A conversation with Minnesota metalsmith Jeffrey M. Olson.
My name is Jeffrey M. Olson. I am a metalworker who specializes in repairing and restoring antiques. My latest challenge was restoring a dark house fishing spear that was hand forged by renowned spear maker Wendlin Pimple.
Wendlin Pimple was an Austrian immigrant born in the 1860’s and settled in Albany, Minnesota. His spears were made in the 1940’s and 50’s. They are rare and sought after by collectors. They are preserved as family treasures, passed on from generation to generation.
This Pimple spear was brought into the shop in rugged shape.
A tine was missing all-together and it had a lot of ugly brazing on it.
The original 7 tine spear was now a 6 tine spear. Now to be fair, I give the metalworker credit for doing what he had to do to make the spear serviceable. The tines were all, for the most part, evenly spaced and the spear was serviceable.
The first step was to remove the brazing to get all the tines free to assess the condition of the tines individually.
Once the tines were cleaned up, work began on straightening the center tine. Using the traditional blacksmithing tools in my shop, I heated the center tine and forged it straight.
Experience tells me that with every restoration, there will be unexpected surprises during the process. This project would prove that to be true once again.
Upon straightening the center tine, several cracks were revealed from the original forge welds that threatened the structural integrity of the spear.
Once the center tine was repaired, work began on forging a new tine to match the one that was missing. Even though the client said this spear was to be a wall hanger and he would not be using this spear to fish, I chose to use a hay rake tine instead of mild steel to keep the spear as original ass possible.
In my mind, this particular spear will still be around decades from now. It will out last me and eventually end up in the hands of someone who may want to use the spear for what Wendlin Pimple forged it for in the first place. To put meat on the table.
Another BIG challenge to the restoration process is getting the new parts you have fabricated to look weathered and worn just like the original old parts. This is hands down the MOST important concern the client has. They want it restored but not look like it’s restored. So I have to constantly remind myself “not to make it look too new” during the entire restoration process.
The final step and most difficult is reassembly. With all the grinding and filing that happens during the repair and restoration, the pieces and parts no longer fit together like they originally did. So assembly and realignment can be tricky and take lots of patience.
Restoration complete! I’m very happy with the restoration of this Pimple spear. Now to get it back to the client!
All spears are, in a way, the works of others.
Those spears that inspire me are the ones made by Milton Betts, Wendlin Pimple and of course the Skiple brothers, Joseph and Edward.
My name is Jeff Olson. I’m a metal artist that uses traditional blacksmithing tools to create my works of art.
Besides metal sculpture, I do restoration metal work for collectors and clients who are missing handles or latches from antique furniture or turn-of-the-last-century heirlooms.
Dark House spear collectors have sought me out to repair spears they’ve acquired at auctions, garage sales or estate sales. Sometimes these one-of-a-kind items are in desperate need of repair. That’s where I come in.
I can tell you right now that it’s not all fun and games. There’s major league responsibility that comes with working on high dollar works of art. Most of the spears that come to me are in bad shape.
They arrive bent with the barbs sometimes filed off completely. Most have broken or missing tines. In some cases they’ve been haphazardly brazed with brass rod or MIG welded by some poor soul who was inexperienced and just trying to keep the spear serviceable.
The owners of these spears want me to be as minimally invasive as humanly possible. They want them restored to the original “antique look” without looking like they’ve been restored. It’s like being one of those artists who “forges” famous paintings. I have to study the near century old craftsmanship of the original maker and duplicate their work.
Hey I get it. I’m the same way about my tools. I’m sensitive to the clients who have that pained look in their eyes like they’re leaving their new born baby with some stranger they just met.
For me, it’s a labor of love. I enjoy hand forging spears the same way those craftsman did in the early 1900’s. Using the traditional tools of a blacksmith.
Being able to restore spears that were originally made by those popular makers from the past, allow me to get an intimate look into how a spear was made. With my experience, I am able to see things that only the maker of the spear has seen. Like center punch marks on the tines that were hidden inside the shaft or imperfections in the forge welds. These spears all have their own unique story and when I work on restoring the spear, I consider myself fortunate to get to learn their tale.
Yes, I do make spears. But don’t spread that around.
I’m not currently taking orders and I’m not ever going to mass produce. That will just take away the enjoyment of the journey.
I have a few spears currently out to family and friends this year (2020) and two of my spears have been custom made for a company that provides unique bucket list adventures right here in Minnesota at The Off Grid Oasis. This year, my spears will be put to the test. I’ll make adjustments based on the feedback I get and then begin forging more spears for public consumption in the spring of 2021.
Old spears are getting almost impossible to find these days. There are serious collectors roaming the internet and decoy shows buying up all the old spears and putting them up on walls or hiding them away in a safe. A shame really, I suspect the makers intended them to be used for generations to provide meat for the table.
I hammer forge my spears the exact same way that craftsman like Milton Betts, Wendlin Pimple and the Skiple brothers did. And I make them for the same reason. To be used on the hard water.
My spears do have their own flavor of artistry, but in the end, the most important thing to me is that they fly true, penetrate good and hold the fish.
I’ve found that there are two kinds of craftsman out there these days, those that chase the dollar and “likes” and those that chase the skill.
I’m pursuing the skill.
Jeffrey M. Olson is a metal artist who uses a forge, anvil and traditional blacksmithing tools to create ornamental sculpture and jewelry. Jeff has been creating contemporary works of art since he returned home in 2009 from working as a civilian contractor in Iraq.
* Jeff has created custom jewelry for New York fashion designer Mathew Sabatino owner of Barnaby Black American Wilderness Products.
* Forged medieval costume pieces for the video game giant Blizzard Entertainment.
* Has been a primitive technology consultant for 2 seasons of the Discovery Channels survival show “Dude You’re Screwed.”
* Jeff is the co-founder of two organizations in his home town of Fosston, MN.
#1 – Fosston Area Metal Arts, a nonprofit organization that holds blacksmithing and knife making demonstrations as well as classes throughout the state. One of the main focuses of FAMA is to reach out to addicts and those suffering from PTSD to introduce them to the therapeutic art of blacksmithing.
#2 – The Pine to Prairie Folk School. A school that strives to preserve heritage trades and foster community through experiential learning and the teaching of traditional crafts.
* Former president of the Northern Minnesota Metalsmith’s organization. Currently holds the position of secretary for the NMM.
* Jeff sits on the Fosston, MN Arts and Culture Commission that make recommendations to the city council on the development of the communities art and cultural activities.
* Author of the book “The SHTF Art Of War”. A strategic guide for a long-term-grid-down environment and inside look into the mind of an apocalyptic criminal warlord.
Jeff is currently working on an 8 foot tall, interactive sculpture of a Viking Ship for Fosston’s sculpture garden along the cities “Fit Trail.”.
(Slated for completion in June of 2019)
I was contacted to do some restoration work on a dark house fishing spear.
The client said I was referred to him by Keith Johnson of Great River Forge out of Becida, Minnesota.
I had accomplished restoration work before on antique items such as turn of the century Rail Road luggage carts and replicated 100 year old chest handles. But never a fishing spear. I’m not the spear whisperer 😉
The client wanted my work to be accomplished as minimally invasive as possible. He wanted me to keep the spear as original as I could.
In my artist/blacksmith studio, I create metal sculpture. I also enjoy tool making and hammer out the occasional knife.
I felt this would be a fun challenge.
I was told that this spear was made in the 1940’s by Milton Betts who was a blacksmith in Grand Rapids Minnesota
(The picture above is an example of Milton’s spears.)
Milton Betts was born in 1880 in New Brunswick, Canada. He came to Minnesota in 1894, and worked in a lumber camp near Marcell, Minnesota owned by someone on his mothers side of the family. During his tenure in the lumber camp, Mr. Betts learned some blacksmithing skills.
Mr. Betts married in 1910 and came to live in Grand Rapids, Minnesota in 1911. After working for another blacksmith for approximately one year, he began his own blacksmithing business in 1912, located on 4th Street. Mr. Betts shoed horses and performed other heavy iron work. He sold his business in 1945 to Clarence Bunnell and retired (almost).
Being something of a workaholic, Mr. Betts did not respond well to a life of retirement. Accordingly, he converted a garage he owned located at the west end of Ice Lake in Grand Rapids in 1945 into another blacksmithing business. Unable or unwilling to continue with heavy work, his main work at his new business was to sharpen picks for the Blandin Paper Mills [Located in Grand Rapids] and to produce custom-made spears for spear fishermen. Spears sold for about $10.00 – a princely sum considering the times. He continued working at his garage-blacksmithing business until just days before he dies in 1965.
Although his spears today are highly prized by collectors, it is ironic that Mr. Betts did not spear fish or even angle. He simply was too occupied with his work or gardening – another labor of love for him.
(Excerpt taken from the book “Folk Art Fish Decoys” by Donald J. Peterson)
I was a little out of my element on the fishing spear end of blacksmithing. I’m fortunate to know Mr. Roger Cook of Dawson Lake Forge in Mizpah, MN. That’s Roger “smiling” in the picture above.
As luck would have it, I have visited Rogers shop over the last couple of years to discuss spear making in particular with him. Roger has forged many a legendary Minnesota Northern Pike Fishing Spear.
Roger Cook also makes some of the most beautiful knives I have ever seen.
In my experience, I have found that there’s no substitute for experience. Roger Cook is highly skilled and always happy to lend an ear and give me advice when I reach out to him.
Here are some of the issues with the spear.
The shaft of the spear was bent as well as the tines and two of the barbs were missing all together.
The shaft was heated and straightened. That was the easy part. As you can see, the spear had other serious issues that needed attention.
Talking with other individuals who have many years of experience in blacksmithing and with spears of this type, they opined that the spear had seen some hard use. That it was more than likely used for sucker spearing in shallow water prone to rocks.
Also, the uniformed bend of the tines suggests that this was deliberately done in order to spear smaller fish.
New tines were forged welded from spring steel and the barbs were filed to shape.
Matching the tine and barb diameter was more of a challenge than I thought it would be. It took me six tries to get replacement barbs that matched.
The damaged barbs were removed and the tines straightened.
Once the replacement barbs were welded onto the tines the spear was reassembled.
Fully assembled the spear still needed the tines aligned.
All the barbs were hand filed to a suitable sharpness.
When I told the client his Milton Betts spear is ready to get back out on the ice, he said it was going to be a wall hanger with his collection.
The restoration journey of this spear was a welcome challenge that bordered on being a religious experience.
I’m sure Milton Betts would be happy his spears are standing the test of time and still getting out on the ice bringing home the fish.
What is a Yakut knife?
The Yakut knife is a blade born in Siberia. A cold weather tool designed from the thousand year old experience of the indigenous people of Siberia and Far East Russia.
The Yakut knife is a simple and intuitive tool where functionality is the key objective. Designed not just to separate meat from bones, to plane frozen fish, it’s also handy at crafting bowls, cups and other dishes.
What’s up with the blade shape?
While it is a piece of ethnic art, history and tradition, its amazing functional characteristics make it a perfect bush craft tool.
Its unique concave/convex geometry sets it apart from every other knife. Most likely, the Yakut knife’s geometry is inherited from the Paleolithic bone knives of the Siberian natives.
Modern day biomedical and mechanical engineers study bones because of their fascinating structural geometry. Engineers perform many mechanical tests, such as strength and torque tests, and they have found that bone has the ability to adapt to a changing load environment over time and can also recover from extreme pressures, thanks to its concave/convex geometry.
Similarly, the most noticeable feature of the Yakut knife – the extreme fuller on one side of the blade makes the knife concave on one side. The other side sharpened in a form of a lens or an arch, making it convex. Hence, the geometrical shape of the blade is inherently more durable and stronger than anything that does not have that curve. The arch shape formed by the fuller makes the Siberian Yakut blade significantly stronger than a conventional knife.
It’s a reliable survival tool. If you make a Siberian knife your adventure companion you will not be disappointed.
It was a challenge to learn how to forge these types of blades especially with the concave/convex geometry.
I live in Northern Minnesota and it makes sense to carry a knife designed for extreme cold weather.
“It’s time to quit worrying and learn to love the battle axe. History teaches us that if we don’t, someone else will.”
-Jack Donovan – Violence is Golden.
It’s true, I do root for the underdog.
I didn’t give up on this scrap piece of Damascus.
It was touch and go all the way to the end but it did turn out to be a pretty good little blade for the field.