May 25, 2015

Old skills in a new era: Entrepreneurs ply industrial-era crafts and trades

PHOTO/SAM BONACCI
Joshua Swalec, co-founder of Eternity Ironworks in Worcester, uses fire, metal and old-fashioned care to craft pieces for his customers.

With most consumer markets populated by mass-produced items that are cookie-cutter images of each other, entrepreneurs in Worcester are capitalizing on goods that emphasize customization and craftsmanship through the use of time-honored skills in a 21st-century marketplace.

Industrial buildings around Worcester are home to various craftspeople who are keeping traditional trades alive as they toil away in styles that have changed little over the centuries.

Joshua Swalec is one of these tradesmen. After blacksmithing for nine years, he co-founded Eternity Ironworks two and a half years ago. He was introduced to the craft at Worcester Vocational Technical High School while learning how to weld.

Swalec now connects his classic style with clients looking for a unique, hand-made look. Eternity Ironworks has clients throughout the Northeast, he said, frequently taking on projects in the Boston area. But he's also working on a large project for a New York City bar.

"People want things that look handmade and there is a whole market for reproduction work as well. They don't want something that looks like it is laser cut and came from a factory," Swalec said. "It's about craftsmanship and learning how to do things the way people traditionally did them."

Like many artisans, Swalec has found it necessary to tap into higher-end and custom markets to justify the added expense that comes with handcrafted items as a result of time and materials that go into the process.

Woodworker Ian Anderson, who graduated from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 2008 and is educated in modern engineering techniques, spent more than two years making traditional timber-framed homes and recently expanded into furniture making. He said it's a struggle to keep costs down while making a product in a traditional, often time-consuming way.

"I like that time and care that goes into it. If you have someone putting that much energy into a piece, it comes out as something special … it's something that is built to last generations and be handed down," Anderson said. "In modern techniques, everything is geared toward efficiency and much of it is pre-done."

A touch of modern

Even as these artisans stay true to the classic techniques and care that goes into items, modern techniques find their way into their practices. Whether it's welding for Swalec, online marketing of what they make, or modern insulation techniques in the traditional homes created by Anderson, modern advances cannot be ignored.

The same goes for the thoroughly modern technology found in a local brewery.

Dave Howland, who has been brewing beer for six years, recently opened 3Cross Brewery in Worcester after becoming enamored with the process and social interaction that surrounds beer making. While brewing is one of the oldest traditions, he takes a modern approach, making use of as much technology as possible to maintain the ideal conditions for his locally made beer.

"There is such an emphasis placed on local products as well, and that only seems to be growing," Howland said.

Learning the trade

It takes time to build the skills necessary to create the high-end and unique pieces that will allow you to be a successful craftsperson, said Zaliah Zalkind, who has been working as a stone carver for two years. He took on the profession, following in his parents' footsteps, after working in community development positions and operating independent businesses. Being an independent artisan means putting in the time every day and hustling to make connections, he said.

"The truth of the matter is: Being successful as an artist has nothing to do with the quality of your art. Just like everything else, it is a matter of who you talk to, where you go, how hard you work," Zalkind said. "Coming at it from a business perspective has been key to me."

While working and honing your skills through practice is valuable, the traditions of apprenticeship live on in the trades, Anderson said. But these can be hard to secure. Many people also seek to accelerate this process through intensive workshops and formalized training. Anderson is taking a furniture-making course at Boston's North Bennet Street School, even though he has been working and learning furniture making on his own for years.

"Within three months it can just line up all those tidbits of knowledge and connect everything into the big picture," he said. "After that, it's just practice, practice, practice."

Programs such as Artists in Residence at the Worcester Center for Crafts also add to artisans' ability to hone their craft with additional access to studio time and a larger artistic community, said Dana Pomerantze, who is in the program.

Many of these traditional trades also have strong communities supporting them, Swalec said. Blacksmithing has a number of industry groups, such as the New England Blacksmiths, which supports continued knowledge in the trade by holding workshops and seminars.

Local support

Many of these artisans credit Worcester's communal attitude toward artistry as one of the factors allowing these trades to continue in the city. Both Swalec and Anderson make use of shops that have multiple professionals, increasing the use of expensive equipment that one professional alone could not justify.

Zalkind drives from Watertown to his shop in Worcester. While he has tried making use of similar spaces in and around Boston, the cost proved prohibitive and the area lacked the kind of community support he has found in Worcester.

"Worcester has been a very friendly city in which to do this," he said. "I've looked and looked and I can't find this in Boston. There isn't the community out there either."

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