From his spot in a Mesa storage facility, Donn Wagner practices a craft that is centuries old.
And from the testimonials he has received, there are plenty of people who are following in his footsteps.
The Mesa man is a blacksmith, who teaches his craft to some students while making tools and knives at his Lightning Creek Forge.
At 70, Wagner has spent more than half his life blacksmithing, though it was only after retiring as a millwright eight years ago that he turned what had been a hobby into a full-time occupation.
Wagner grew up on a dairy farm in northeastern Ohio, when farmers typically had their own blacksmith shops to repair their equipment. As a boy, he used to tinker in his family’s blacksmith shop.
After high school, Wagner joined the army and served in Vietnam and after leaving the military in 1969, became interested in blacksmithing while attending a Revolutionary War reenactment camp in Ohio.
He was largely self-taught for the next five years before meeting an experienced blacksmith who took Wagner under his wing.
“It worked out,” Wagner recalled. “That’s why I am the blacksmith I am today – because of him.”
His mentor basically told him to forget everything that he had taught himself and over three years as an apprentice, Wagner realized that while his self-taught techniques were not all bad, he had to relearn a lot.
With forges fueled by propane or coal, Wagner makes an assortment of items – including swords, knives, tools, guns, furniture candleholders, dinner bells and other décor such as mattress frames, patio furniture and plant holders.
About 80 percent of his items are made of black iron, though he also uses copper and brass.
And most of them, he said, reflect a period of time before 1840 – a time he seems comfortable with, given his frequent participation in largely Revolutionary War reenactment events.
He uses deer antlers or elk bone for his knife handles and frequently works with leather and wood.
In addition, Wagner teaches blacksmithing classes for $450, but he’s selective about who he takes on as students.
He said he likes to determine if aspiring blacksmiths have what it takes before he admits them to his 12-day classes.
“I’m very selective in who I bring in as a student, because we don’t hand this out to just anybody,” said Wagner. “They have to have something in themselves where they can do this, safeguard it themselves.”
Part of his selectivity also is based on a tradition among blacksmiths to keep their formulas and techniques a relative secret.
He prefers one-on-one instruction and takes on no more than two students at a time, and neither age nor gender are barriers as his students have ranged from 7 to 68.
If students do well they can sign on for a three-year apprenticeship and some of his past apprentices now have their own forges either in this country or abroad.
“You can’t do this without a good apprentice, somebody that wants further learning,” said Wagner.
Wagner says that he requires three things of his apprentices: determination, dedication and loyalty to the craft and to him.
He also offers blacksmithing demonstrations to local schools and is the official blacksmith for educational group We Make History.
His teaching techniques have won him plaudits that he proudly displays on his website, ironworksarizona.com.
Donn Wagner is a great teacher,” wrote Nicole Hanson of Mesa. “He knows what he is doing and takes the time one on one to make sure you understand how everything works as well.”
Taking Blacksmithing classes and getting the honor to apprentice for Donn Wagner was the best thing I’ve decided to do in Arizona.
“I came out with so much skill and practice,” wrote Samantha Lawton. “Donn is an incredible teacher. He taught me plenty of metal work from absolute zero experience. I learned how to work with an anvil and different techniques to moving metal with a hammer.”
He has also drawn praise from homeowners and people who needed a sword for a Renaissance costume.
And he shows no sign of giving up his nearly half-century love affair with blacksmithing, explaining, “I can’t stop doing this. It’s who I am. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”