Joe Sitton is a philosopher with a heavy hammer. As the farrier-turned-artist pounded a piece of steel into a table leg soon to grace the new Market Street Coffee shop in Purcellville, he could not hide the passion he feels toward his work.
"Being able to take a dirty bucket of coal, cold steel, a little heat, a little hammer to make something sound and that has some beauty, it brings out the creativity," he said. "I think everyone has an artistic side in them."
Sitton, 60, spent 25 years as a farrier, heating, pounding and shaping metal to make horseshoes. While taming rough horses that others didn't want to touch, he discovered his creativity and artistic side. He opened Ironheart Forge, an ironwork shop, about eight years ago to pursue "what we could do with hot steel other than make horseshoes."
At first, it was a hobby. But as more people asked him to build gates, trellises and wall sconces, the shop soon paid for itself and turned a profit, Sitton said. He never had to take out a loan for equipment, and he never advertised.
Sitton still shoes horses but recently halved his client list so he could spend more time in his shop behind his house in The Plains working on custom-made gates, sculptures, chairs, tables and even a rose or two for clients who asked him to help them propose.
His work can be found at Market Street Coffee's shop in Leesburg, where he made all of the tables, iron chandeliers and wall-mounted scrollwork. Two swinging gates, with hand-formed R's soon will grace Leesburg's Rouge Boutique & Spa. Many high-end horse farms and a winery or two in Loudoun and Fauquier counties have commissioned gates and railings for their estates.
On a large table in Sitton's shop sits a fireplace screen he created for an older couple who didn't want to drag the screen every time they had to tend to the fire. He curled the bottom rails so the screen can simply roll forward, rather than have to be picked up or dragged aside when more wood must be added to a fire.
A pile of table legs and a bowl of steel leaves are waiting to be used for decoration on tables. The ceiling is black from the coal. A stereo plays in the background, with hard, loud rock or "redneck" music when he's pounding out a big piece and classical when he's working on leaves or other delicate pieces.
A barrel-chested man in jeans, suspenders, gray T-shirt and baseball hat, Sitton is at home with the fire, coal and grit. In 15 minutes, he has turned a rod of steel into a curling leaf. Many of his leaves are used to ornament a hand-forged gate or table.
His wife, Becki, used to tell him that his leaves looked like feathers. But these days, he is much happier with them. "If you study great . . . painters, their early works were nice," he said. "But later in their career, you see they went from a painter to an artist."
Sitton works on commission. He does not want to disclose prices because, as a friend told him years ago, "you set a price, and people think you have a warehouse full of things."
He admitted that he pieces can be pricey. He said he accepts one or two of every 20 or so inquiries, usually after potential customers find out what the work will cost.
Anita Henry, owner of Rouge Boutique & Spa, fell in love with Sitton's work when she saw it at Market Street Coffee. "I love the way he's done it," she said. "It's a dying art."
So Henry, who wants local artists to provide much of her decoration, called Sitton and commissioned the gates for an entryway for her new upstairs expansion. She told Sitton that she would leave the design up to him, saying, "it'll be a testimony to your work."
Sitton is never satisfied with his work, which he said is a good thing because he would otherwise become stale. "There's still room for every piece to be different, better," he said. "I will never get to a point where I say 'That's the best I'm going to get.' "
Two of Sitton's great uncles were blacksmiths, and he got into the trade after living out west, working as a cowboy and riding rodeo. He still keeps a hand in the farrier business because he doesn't want to lose his skill.
"It's a great life," he said. "You can do well. But it has to be a way of life, not a job."
Sitton is glad to hear that blacksmithing has made a name for itself. The work has become somewhat rare in today's age of major manufacturers and chain stores. Sitton said that Tom Joyce, a blacksmith in Santa Fe, N.M., recently was named a winner in the MacArthur Fellows Program and that the prestigious award underscores interest in the craft.
Sitton knows physicians and other professionals who have taken up blacksmithing as a hobby. On Tuesday nights, his shop is further proof of increased interest in blacksmithing. That's when he opens it to other farriers and blacksmiths in the area to "play with metal."
But it's more than that for Sitton. "This really is my passion," he said.