“Forging & Welding Historic Railroad Parts into Words of Art”
story by Cindy Reid photos by Susan DeLoach
To enter Cathy Pender Emmert and her father Jim Pender’s blacksmith workshop is to enter a wonderland of fire and noise, steel and iron, anvils and forges. Out of the midst of much machinery and who knows how many tools, Cathy and Jim have created an entire art form from previously discarded historical artifacts. And they have also created something else. They have forged a true father and daughter friendship.
Cathy comes by her facility with tools and machinery by way of eighteen years of working at the family’s business, Pender Brothers Inc., a plumbing, welding and HVAC business established in Port Royal in 1985 by Cathy’s father Jim Pender and Johnny Pender, his brother. Cathy runs the welding office and she and Jim run the welding shop.
The Railroad Remnants story really starts in 2014 when Pender Brothers, Inc. bought the contract to remove the last two and a half miles of the Port Royal railroad track. From Railroad Remnants, “The Port Royal, SC Railroad…The railroad was chartered in 1856. Construction began in 1870 and was completed to Augusta, GA in 1873. It ran from 1870 until 2003 when it was abandoned. Then in 2011 the demo of it began to build what is now known as the Spanish Moss Trail, a bicycle/walking trail. For over 100 years it carried passengers, freight and future Marines to Port Royal.”
Jim Pender says “We bought that contract to take up the tracks because it was right outside the shop and we could keep all the remnants from the rock to the spikes, crossties and rail. After we pulled it all up, we sold the crossties and rail.” But there were still thousands of spikes and other metal pieces left over.
Cathy says, “I said don’t scrap it- we can do something with it.” So they repurposed industrial containers and stored about 25,000 railroad spikes and various metal clips and plates from the tracks for an undefined future use. And there they sat.
The idea to create art from the discarded spikes was born when Cathy was scrolling through Facebook two years ago. She says, “I saw a Christmas tree made from welded horseshoes and thought ‘I could make that,’ so I went in the shop and I made the Christmas tree. Then I started messing around and I made the words ‘Joy’ and ‘Love’ out of the old railroad spikes.” She took pictures of her work and put them on Facebook. She says, “Next thing I know I was taking orders.” Her Dad Jim chimes in, “She made one or two words and it made me jealous. So I joined in.”
The process they use to create words from spikes starts with the bead blaster, a large piece of machinery which ‘blasts’ the metal with glass beads and takes the rust off. But Cathy says, “We like keeping the patina on the spikes so we have to be careful how much we blast them.” After the spikes come out of the bead blaster it is time to ‘heat and beat.’ The ‘heat’ part comes from putting the spikes in one of the two forges in their workshop.
Cathy says, “Dad should have been born in the horse and buggy age, because he already had a coal and propane forges here at the shop, in fact they have been here for about 30 years.” They generally use the propane forge, which enables Cathy and Jim to control the temperature better than coal forge. After being in the forge for about 5 minutes, the spikes are around an astounding 2000 degrees hot.
The ‘beat’ step is exactly as it sounds- they beat the long part of the spikes in order to draw them out from their original six to six and a half inches to eight inches, the length needed to make an individual letter. Have you ever tried to change the length of a piece of iron or steel by hand? It is as hard as it sounds. Jim was able to track down the only piece of equipment they bought, a ‘trip hammer’ which they use to lengthen the red hot spikes. Before the trip hammer, they would laboriously beat the spike on the anvil until they got the desired length. The trip hammer does the ‘beating for them,’ making the process significantly easier.
They only have a short window of time to beat the spike into the desired shape of a letter or number. Those moments go rapidly and Cathy and Jim have become very adept at creating a letter quickly. These skills took hours of work to develop, as Jim says “It took time, and trial and error, to develop the letters from then to what we do now.”
What they do with the finished letters is create names, all kinds of different names. They create family names, place names, business names, even pet names, that can hang on a wall, stand alone on a mantle or table, or even have stakes welded to them so they can stick in the ground.
Words of Art
Every ‘word of art’ is a one of its kind because every letter created is distinct. One “A” is different from the other “A”’s because each spike is different, before and after it is forged and transformed into an individual letter. In addition, the two blacksmiths bring their own artistic sensibility to each piece. Cathy says, “I get excited with every word I start, even if I have made it before. Each is unique.” Jim makes the point with several versions of the letter “E,” illustrating perfectly the individuality of each and every letter created. The letters then create words and as Jim says, “Much more go into a word than creating each letter. You have to keep the same height, make it look right, make it so you can hang it or put it on a stand. You need to gauge where it will balance, where to weld a hook.” A typical word takes four to six hours to create.
Their work is more than the repurposing of old railroad spikes. “These are Port Royal artifacts,” Jim says, and “We turn history into heirlooms.” Jim also says, “We have a lot of pride in what we do. A letter we make might be acceptable to a lot of people but if we don’t like it we don’t use it.”
In addition Cathy and Jim have created new and interesting projects that go beyond a family or place name, such as a five foot long sign for a local plantation, numerical coordinates and bottle openers and oyster knives. Cathy and Jim recently made two sets of deer antlers from the railroad spikes, both as gifts for retiring Marines. Jim also makes mini anvils using the railroad iron.
They have also donated words of art to CAPA and to the SC Water Fowl Association for fundraisers. Their work is reaching all corners of the world, including Japan and Australia. Pretty good for a two person operation that only advertises on Facebook!
Cathy says, “The best part is the relationship we’ve developed and the time spent with my Dad. My family is big and we have always been close, but its one thing to be close with your parents and it’s another to call them your friend. And I can truly say my parents are my friends, and once we started blacksmithing, that bond got closer. To me that is priceless, and makes the blacksmithing come easy.” She says “This has been a huge bonding experience for both of us.” Jim’s pride in his daughter is evident and one can see how much he enjoys being in their business together.
They have such a good time working together that they spent a considerable amount of time creating a portable blacksmith shop in order to take their shop on the road to craft shows and community events. Ingeniously they used a pop-up camper as the base, and it includes a portable forge so they can give demonstrations and create art at events. Jim got the idea from watching other crafters and what it entailed to be in a festival. He says, “You have to load all of your merchandise, tables and tent to go to the festival, unload it when you get there, load it all up to leave and unload it again when you get home. That’s a lot of loading and unloading; and all of our stuff is heavy.” Cathy says, “With our portable blacksmith shop there is much less to handle to participate in the craft fairs. Not to mention the crowd it draws because of its looks and the sound of our hammers hitting hot steel on the anvil. “
After two years of working together, Cathy and Jim are looking forward to continuing Railroad Remnants and taking their work to the next level. She has ideas that incorporate found driftwood and Jim’s mind is always working on the next project, such as the custom trestle table he recently made from railroad pieces for a client. She says, “I have lots of ideas for the future. I never expected this when I took ‘Love’ and ‘Joy’ to Facebook, it really has been a whirlwind!”
Their genuine respect and affection for each other shines through their humor, and the jokes fly as much as the sparks from the anvil. When asked about retirement Jim answers that no, retirement is not an option because ”she works me like a borrowed mule. You can quote me on that.” Cathy laughs and says “The fun part is hanging out with him”. To keep up with this father /daughter duo follow them on Facebook at : Railroad Remnants by Cathy Pender Emmert.