David Tuthill was drinking beer at Old Town. Built with red bricks in the year 1898, housing different businesses over the years (most were bars), Old Town became a moniker of the past. It stood in the heart of an old Seattle neighborhood that once was a stronghold of the Pacific Northwest working-class. For decades Ballard residents were an inextricable part of a cultural tapestry formed by rural values, maritime traditions, and the philosophy of craftsmen who had long since passed. Tuthill, himself, an integral part of that same fabric.
Next to Ballard lies Salmon Bay, an inland body of water that harbors the largest fleet of
commercial fishing boats on the West Coast. And next to that, through a busy ship canal,
the vastness of Puget Sound. The wind often carries the smell of the ocean into the streets of Ballard. And from the nearby shipyards, that same wind transports the ruckus of hard labor—the grinding, welding, hammering, and even bawdry conversation that’s a collective part of working with steel. All the ways this hard material is shaped has always been part of Ballard’s history.
David Tuthill, a ruggedly built blacksmith of Norse heritage, became connected at birth to the bloodline of men who work with their hands.
Sitting inside the darkly lit Old Town, he was wearing leather boots, canvas pants, and a cotton t-shirt. His clothes were smudged with black carbon. A pair of bushy mutton chops sat atop his chiseled jawline, punctuating a style that seemed to stem from pragmatism more than a desire to stand out. And yet, in a way best described as poetic, Tuthill personified the old architecture that surrounded him.
Those who constructed the brick buildings along Ballard Avenue followed the philosophy of their era by leaving behind evidence of their hand-made methods. They used building materials possessing genuine character, especially the bricks, which sometimes lacked perfect uniformity and straightness, a condition partly explaining the hundred-year old shims that remained in some of the mortar joints. Despite the nuances and occasional imperfections, it was easy to imagine these same tradesmen taking an inordinate amount of pride in their work.
The historic buildings along Ballard Avenue reveal something about the nature of the men
who built them. There was a truth in their work—a truth to materials—and a truth to their
methods. They achieved a rare aesthetic quality modern buildings lack, that many modern designers and builders actually seek to avoid. All which suggests a notion that a
paradox exists in man’s quest for refinement.
When the work no longer reflects the soul of the man doing it, when the nuances are polished
away, when his signature is erased—the man becomes an extension of the machinery around
him, rather than the opposite.
Old Town was the opposite of refinement. What it didn’t lack, however, was character. It was authentic. Like its patrons. Like the neighborhood. And like the blacksmith David Tuthill.
My memories of first meeting David are vivid. I saw the man’s deep connection to his place
in the world. He could have been any man, but he was a man in his element. He captured the
zeitgeist of an ideology that, unbeknownst to me at the time, was being lost. It wasn’t
until many years later when I realized what David imbued with his whole being—with all the
facets of his character—were the endangered attributes of a true craftsman.
Ten years after first meeting David I went back to Ballard, making my way through streets lined with condominiums being raised like giant erector sets, around the corner from new restaurants mimicking the cuisine of faraway lands, interrupted only by boutique coffee shops.
Everything new was contained in perfect geometry, reflecting mirror image symmetry. Nothing gave me pause. Nothing provoked insight. The imperfections, the nuances, and all of the true character, polished away. Many of Ballard’s blue collar traditions and values were being overwritten, homogenized by the conveniences of a new society that knew nothing of the past.
Despite the unfettered expansion into Ballard’s once suburban shadows, David continues
working there. His modest workshop is filled with racks of hammers of every possible shape, specialized hand-tools, stacks of oxidized steel, and an iconic forge that burns at 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit five days a week.
I returned to Ballard because I wanted to learn what drove David’s spiritual machinery, what his impetus was, where the root of his uncompromising dedication lied. After arriving at his shop the first thing I saw was him standing in front of his forge, silhouetted by a warm glow—still wearing a rendition of the same clothes I saw him in ten years earlier. Still smudged by burnt carbon, still with his understated demeanor.
Focused, he seemed oblivious to everything except the burning heart of the brick furnace,
inside the fire—a block of red-hot steel being heated to a temperature near its melting point, a form so basic it would be hard for anyone to imagine what it might become—except for the craftsman shaping it.
To watch David work is to see the physics of manliness in the purest, most old-fashioned sense. A version far different from the posturing of modern men who have never held a heavy tool, especially in a way that demonstrates the kind of confidence that’s formed by many years of repetition.
It struck me that David’s masculinity is not of the same brand widely depicted in popular
culture. His is the kind you might associate with a well used Stanley thermos full of black coffee, rolling around on the floorboard of an old pickup truck. Flowing in the same vein as those who have the unique wherewithal to weld a broken axle while standing knee deep in mud. Bred from the same kind of toughness that makes thick callouses, deep wrinkles, and scars. Of which David has—from being burned, cut, having his knuckles smashed, and his skin ripped open. His injuries appear to be an inexorable part of hard work, and part of the territory of shaping hard steel.
Watching him, it quickly became obvious that in the realm of true craftsmanship, pride in the work seems to immunize one against the inconvenience of pain.
As I was learning about the rigors (and dangers) of blacksmithing, even more about David’s
ethos, it occurred to me that unlike many other occupations where the value of one’s work is
often intangible, his work seems to eloquently express his worth in the world—especially his self worth.
His lifelong craft has forged him as much as he forges the materials.
In the three days I spent with David he never proselytized, nor even hinted about the virtues of being a self-sufficient craftsman, despite that he’s a man of many practical talents few will ever possess. That said, and as arcane as it might seem, the odds are good that many men will at some point in their lives wish they had the skill to change the form of steel, thus solving some kind of mechanical dilemma.
But it goes much deeper than that.
Anyone can take a weekend welding class and scratch the surface of aptitude, especially primal aptitude. But it takes more than that to deeply connect with the kind of rare attributes many modern men have never possessed. One being pride in the work—a result that only follows many years of dedication to one’s craft.
It’s undeniable that a young man living in the inner city may never experience what it’s like tomsplit wood and build a fire, but even the simple act of building something useful in shop class can begin to validate one’s worth in the world. Or energize thoughts of doing something other than sitting at a desk forty hours a week.
Similar to his fellow craftsmen, David’s work conveys more than just his competence. It also speaks to his ethic, and his aesthetic, with respect to the furniture and architecture
he builds and also life in general. He’s a man in control of his own destiny, doing what he’s innately good at irrespective of the ebb and flow of an inconsistent paycheck. It’s the universal burden of trying to do what you love, exploiting your innate talents, in a world where self-worth is most often confused with net-worth.
As I indulged in these philosophical musings David used his bare hands and long-handled
tongs to reach into the bowels of the fire and remove a dangerously hot billet. Then he carried the radiating mass to a large anvil—the bull-horn shaped piece of old-world architecture, so unmistakably iconic, it left no doubt what was about to happen.
Through the vapors of the forge he repeatedly raised his heavy hammer and delivered the application of unadulterated brute force to his work piece. In its purest form, hammering red-hot steel could be interpreted as an act full of so much raw aggression that it would make a timid person cringe and run for cover. It’s loud, relentless, definitely not without serious risk of harm—and David is a quintessential master of this elemental movement that requires many years of practice.
With every perfectly aimed hammer strike the steel slowly took a shape that strangely defied the simplicity of the tools used to form it.
With his tongs David shoved the cooling metal back into the forge, and for a few minutes his
muscular body went slack while he waited.
He began lamenting about change, the way the neighborhood around his studio has changed,
how his business has changed, and how heritage and history seems to get buried under fast
paced and short-sighted development. None of this suits him well. David is the kind of man who simply wants to work hard, be creative, please his customers, and not have to hustle for work like a used car salesmen. He’s a quintessential craftsman living in a strange world where many people seem content buying cheap shit.
As we got deeper into this conversation it was the only time I saw his irritation.
And then the conversation shifted to his five-year old daughter, and it quickly became apparentthat she’s his antidote for all the things wrong in the world, and the only thing he loves more than getting lost in his work.
When David Tuthill speaks you instantly realize his temperament is juxtaposed to the
profound manliness of his craft. He’s a study in dichotomy. He’s a gentle soul who’s kind and thoughtful, but then when you watch him work it becomes obvious there’s a powerful and primal force inside the man. What’s most remarkable is his talents have not exceeded his humility.
After spending a few days with him I left his studio for the last time and walked back into the central part of Ballard. It was then when I discovered that Old Town was no longer in business. The tide of change.
As I stood there on the sidewalk the notion occurred to me—when the end is achieved by the
most infallible means the process becomes nearly irrelevant. But in the world of a true
craftsman, like David Tuthill, the end result expresses every step in the process.
The subtle nuances, all of the sweat, the years of practice, the scars, the intense uncertainty, the insights gained, the pride in the work, and even the vulnerability
—are all part of the story. The maker, and who he or she is, is part of the story.
All the human elements are in some way a part of everything that David makes. When I watched David work, I remembered seeing a choreography in his movements, as if his physical labor expressed something deeper than the tangible parts of the process.
As if a spark flew from David’s anvil and seared my flesh, the moment dawned on me, David’s work poetically expressed his intention. At first it was hidden behind the collective sum of all his movements—the selection of the proper tools, the careful execution of each step, and the way his movements corresponded to the evolution of the product itself—all of which encompass a deeply meaningful, yet understated purpose.
Understated, like the craftsman doing the work.
In that same ember burning moment, I witnessed something gravely endangered. I saw the almost imperceptible unloosening of the fibers that made up the weave of David’s identity.
“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger