Scott Lankton: Ann Arbor's Master Blacksmith

Scott Lankton's explanation for his love of blacksmithing is simple.
"It's fun to shape things with a hammer," Lankton says. "You can't completely shape it to your will. There's a dialogue that happens between the steel and you, and you'd best listen."
Lankton's been an enthusiastic participant in that dialogue for over three decades. He grew interested in blacksmithing while pursuing his bachelor's degree at Western Michigan University in the late ‘70s, and opened his first studio in Hart, Mich., in 1979. Lankton established his current Ann Arbor studio just east of Jackson Road's corporate hustle and bustle in 1986. But before he settled here, Lankton apprenticed in Germany under master smith Manfred Bredohl, from whom he learned a few lasting lessons.
"He was a great teacher," Lankton says. "He taught me a lot about blacksmithing and a lot about business, that you need to have an office and you need to actually be in it."
Actually, it's difficult for Lankton to get away from the office. His studio is located right next door to his home, one of seven buildings that make up what he jokingly describes as "the compound." The high-ceilinged studio is where Lankton has turned out notable works like a replica of a 7th-century Anglo-Saxon sword commissioned by the British Museum. (Having a piece in the museum's permanent collection is "pretty nice," Lankton says.) That piece was done in 1989, when Lankton's main specialty was knifemaking. But he's since tired of making blades.
"[Knives] can be very difficult, technically," he says. "That's one of the things I always liked about them. But I just don't want people killing people with my work. Even though they're display pieces and art pieces, they're still weapons."
These days, Lankton focuses primarily on what he calls "house jewelry": railings, gates, door handles and other decorative touches. Although Lankton handles most of the design aspect of the work, he works alongside longtime creative partner Jim Roth (who describes the relationship as being "like I have four hands and Scott has four hands"). Lankton says his and Roth's style is characterized by embracing imperfection.
"We like to see texture," Lankton says. "I think people are tired of mass-produced goods, and prefer craftsmanship and quality of work. So we like to let that show by letting the process show."
Bill Davis commissioned Lankton in 1995 to do a variety of iron work for his house, including railings, a chandelier and other fittings. He says Lankton put considerable effort into mimicking the handcrafted style of classic Tudor architecture.
"Even though there are a lot of different railings and things available now that look like the original wrought iron, they're a very manufactured thing," Davis says. "They're not hand-wrought. The hand work is just obvious."
Lankton says he can usually handle a couple of commissions per month, although some projects (like Davis' house) can take years. Due to the economic downturn, he's turning away fewer commissions these days, but he says he still takes pleasure in realizing a client's artistic vision.
"I thought I was a blacksmith, but really my job is to make people happy," he says. "And if they're not happy, I haven't done my job."
At 57, Lankton has no plans of slowing down yet. He says he hopes to start doing some more teaching, and is planning to begin offering weekend classes at his studio soon. But in the meantime, he says there's still "a lot of stuff left to make."
"I think I just want to keep making good stuff," he says. "This isn't the kind of job you really retire from. You just find ways to start scaling it down."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.

All photos by Doug Coombe

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