Swinging blacksmith from Savonlinna

Teppo Nousiainen from Savonlinna talks about the work of a blacksmith deliberately and thoughtfully, even elegantly. Deep respect for artisanship and appreciation for the materials he uses emanate from his entire being and thoughts. During our interview, Nousiainen drafts a door handle on paper and talks about the history of the handle: why and how he forges his items into certain shapes and details. But Nousiainen doesn’t get profound only when he’s talking about his profession. With a twinkle in his eye, this blacksmith gets really excited when he talks about the impact music has on him and how he makes music to counterbalance his hard job. The blacksmith from Savonlinna forges and swings. How did a former shoemaker, born in Vaasa, become a blacksmith, jeweller and a musician living in Savonlinna?

‘I really don’t look like a traditional blacksmith. People seem to think that blacksmiths are kind of short and have a belly and a beard. Or some think of them as being elf-like,’ says blacksmith Teppo Nousiainen, walking towards his smithy.

If a stocky, bearded man is the expected appearance of a blacksmith, Nousiainen, 180 cm tall, slim and clean-shaven, doesn’t, indeed, fit the mould of a ‘stereotypical blacksmith.’ On the other hand, one should probably not call Nousiainen a typical blacksmith anyway, or at least not just a blacksmith. On top of forging, he also works with leather, silver and music. A visitor to his workshop may receive a short, unexpected lesson in metal forging, a sample of Nousiainen’s musical skills, along with an enthusiastic monologue about the congruence between music and craftsmanship.

Dyed-in-the-wool craftsman

We are sitting on Nousiainen’s terrace drinking coffee – from handmade ceramic cups, naturally. These belong to the same series of cups he was holding in the 2003 commercial for Paulig’s Juhla Mokka Artisans. While these particular cups were not made by the blacksmith, samples of his work are visible everywhere in the house and in the yard. This is clearly the home of an artisan.

One could say that Teppo Nousiainen has artisanship in his blood. His father is an industrial designer and a metal artist and his mother an art conservator and a dressmaker. While his father didn’t exactly steer his son towards artisanship when growing up, the son learned by watching his father. In truth, Nousiainen could never have imagined doing anything else. In a school essay he wrote that he was going to be an artist when he grew up.

In that sense, it was quite natural that he made himself a jewellery workshop and acquired the necessary tools. But it was his mother who encouraged him to take the path of an artisan.

‘While I learned a lot from my father, he didn’t actually encourage me to take up this work. Not that he would have advised against it, but he never gave any advice or encouragement. It was my own initiative that got me into this,’ Nousiainen says.

He has not been completely free of influence, however. He remembers how, as a small boy, he visited the Leineperi Ironworks in Ulvila with his father and studied an old door handle with him. His father pointed out a repeated pattern visible in the handle, which the blacksmith’s hammer of a certain shape had left on it.

‘That’s when I understood that you can read a blacksmith’s work like a book and, at its best, you can tell if the blacksmith was right or left-handed,’ Nousiainen explains.

According to Nousiainen, much of his design language comes from his father. It’s not the only thing they have in common, however – you can see it in their personalities as well. In 2012, father and son held a workshop together in Nousiainen’s smithy, and as he kept finishing his father’s sentences, the father looked at his son and broke in, ‘I wonder whose son you are.’

Despite his background, Nousiainen did not become a blacksmith right away, but worked as a shoemaker for seven years. He made new artistic heels for his customers’ shoes, but it simply wasn’t enough. He sewed leather waistcoats and jackets, but even that was not enough. He bought bark-tanned leather, learned how to work it, made tools and thought about teaching courses. But it still didn’t feel right. Finally, he decided to leave Vaasa.

‘I acted like I was the best shoemaker in the world, some kind of cool guy who had burned himself out. I was trying too much and wanted out,’ he explains.

Nousiainen moved to Savonlinna, took an upholstery course, but then finally started to study metal artisanship. For his practical training, he worked with master blacksmith Gabor Szombathy in Hungary.

‘I learned so much from this Hungarian blacksmith, whose form language is incredible. Returning home from Hungary, I was able to say that I was a different man because I had learned so much.’

After the experience in Hungary, Nousiainen felt that the only way for him was to set up his own smithy. Since 1999, he has owned three smithies, the current one being located in his home in Pihlajaniemi, Savonlinna. The place is nothing short of idyllic: his own house on the Saimaa shore, which he is working on when he’s not busy in his smithy. There is a separate building for his smithy, and a third one houses a room for his band.

To reach this point has not been easy. Nousiainen still remembers how hard the first years as a craftsman were.

‘There were many times when I sank to my knees in the smithy, crying. Those were the quiet moments when reality hits. The rent needs to be paid, there is no money for a flat. I used to live behind my smithy, in a room of four square metres. That’s where the blacksmith would sleep,’ Nousiainen remembers.

In spite of everything, the thought of changing to a different field never entered his mind. His belief in his own capabilities is what carried him on.

Strong belief in craftsmanship

Despite the difficult first years, the man sitting on Nousiainen’s terrace is by no means an embittered entrepreneur but a cheerful blacksmith, full of life. While talking almost philosophically at times about his profession, at no point does he forget how hard it is to carve out a living in Finland from blacksmithing.

‘Well, it does provide a living, albeit a meagre one. You can make a living, but…’ Nousiainen is quiet for a long time, thinking through his answer, but then he exclaims with a laugh:

‘Sure, this gives you a living; I’m alive, am I not?’

To Nousiainen, work means much more than just income. It means independence, self-expression and development, creating something beautiful and giving others a good feeling from his products. More than anything, it’s a lifestyle.

‘It really can’t be anything else. It doesn’t leave you; being a craftsman is always there. A craftsman is something completely different to a worker. Instead of being seen as the top professionals that they are in their field, craftsmen often see belittling attitudes towards their profession,’ Nousiainen suggests.

Such attitudes are also reflected in the way Finns appreciate craftsmanship. Many do appreciate it, Nousiainen believes, but there is still a good deal of room for improvement. He thinks that Finns still buy too much mass-produced imported ware instead of deciding to invest in handmade products, created with time and love.

‘It’s not appreciation if you live in a flat surrounded by stuff, bought over the years, that has nothing to do with craftsmanship. Appreciation means that you invest part of your income in purchasing products made by craftsmen. That kind of purchasing decision means you value craftsmanship,’ Nousiainen emphasises.

Still using traditional methods

Nousiainen is showing us around his smithy. The previous weekend, it had been the site of a silver jewellery workshop, and the tables still demonstrate the fact. The smithy naturally contains tools and materials for forging, but there are also tools for jewellery making and leather. Every time he picks up something, Nousiainen describes in detail how each piece of material or item should be worked on and how it feels. His favourite material? No idea.

‘Iron! And silver! And leather! Really hard to say. I teach courses in leather and in silver and just recently I taught a forging workshop, and they are all fun,’ the blacksmith admits.

But then a twinkle appears again in his eye and he admits with a chuckle:

‘I guess maybe iron forging, after all, there is something… it’s the most powerful. It’s masculine. The heat of the fire is powerful, and then, when you have subdued the iron, you can make really soft forms out of it. There is something primitive about it.’

A blacksmith’s work has not changed a great deal over the centuries. The work process is still largely the same from beginning to end. Some machines, like the forge hammer that used to be hydro-powered, now run on electricity. But the actual blacksmithing still depends on the blacksmith and his tools: anvil, hammers and forge, and iron that needs to be more than a thousand degrees hot.

The anvil, just like the other tools, is extremely important to Nousiainen. He will not accept just any anvil. His own anvil was made in 1908, and he brought it back from Hungary. The anvil and the hammers need to be of a certain shape.  Nousiainen shows me a couple of hammers and points out their round forms. Roundness is the characteristic that the blacksmith emphasises. New hammers often have sharp edges that leave a mark on the iron, a sharp angle. Therefore, the hammers have to be even but with a little roundness to them. The same is true for the anvil. Without hammers and anvils of the right shape, you cannot get the iron to soften.

‘It’s extreme precision work, even when you work with large pieces. You have to locate the right spot on the anvil to strike to get the iron in the right shape,’ Nousiainen explains, touching the anvil.

While you can go to school to learn blacksmithing, according to Nousiainen, you really have to grow into a blacksmith, because this work is not just forging – it’s based on hours of drafting and drawing. Even now, while talking, Nousiainen is drafting a door handle on paper. He says that he never stops designing. His head is always full of ideas and thoughts. It doesn’t even matter whether he is in a good mood or a bad one – the ideas just keep coming, they are simply different. Nousiainen mightwake up at night with an idea and pick up the pen and paper he keeps next to his bed and start transferring his thoughts onto paper for a couple of hours.

When starting a new design, he first tries to find a moment to simply quieten down. It may happen in the woods or at home sitting at a table; sometimes he’s on the floor of the smithy, kneeling on a large sheet of paper with a pencil or a felt-tip pen. It’s easy to assume that a blacksmith has no typical working day.

‘At its most typical, I go to the smithy and try to figure out which job is behind the most. Finally, I get to start forging and working and slowly I start feeling better and better because I have made something beautiful and I can say that the job is done,’ the blacksmith muses.

When asked about the most memorable job, Nousiainen does not need to think for long. It is a 170 cm-long candelabrum he made for the Juhla Mokka Artisans commercial in 2003. He had previously made one that was three metres long and is now displayed in his shop. When I ask him what’s best about blacksmithing, the answer is harder to come up with. He enjoys designing and loves forging, even though it’s hard work. Eventually, he decides on the finished product.

‘A finished product has the feeling that somebody has been guiding you. I’m almost spellbound, looking at it and I can hardly believe that it was me who made that piece. Everything I have learned, all my plans, they all come together in my brain, they change into something unknown before that unknown transforms into something concrete. When I begin, I never know what stroke of genius may come out of it. Where does it come from? Somebody must be guiding me,’ Nousiainen muses.

Swinging blacksmith

The blacksmith’s work is physically hard, demanding continuous creativity, self development and holistic working, and it’s a lifestyle. As a counterbalance, Nousiainen relaxes by making music.

He has a band named Pajaste. Together with friends, Nousiainen made music for a blacksmith exhibition. The original name, Pajate, was formed from the men’s names: Pasi, Jari and Teppo. The name is particularly appropriate, as their practice room is near Nousiainen’s smithy (‘paja’ meaning smithy). The group was later joined by keyboard player Sari, which called for an additional S in the name. Nousiainen, who plays the drums, thinks that music and craftsmanship have much in common.

‘My work in the smithy is very rhythmical. The forge hammer has this rapid ‘wooh, wooh, wooh, wooh’ sound, just like a jazz accompaniment. I use the rhythm for working.’

Nousiainen shows me the place where the band practices. When asked to give a sample of his music, the blacksmith-musician gets a little embarrassed. He sits down behind his drums, though, takes the sticks and starts. But he stops almost immediately.

‘I’m not really feeling it,’ he says but starts again. While he is drumming away, I notice a piece of paper on the wall next to his drums: ‘Live without plugs, die without hearing.’ As if reading my thoughts, Nousiainen stops and says:

‘And this is my true love, the harmonica,’ and plays a bluesy tune.

Too many irons in the fire

A professional smith, a jeweller, an amateur musician and even a leather worker when needs be. It seems as if that would be enough for one person, but Nousiainen envisions a great deal more for the future. He dreams of a larger shop and a larger selection of products he would offer in his own smithy. A set of different courses interests him. He is planning a jewellery course, during which you could make tools. After that he would teach a course on silver work, followed by one on the repoussé technique where you would work on items with tools you had made yourself. His dreams sound like he might have too many irons in his fire.

‘Having too many irons in the fire means that iron is burning. In other words, you have too many irons in the forge at the same time and not enough time to work them all – while striking one, the others burn and get spoiled,’ the blacksmith explains.

But Nousiainen doesn’t believe that he is trying to work on too many things with his versatility. On the contrary. The items Nousiainen makes are personal; he says he always puts something of himself in them. He adds his seal only to those products he is happy with.

Nousiainen is also motivated by the wish to leave something of himself to his loved ones, for he is well aware of the dangers his work entails. In this work, an injury is a real possibility. With that in mind, he has made items for his loved ones so he can be remembered.

‘My daughter was born in 2010. At that time, I made candle holders to which I added a date. I will give them to her when she is old enough.’

For a professional smith, a jeweller, an amateur musician and a leather worker, the risk of being forgotten should be fairly small.


Teppo Nousiainen’s shop, Pajapuoti: www.savonlinnanseppa.com

Olavinlinna Castle Museum Shop, Pihlajapuoti

Savonlinnan Taitoshop

Artisan shop Ulpukka, Lahti

Along with many other artisan shops from Lapland to Southern Finland.