is scheduled to rejoin the SouthEastern Delaware Artists Studio Tour this fall after a hiatus, and he’s just recently opened his own shop in Roxana to the public.

Coastal Point • Monica Fleming: Blacksmith Keith Toms works on metal in his Roxana shop.Coastal Point • Monica Fleming
Blacksmith Keith Toms works on metal in his Roxana shop.

Toms has been building houses for the past few years, as blacksmithing custom pieces gradually lent itself to work in the building industry. But he’s been blacksmithing for 15 years. He got his start at Iron Age Antiques with the late Bill Gichner, about 15 years ago. Gichner came from a family of blacksmiths, and the shop gave him a place to deal in blacksmithing equipment, along with other antiques.

“He took me under his wing,” said Toms of Gichner. “Through him, I got to know lots of other blacksmiths and got to keep it going.”

Toms was one of the original artists to start the SouthEastern Delaware Artists Tour (SEDAST) back in 1995 but dropped out of the annual Thanksgiving-weekend event to concentrate on touring across the country in the American Craft Council’s craft shows. After Iron Age Antiques closed, Toms was “shopless” for a while but kept busy with his shows.

He now concentrates on building homes and working on custom pieces to sell out of his shop on Route 17.

Although blacksmithing had almost become obsolete as a profession, it has been preserved as an artisan’s trade. Toms works with iron, steel, copper and bronze. He first fires the metal with either a coke or propane-fired forge and, once it gets hot enough, can use different hammers to pound out the desired shape. He doesn’t do casting, which would melt the metal entirely but instead just gets it to a point where it is workable.

“I have to think of metal as a clay,” he said of his projects, adding that, for a lot of them, he will actually build a model out of clay to get an idea of what he is looking to do once the metal is being forged.

Because of the expense of the tools he uses, he even makes most of his own tools. Some are made out of recycled springs from cars, among other items.

“Blacksmiths are great packrats,” explained Toms, laughing. “I’m already outgrowing my space.”

Most of Toms’ custom work comes in the form of rails and handrails for staircases or other types of steps, but he can make anything from lamps to chandeliers, from pots to fireplace sets, from decorative sunflowers to his own sign out in front of the Roxana shop. He has also made a bench at that sits at the historic Barrett’s Chapel near Milford.

“I have traditional blacksmithing skills but incorporate in a lot of modern techniques,” he said, explaining his style.

As both a builder and a blacksmith, Toms knows the meaning of “starving artist,” saying that he hasn’t had that much traffic at his shop’s off of Route 17, just southwest of the Route 20 intersection in Roxana. But he is hopeful that, as word gets out, people will stop by and inquire about the lost art. Just recently, he even got a sign from above to keep on plugging.

“I never made a piece of jewelry before, and my friend wanted a cross, so I made him one for his birthday,” said Toms. “After that, I thought I’d make another one, and a pastor walked in and bought it, just right out of my hand.”

Toms added that a little purchase like that made him realize there still is a market for good art, even as times are tough.

“I’m here losing faith, and the other day in walks the pastor and bought the cross. That brought back my faith a bit,” he said, smiling.

Just recently, Toms finally got his sign up, along with a flag to let passers-by know he’s open, and people are free to stop by whenever they see it. He can usually be found working in the shop, but since he is still building, too, he said Friday, Saturday and Sundays are good days to catch him there.

For more information, visit e-mail keithtoms@verizon.net or call (302) 539-0121.

The SouthEastern Delaware Artists Studio Tour is held each year on Thanksgiving weekend. This year it will be held on Friday, Nov. 27, and Saturday, Nov. 28. For more information on the tour, visit www.artstudiotour.com.