Fifteen years ago Andrew Kyte, then a teenager, walked into the workshop of Mike Wolfe, a blacksmith on Ann Arbor’s west side, and wrote his name on the wall above the door. “I wanted to leave my mark,” he says, “and I wanted someone to take me seriously and teach me.”

At about the same age, a decade earlier Jim Roth walked into a meeting of the Michigan Artist Blacksmith’s Association at the house of Scott Lankton, another well-known local blacksmith. Roth caught a whiff of Lankton’s coal-fired forge and was instantly transported back to his grandfather’s farm with its coal stove and measured days of hard, physical labor.

“The coal scent was beautiful to me. It reminded me of the farm,” he says. “Nobody knew me, but I begged for a job a couple days a week–not even for pay.”

The path to becoming a blacksmith is more like a rutted two-track than a paved thoroughfare. Neither Roth nor Kyte woke up one morning and said, “Maybe I’ll be a blacksmith.” No one said to them, “Why don’t you become a blacksmith when you grow up?” They didn’t check out college catalogs for degrees in blacksmithing.

The craft, however, has been around for millennia. Leif Erikson left a handful of roughly forged iron nails in Newfoundland as his calling card to the New World in 1000 A.D. In colonial days, the village blacksmith heated metal and hammered it into horseshoes and hooks, handles and household trinkets–all the mundane necessities of daily life. In Europe, some villages still have their own blacksmiths, and they still make hooks and handles, gates and shovels. But now, on both sides of the Atlantic, the work of the best contemporary blacksmiths has blown apart the stereotype of the old-time smithy.

In the 1970s a few visionaries began to reimagine what blacksmithing might mean. They experimented with new materials and techniques, expanded the scope of hand-wrought products, and brought to the craft an artistry and a contemporary aesthetic.

The time-honored process of heating and hand-forming metal is the same, and the forge, hammer, and anvil remain at the heart of the craft. But blacksmiths today might use stainless steel, aluminum, copper, fancy alloys, or a combination of metals. Some also employ tools–laser cutters, torches, and giant pneumatic hammers–that allow them to work on grand scales–an entire staircase of metal rather than just the railing; enormous and elaborate gates and doors. “House jewelry,” Lankton and others call it.

Craftsmen like Lankton are rare. Both Kyte and Roth struggled to identify what they wanted to do and how to acquire the skill. Their apprenticeships each took many years.

In the end, they reached a similar place by circuitous paths, motivated solely by love of the work. They learned a craft that, while no longer dying, remains uncommon. And both have recently opened their own full-time metalworking shops.

Jim Roth says he comes from a family of overachievers. “I have long fingers, so my mother wanted me to be a pianist,” he says. But five-year-old Jim wanted to be a garbage man. He recalls formative years on his grandfather’s farm that instilled in him the need to work hard with his hands.

He managed to make it through college and landed a job at Jordache in sales. He lasted only two years before he laid aside the suit and tie forever and went to work in construction. The pay was far lower, but “I absolutely loved the physical labor.”

By the time of that fortuitous meeting of the Michigan blacksmiths, Roth’s construction business was thriving. For the next two decades or so, Roth worked part-time with Lankton, first as an apprentice, then as an employee, then as a partner, all the while keeping his construction business going.

Over the years, he built a rustic shop next to his house on Patterson Lake in Pinckney and collected tools to fill it. Eventually, he opened Hell Creek Forge, where he did blacksmithing as a side venture.

Then, last summer, Roth became a full-time blacksmith. He says his wife, Kelly, told him to “just do one thing. She could see how happy I was working in the shop.”

It’s hard to imagine a more pleasant spot for a workshop. Hell Creek Forge is about fifty paces from Roth’s house overlooking the lake. On cold winter days, the woodstove glows with a cozy warmth. The garage-sized shop is uncluttered. “You don’t need a lot of tools,” he says. “You just need the right ones.”

The anvil and forge take center stage, but the fan feeding the forge–the coal-�xADfueled hearth where metal is heated–is far smaller and quieter than most. Roth likes to listen to music while he works, and he doesn’t want the fan drowning it out. The music doesn’t stand a chance, though, against his power hammer, which he uses two shape and texturize metal and which “takes the place of ten very strong men with sledgehammers.”

Now, with two sons grown and his work life focused on his craft, Roth is indeed a happy man. “This is like retirement,” he says. “The work’s harder. I spend more time at it than anything I’ve done in my life, but I’m proud of what I do. It’s more like in my body. It’s more like part of me.”

Roth makes the architectural pieces that are the basic fare of most blacksmiths, like the railings for Howell’s historic courthouse. Roth was commissioned to make them “look like they were built 125 years ago,” like the courthouse itself.

A more unusual job was the set of canopy and sign brackets that Roth designed for the Washington Square building on the corner of Fourth and Washington. For this major piece, he created the industrial-strength look the owner wanted and echoed the diamond shapes that were part of the original canopy around the sides. With an understated green patina, the result is handsome and symmetric. As with most hand-wrought objects, it might go unnoticed, but once it is really seen, the intrinsic beauty is incredibly attractive.

Andrew Kyte has just moved back to Ann Arbor with his wife and two preschool boys. But he, too, spent years identifying what he wanted to do, then seeking out the mentors who would get him there. That journey has taken him to some of the best metalworkers on both coasts as well as to an apprenticeship at a renowned forge in Germany.

In his early twenties, after working briefly with Wolfe in the shop where he wrote his name on the wall, Kyte moved to Washington, D.C., and worked in a custom jewelry studio. Jewelry making has all the elements of blacksmithing but on a tiny scale. It also involves working with precious metals, such as gold and silver, which traditional blacksmiths rarely see.

But Kyte is a big guy, and jewelry was simply too small. He had a talent for the work, but this wasn’t the right scale.

Michael Bondi, on the other hand, works on a grand scale. The San Francisco area metalworker, one of the major forces behind the renaissance of blacksmithing in the United States, specializes in architectural and interior projects, often incorporating various combinations of metals–copper, bronze, stainless steel, alloys. His work is found in the homes and businesses of the rich and famous: Trump, Disney, Wolfgang Puck, Alice Waters.

Kyte worked with Bondi for three years. He calls it his introduction to “big-boy work. I worked ten-hour days, forging all day long.” He worked with various metals and with 200-ton presses and 400-pound power hammers, making the parts that would eventually become enormous gates, doors, and railings for those showpiece homes and offices. “It was a test to see if this was really what I wanted to do,” he says. “And it was. I was still in love with it.”

From there, Kyte went to work in the Atelier Zimmermann in Germany. “I’d seen the Zimmermanns’ work in magazines, and I thought they were the baddest of the bad,” he says.

Paul Zimmermann is world renowned for bringing an artistic aesthetic and contemporary design to traditional blacksmithing. His work ranges from functional pieces, such as gates and furniture, to what he calls “ceremonial art,” such as memorials and grave markers. His work is in museums in England, Germany, and the United States. Students come from all over the world to apprentice with the elder Zimmermann and his son, Heiner.

Kyte spent a year in Germany, absorbing Zimmermanns’ technique and design philosophy and incidentally developing a taste for sausage and beer. He learned that the work is something you do from your heart, not something you just get out the door. “If you bend a wire to hang a light from the ceiling, you take the time to bend it perfectly,” he says, “or you come up with a better way to bend it.”

The Zimmermanns’ philosophy is usually translated as “shape is limitation; design is disclosure.” “You can do all the crazy filigree you want, but that doesn’t matter,” Kyte explains. “What matters is that the work fits within the space and that it feels right when a person rubs his hand along it. That it’s beautiful, but it’s also intentional. It does what it was intended to do.”

Returning to this country after such a rich and formative experience was like a slap of cold water. But his wife was expecting a baby, and life was taking on a momentum of its own. Kyte found a job at Ferra Designs, a metal fabrication shop at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York City.

Ferra Designs makes big stuff for big clients, from a huge, mirror-polished, stainless-steel tube slide (yes, like those in a playground) for a billionaire’s penthouse to eight-foot fragrance bottles for a storefront display for clothing designer Marc Jacobs. At Ferra, Kyte absorbed the nuances of clean, contemporary design and learned to work within extremely tight tolerances–“real precision fabrication,” he says.

Often, on the long commute home, covered with grime and smelling like metal, Kyte would have the seat on the crowded subway all to himself. “It was difficult coming back to the hard, cold city,” he recalls.

So last summer, he moved back to Ann Arbor with his family and bought Mike Wolfe’s forge–where his name and phone number are still legible on the wall.

Kyte’s shop–half of a large pole barn–is cluttered with machinery and dusty from decades of coal smoke and daily use. The forge at one end of the shop is dwarfed by three power hammers of various sizes. Two hefty anvils stand nearby. Kyte is slowly rearranging machinery and making the space his own.

In the Ann Arbor area at least, the baton is passing to a new generation of blacksmiths. They’ve been mentored well. But whether the craft continues to develop and evolve and whether the public appetite for hand-wrought pieces remains strong are up for grabs.

“There’s a heart and an intentionality in hand-wrought work,” says Kyte. “You aren’t just making a part. You’re intending to make a beautiful part. But if people don’t know what good work is, the craft will be lost.”

Why choose such a demanding and uncertain trade? “Because of the beauty in it,” says Kyte. “With metalworking, I make things absolutely–out of nothing but the raw materials–and they stand the test of time.”

“I’m never going to get rich,” says Roth, “but if I die doing this, [my life will] have been perfect.”