by Hampton Williams Hofer
photographs by Peter Hoffman
In the back of a Five Points warehouse, blacksmith Ben Galata produces custom ironwork using tools he’s made himself. On one side of his workshop is a pneumatic power hammer that pummels molten metal with an eight-pound piece of steel. On the other side is a soot-covered coal forge reminiscent of centuries past, flanked by racks of hand tools.
All of his equipment looks heavy, hot, and dangerous. Everything he makes with it looks airy and elegant, and can be found in private homes and in public spaces all over Raleigh. You may have seen his grillwork and hardware on the front doors of the warehouse district restaurant Humble Pie, his metal exhibit pieces at Marbles Kids Museum, or his Fiddleheads sculpture on N.C. State’s campus, to name a few.
“Ben is a meticulous craftsman,” says Mina Levin, who with her husband Ron Schwaz has commissioned numerous pieces from Galata, “(he’s) imaginative yet flexible in his designs.”
Iron has a long history of use in highly ornamental constructions, and most blacksmiths stick to convention. Not Galata, who uses the traditional material but has non-traditional taste. His creations are minimal and refined. “My focus is on stripping away everything that doesn’t have to be there. For instance, let the intrigue be just in this connection,” he says, pointing out a wall-mounted handrail he made, where two sections of iron join together such that one piece appears to be buttoned into the other. The rest of the rail is a straight line, but that connection is certainly something to look at.
“When you see Ben’s work, whether it’s a birdbath or a standing lamp, it’s unmistakable,” says lansdcaper Jim Knott, who works with many of Galata’s clients and is a client himself. “There’s an understated beauty in what he makes.”
Galata gets all of his steel locally from Dillon Supply Company. With his mixed-dominant hands (right for strength, left for detail), he forges and welds metal productions of every variety – from small fruit bowls to massive sculptures – doing all of the fine tuning with a homemade hammer.
The Westfield, N.J. native made his way south in 1990 to attend N.C. State, and never left Raleigh. These days he has been living here and blacksmithing for longer than not. The first in his family to attend college, Galata enrolled without much direction, but was lucky enough to score a dorm room adjacent to the design school. He took advantage of State’s full design workshop, dabbling in all forms and media. It was the summer after his sophomore year that he spent a few weeks at the renowned Penland School of Crafts in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Asheville. He recalls sitting in on a blacksmithing demonstration: “I saw red-hot metal for the first time, and that was it.”
Galata considers himself largely self-taught. As a young college graduate, he snagged some workshop space at Antfarm, a warehouse and creative mecca for a variety of artists in historic Boylan Heights. There, he began to master his craft, focusing primarily on constructing furniture, everything from dining tables to lamps. But Raleigh was growing, and the demand came for architecture: private clients wanted custom iron fences and railings for their homes. Twenty years later, Galata has a new, much larger workshop, and thrives on commissioned work.
Still, he hasn’t lost his creativity: “Within every job, I’m crafting. I’m working with a customer’s idea, designing.” Essentially all of his business is word-of-mouth, just like it was when he first started in the pre-internet mid-’90s. Galata’s simple website proves that his jobs come from the name he’s made for himself. It’s not a sales pitch, it’s a portfolio: “I’m one of those people who likes to look at pictures and not read anything,” he says. “The website is just for people to see examples of what I do.” That’s all he needs it to be. Galata values his relationships with designers and builders around town who know and admire his style. He always wants his work to deliver.
While most of Galata’s ironwork is in private homes, public pieces show his impressive range: In front of Fred Olds Elementary, for instance, stands a playful, kinetic sculpture made as a memorial for a student. On that piece, tapering stainless steel rods branch out like fishing poles, with colorful intersecting circles that spin. Perhaps the most labor-intensive production he’s ever made is also a sculpture, a 17-foot bottle tree complete with dozens of iron branches, each tipped with a lightbulb inside of a glass bottle that, as the old myth goes, is meant to trap evil spirits. This massive piece sits in the landscape of a private backyard. Galata says it might be his favorite thing he’s ever made. Even the pictures of it are magical. The bottle tree, which was taller than the workshop’s ceiling and had to be assembled on site, looks so much like a crepe myrtle that landscapers at first believed it to be a real tree.
Galata always oversees installations, and is typically down on the ground at project sites hammering pieces of metal in place. For one client, he constructed a 160-foot fence, complete with a classic arbor entrance, as a private dog park. That project required him to subcontract helpers for installation – he has no full-time employees: “I try to find guys who are where I was, just out of school looking to do creative things,” he says, “guys who are still young and strong with good backs.” A good back is essential for the immense physicality of what he does. Thankfully, many of Galata’s tools – like that pneumatic hammer with a gas pedal – allow him to do in a few minutes what would have taken ancient blacksmithers all day to do by hand.
And his work requires not only strength, but speed: Molten metal doesn’t stay molten for very long. A propane furnace he made creates a long tube of heat, soaring to temperatures around 2,000 degrees. He rolls the furnace just outside the workshop door, and there, he can melt and mold small sections of metal at a time. The plastic, pliable state of molten steel lasts for about two minutes. Galata works expertly in that small window. He admits he doesn’t make many mistakes anymore, but when they do happen, the only real loss is his time, because steel comes cheap. “If you heat metal too long, it will melt away. It’s very much like cooking,” says
Galata, whose brother works as a private chef, “but a whole lot hotter.”
All of these tools, scorching hot and hammering loudly enough to echo across a few blocks, do not seem like they would make Galata the best neighbor. But for sixteen years he has shared his workshop with custom woodworker Evan Lightner. “Ben’s tools tend to shake the floors,” Lightner says. Two Christmases ago, Galata gave Lightner a pair of yellow radio headphones to block the noise – “the ugliest things you’ve ever seen,” Lightner says. Still, he wears them daily. Lightner, who looks every bit the carpenter (his impressive beard appeared long before beards were cool) moved to Raleigh in the early ’90s to open a mid-scale diner. Galata used to go there to drink. The diner didn’t last, but their friendship did, and now two decades later the two work side-by-side every day, often collaborating on projects. Like their skill sets, Galata and Lightner just go well together. They play off each other with quick-witted jabs. But while the mood is light, the work is serious, with both of them typically clocking eight hours of physical labor each day, packing on extra time when deadlines get close.
“Lots of times I design something and incorporate Ben’s talents or vice versa,” Lightner says, “Or I might need something metal to make a piece work, so I commission Ben.” One of their first collaborations was a table that sits in the Island Hotel outside of Los Angeles, featuring a forged steel bottom and an oak top with a starburst veneer pattern. Closer to home, they just finished a dining table for a local house: “I did the top and the legs,” Lightner says, “and Ben did a trestle on the underside as well as some stainless steel inlay on the top.”
Lightner, too, employs traditional woodworking methods but values the simplicity of modern design. The majority of his work, including wardrobes, benches, sideboards, and desks, resides in Raleigh homes. But you can see some of his most notable pieces at the N.C. Museum of Art: intricate frames displaying masterworks like Renaissance altar pieces and Augustus Saint-Gautens castings. Currently, Lightner is working on a house nearby, fashioning everything from built-ins to a staircase railing. He brought Galata in to do the hardware for that handrail.
Interestingly, Galata and Lightner both balk at the term “artist.” Neither one wants anything to do with it, though they can’t argue with the fact that people are fascinated by their creations, that people want to keep looking at them. “I hesitate because calling myself an artist feels like patting myself on the back,” Galata says, “A lot of people look at metal, at the end product, and have no idea how that shape got there. People call it art because they appreciate the work.”