David Sandlin Strikes While the Iron is Hot
Master and apprentice forge tradition in Fort Walton Beach
David Sandlin is 62, but he’s never stopped going to school.
For him, a master craftsman isn’t one who achieves adroitness in a singular trade and throws in the towel, but one who hammers out an ever-growing set of skills.
Some of these, such as blacksmithing and antique restoration, are considered lost arts, but both can always be found in Sandlin’s Traditions Workshop in Fort Walton Beach.
Like his craft, Sandlin is old-fashioned, replying to my email request for an interview with a prompt phone call.
(This is unbelievably refreshing in our digital world, where appointments are almost always confirmed through cyberspace.)
He humbly invites me to see him in action later that week.
“Just don’t be afraid of the big red dragon once you walk in,” he warned.
I see it immediately, a looming, formidable wooden beast suspended from the ceiling.
A prop, Sandlin informed me, constructed for “Quest of the Dragon,” a play performed by the students of Pyramid Fort Walton Beach.
It boasts a lot of mobility and even breathes confetti fire.
Pyramid, which functions as an art-based daycare center for adults with special needs, is adjacent to Sandlin’s workshop, allowing him to be close to his daughter, who has Down syndrome.
“She walks over here at about 4 every afternoon and picks up her broom,” Sandlin said.
“She’s very serious about helping out and cleaning anything that needs tidying.”
There’s no shortage of sawdust and paint flakes in the workshop, as countless projects consume every workbench.
It’s a personal Louvre, from stained glass to carved wood, with no space wasted.
I feel like an intruder as I get the grand tour, running my fingertips across the raw surfaces of works in progress.
I think about how I would feel if someone hacked into my laptop and read my unfinished writings, but Sandlin is an open book.
There’s a candidness that translates to his dexterity, which is why the community trusts him to restore precious heirlooms and create new ones. ››
“Which ones of these do you think were broken?” he asked, pointing to several ornate drawer pulls.
“I wouldn’t be able to tell you,” I said, after several beats of scrutiny. They’re all flawless to me, but he points to two.
“These were completely sheared off from an 1872 chestnut chest that’s been in someone’s family for five generations. We already refinished the top of the chest, so it’s almost good to go.”
There’s a wooden footstool in the making, requested by an elderly woman seeking something sturdy upon which to prop up her feet.
A mid century-modern case rests on the floor, and, though it just arrived yesterday, there are plans in the works to completely strip the bottom and forge a new set of legs to raise it 8 inches.
Sandlin makes it clear that you commission Traditions if you want something custom-made.
If you bring in a beat-up rocking chair that you picked up yesterday off the side of the road, he’ll tell you to go buy a new rocking chair.
With orders that involve decorative scripts and signage, Sandlin utilizes a CNC router, a device that digitally transfers phrases from his tablet to a needle, much like a printer. All that’s left is some whittling and waxing on his part.
He points to a mirror on the wall with “Good morning, beautiful” etched in the frame, another use of the CNC router.
“Someone needs to tell your daughter, every morning, that she’s beautiful. It’s important,” Sandlin said.
“When my youngest daughter went off to college and I wasn’t there every morning to tell her, I made her one of these so she would know.”
For Sandlin, life is about family. It’s what sculpted him into the man he is today.
He says his father was his first teacher. Sandlin was 12 when he helped his dad build a house and a barn from the ground up.
“Dad’s a big volunteer,” Sandlin said.
“He lives up in Tryon, North Carolina, and he built the Foothills Equestrian Nature Center, an educational nonprofit up there. I’m trying to do the same thing with the Heritage Museum in Niceville by putting together a folk school.”
At the Heritage Museum of Northwest Florida, Sandlin’s son leads a woodturning course, while he teaches blacksmithing, timber-framing and musical-instrument construction.
Before he was a grounded artisan, he was a pilot who flew for the U.S. Air Force and Canadian forces. He even flew helicopters over Norway.
When he wasn’t in the air, the United Kingdom was his whetstone, sharpening skills in both carpentry and stained-glass design.
While he was visiting Stockholm to perform in an airshow, a Swedish gal by the name of Anna caught his eye.
The two wed a year later and settled down in Fort Walton Beach after Sandlin’s successful military career.
He worked as a software development contractor for 14 more years before kindling Traditions Workshop.
“So, this is my encore career,” he said with a laugh.
“If I was going to start at the bottom, I knew it should be doing something I loved. But one of the biggest things I had to learn in building my own business is that I can’t do it all myself. I can’t do the scope of what we’re doing now without Billy.”
He’s referring to his apprentice, Billy Hays, whom he met in one of his blacksmithing courses.
The striker to Sandlin’s smithy (and vice versa), Hays works as an independent contractor and crafts for his own business, Sandy Panhandle Forge.
Sandlin gave me a pair of safety goggles before we joined Hays in the forge room, where he’d been wrestling with a new, hand-cranked coal forge for the better part of my visit.
He cracked a smile and announced it was finally hot enough for “forge welding,” joining two strips of metal by heating them to a high temperature and then hammering them together.
“I’ve always been fascinated with this craft but started seriously studying it about two years ago,” Hays said.
“Mostly online, since I didn’t have the resources until now. Mentally, I know the terminology and procedure, but now it’s about getting it into the muscle memory.”
I understood what he meant as I watched Sandlin command control of the gas forge, producing a spade-ended hook and nail in a matter of minutes.
He’s a masterful creative force, bending the will of near-molten metal into perfect form with a flick of his wrist.
It came as no surprise when he divulged that even his hammer is handmade, because it is nothing if not an extension of his arm.
While the mention of blacksmithing formerly conjured images of Valyrian swords and ornate armor from “Game of Thrones,” my introductory lesson was quick to thrust me into the hearth and reshape my perception.
I had pitched this story as a glimpse of a dying art, when it’s anything but.
“I’d call it a resurrected art,” Hays said. “You’d be surprised at the amount of young people who take our classes and are eager to just make something with their hands.”
“You’re not just making something, it’s making you,” Sandlin added.
I asked him to clarify.
“The process of transforming materials into product teaches you that you are capable of affecting your environment. You can see change and make that change happen,” he said.
“Learning to make one thing teaches you that you can make other things.”
I left with a souvenir: That nail and hook now support the bamboo chimes on my front porch.
With each breeze, Sandlin’s words resonate more than their song.