Cover Story: Working in Hell

A small shop in Northside turns out unique metalwork in an often sweltering atmosphere

Andy Houston

Blake Sellman grinds metal during a not-so-hot day at City Iron.

The guys at City Iron are embarrassed that it's such a nice day when a reporter and photographer show up to talk about how freakin' hot it gets there during the summer. The thermometer reads 67 on a slightly overcast Monday morning, and a refreshing breeze blows into the shop from an open garage door.

But these four guys are enjoying the glorious day even more than most because they know how bad it can get inside the brick walls at 4136 Colerain Ave. in Northside.

Standing next to a crooked basketball hoop in the warehouse area of the 10,000-square-foot building, Operations Manager Dave Meadows says, "It's a gorgeous day. This spring's been awesome."

The sounds of metal grinding and a hammer pounding resonate from the large bricked-in back room that houses metal tables, an industrial crane, hammers, mallets and numerous electric fans. The temperature in the windowless shop reaches 95 degrees during the summer and doesn't drop all day.

A large round thermometer on the wall lists temperatures up to 100, and then two lines drawn with black marker read "110" and "Hell."

"When it hits Hell, I say that's when we quit for the day," Meadows says.

City Iron is a locally-owned metalwork company specializing in hand forged iron furnishings.

The company designs custom gates, fences, light posts — basically any functional, decorative iron — and then uses centuries-old technology to construct the pieces.

It's earned a loyal following among area homebuilders, who offer City Iron's services to customers who want an extra touch of authenticity added to their very expensive homes.

"A lot of the people we deal with are building homes $1 million and up so they want a dramatic front entrance or a grand front staircase," says owner Steve Sallquist, who started the company in 1999. "They're not so interested in getting catalogue parts. There are companies that have sort of emerged from just basic weld shops that mass-produce twisty things that any sort of Johnny weld shop can hack together. We're still trying to do things as authentically as possible."

The company gets most of its business from word-of-mouth. Homebuilders know where to come when a project needs that final decorative element to complete a design. Sallquist and Meadows take input from homebuilders, architects and homeowners to ensure their work will fit the project's theme.

"There are a lot of motivations and visions you have to navigate," says Sallquist, who has a degree in sculpting from NKU. "What I try to do at the end is what makes the homeowner happy. All these other people involved with the project have a say in it, but we enjoy and appreciate the work as artists so I think we can sort of understand how our piece fits the whole picture — architecture, landscape and interior."

In the corner of the shop sits City Iron's forge, about 3 feet tall and a couple feet wide and glowing orange with heat. It looks like a microwave stand with a diorama of the apocalypse on top, the heat hissing and moving.

The forging process is quite simple: Wait for the forge to heat up, stick a piece of iron in for a few minutes, pull the glowing iron out and bash the end into the shape of a functional piece of metal — fence post, spikey gate top, door handle.

A young blacksmith named Aaron Martina wears gloves and a protective sleeve over his arm and pulls a glowing piece of steel out of the bright orange fire, sets it under a power hammer and watches the end get brutalized by the mechanical metal pounder. He sets the long thin piece of steel on an anvil and beats it with a mallet, bending the end into a loop. Red and orange pieces of steel crack off and spray all around him. If it weren't 67 degrees, he'd surely be sweating.

"This is perfect (weather)," Martina says afterward. "I'm wearing pants, it's a little cool, getting a little breeze. I'd usually be wearing shorts and I'd be burned all over."

Martina, originally from Texas, says he actually hates hot weather and goes straight home after work in the summer to sit in the air conditioning for about an hour. If he hated the weather in Texas, why does he work in an enclosed environment that's even worse?

"It's only (hot) for a few months," he says, laughing. "Most of the time it's fun. I actually prefer it in the winter when it's cold and you can wear a few layers of clothes and you don't get burned by things hitting you."

That's the other thing: In the winter the rubber roof and cement walls trap in the cold. It's like Cincinnati's weather — City Iron receives the worst of both worlds. Blake Sellman, 28, who welds, grinds, preps and builds stuff here, puts it this way: "This place holds the heat really, really well and it holds the cold really well, too. You just get used to it. It sucks."

Both young metalwork protégés are quick to note that working on customized projects makes the job interesting and meaningful. Other shops are just turning out units while Martina and Sellman are in the white cement room creating functional, one-of-a kind pieces of work.

Standing next to an anvil — the kind of anvil often dropped on cartoon characters' heads — Martina says, "I think that's why a lot of people like it. Because it kind of hasn't changed very much."

Back in the warehouse area near the basketball hoop, Meadows explains what it's like at City Iron during the summer months: "I'll try and get here early and get everything open so it cools off a little before they get started, but it still doesn't help. We'll get all these vents and all these doors open, but you walk in here and still it's just hot."

All they can do is start their shifts early, drink lots of water, work through the heat and get out by mid-afternoon. Meadows says he leaves the hellish shop and still spends time outside in the heat, coaching a football team or taking the occasional run during a heat emergency.

"It's so much hotter in here than when you get out of here," Meadows says. "When it's 90-something out there, it's not that bad."

Sallquist sits at his desk in the office, The Shins playing out of his work computer. He says the company hasn't been affected by the poor economy and lousy housing market. They're booked through the summer and plan to add another employee in the near future.

City Iron remains its customers' first choice for custom work, so it won't run out of business unless building stops completely. And even then there's contract work with local businesses — the door handles at Boca in Hyde Park are Sallquist's handiwork — or even homebuilders themselves, many of whom hire City Iron to work on their own homes.

"The last couple years we've done a lot of stuff for custom builders when they do their own house, which to me is the highest compliment," Sallquist says. "When they're deciding what goes in their house, that feels really good." ©

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