Young Artisan Explores Hobby, Forges a Vocation
18-year-old Nick Riolo, of Bellingham, will head to Hampshire College this fall, studying horticulture and teaching his unique form of Colonial-era blacksmithing for college credit.
By Judith Dorato O’Gara
Nick Riolo might be just 18 years old, but he’s an old soul as well as an artisan. The self-taught young blacksmith takes pride in his art, creating the tools he needs to craft iron into functional, beautiful and historically accurate specimens.
“It all started just over three years ago,” says Riolo, a recent graduate of Norfolk Aggie (Norfolk County Agricultural School, “I was looking at bush craft, outdoor survival and stuff, just going out in the woods with nothing just a couple tools. I found it fascinating, using minimal tooling and building things, and I’d seen a video where this guy was using a tool called a draw knife, where you strip the bark off wood. It was a nice little folding tool, and he did a lot with it. I looked at some videos of how to make one and tumbled into this world of blacksmithing and toolmaking.”
Riolo dove into instructional videos on YouTube, joined Facebook groups, found books on the subject to teach himself and even got some tips from Axe and Anvil Handworks, of Tennessee. He “got so busy making other stuff, all kinds of things,” he laughs, “but I never actually made a drawknife.”
Instead, he embarked upon a new trade, taking pride in employing old-time handwork.
“I took the more do-it-yourself traditional approach,” says Nick, “I wanted to use coal instead of propane forges and focus on the old skills and equipment. I really appreciate the history,” says Riolo, “A lot of people don’t use that stuff, and it dies out.”
Riolo spends a lot of time researching “a lot of ancient arts and crafts, especially colonial life – mainly 18th century living, old recipes and stuff, everything from candle- and soap-making to black powder.” His focus is on American colonial culinary equipment, and he’s made fire pokers, grilling skewers, trivets, gridirons and more, all which is customizable.
When asked if he’d identify himself as an artist, Riolo answers, “Definitely. A blacksmith is a sculptor of steel as is a sculptor clay.”
What is he most proud of making? Nails.
“As funny as it sounds, it was the most challenging thing for me, and it pays off in the end. Anybody can make a nail, but it takes a lot of patience and practice to make a good one. There are several different styles of tooling to make them well,” says Nick, who created a nail header to do that work. “A lot of people doing woodworking want a quality nail. With a rectangular nail, that has four times the holding power of a wire nail, if you want strength, those are the way to go, and they’re decorative. You can do all sorts of different styles. I do a rose head, a very simple but beautiful design, based off historic examples.” Nick’s handmade nails can also be used for historical reproduction, and he takes a lot of time to get them right. “I want to make sure I’m making something that could have been made in that time period,” he says.
Another favorite item Nick has crafted is a wizard head he deems his most interesting and challenging sculpture. “It was really fun to make, and it came out exactly how I needed it to. Along the way, I had to make several tools to get the different features on the face,” he explains.
Nick created his first and second forge, explaining that for production work now, he uses a 55-gallon oil drum with a brake rotor, with miscellaneous iron plumbing, “and a hairdryer, essentially.” He’s looking to replace the latter with an antique electric blower.
“That’s all you need,” says the blacksmith, “You can have the bare minimum. Anybody can do this, it’s just a matter of building your inventory of tooling, and then making more tools so you can get better at making other things. I’m still in that process of building a shop and setting up my equipment. The last three years, I’ve collected and made a lot of stuff. Most I can’t use yet – I have to have that shop set up.”
That shop, right now, is a harbor freight tent in his parents’ Bellingham back yard.
“My Mom and Dad and my Stepdad, all my family has been super supportive. It’s been a journey, and it still is ongoing. I appreciate everyone who’s helped me,” says Nick.
A shop will have to be put on hold, as Riolo will head to Hampshire College in the fall, with a major in horticulture.
“They do have a little blacksmith shop, more like a fabrication shop. I’m going in with a very special focus that requires a different tooling,” says Nick, who will have flexibility to teach his craft and receive college credit. “And I’m definitely taking American History and will possibly minor in some sort of history.”
Ultimately, Nick hopes to help keep this historical niche alive.
“You’re successful if you get one person to talk about it, one person that can tell somebody else and they tell somebody else,” says Riolo. Conversely, he says, in the olden days, “You had secrecy in your trade, a tight-knit community where everyone didn’t share information, because that was your livelihood and you had one or two apprentices,” although in some areas, blacksmiths are still making tools people need.
Nick has created a website for himself, www.rioloironandleather.com, and you can visit his Facebook page “Riolo Iron and Leather,” to follow along his fascinating journey of new techniques, trials and errors in the world of colonial iron work.