The Iron Man movie franchise made the art of welding hot again — literally.
Steve Valle, owner of Valle’s Forge, is a third generation blacksmith who didn’t need a super hero movie to show him the art and craft of working with iron, steel, silicon bronze or any other metal. Valle has always been an iron man, as were his paternal ancestors, going all the way back to central Europe more than a century ago.
Valle’s Forge is a small iron shop in Wales, Mass.
“We started here in the early 1990s, but that is not where it all began,” said Steve Valle.
A Blacksmithing Apprenticeship
In the early 1900s, his grandfather, August Valle, started his blacksmithing apprenticeship in Cortina, Austria. He quickly rose to the top and became a master blacksmith. August moved to America around 1920 and, after fulfilling his commitment for sponsorship, started Brighton Iron Works in Brighton, Mass., in 1924 with his brother and cousin. ?
“They are responsible for much of the beautiful old iron you see through Boston’s churches and elite homes,” said proud grandson Steve Valle.
All four of August’s boys and his cousin’s only son were involved in the business at some time. During the Depression, ornamental metal work became scarce. But because the Valles had come to this country for the opportunity to work and make a living, they quickly found a way to survive. Brighton Iron soon became one of the area’s top miscellaneous iron and light structural shops, all the while continuing with whatever ornamental requests came along. In the 1960s, the family moved the business to Ashland, Mass., to shorten the commute while expanding the business.
“At that time, August was still involved as well as two of his sons — my dad, Lewis Valle, my uncle Leo Valle and their cousin George Barnabo,” said Valle. “I started summers as soon as they would let me in the shop and, after one year at Boston College, I determined the shop was for me. I have never looked back.”
Ancient Tools Still Work
Valle didn’t know at the time but his apprenticeship as a blacksmith, under the great teaching of his masterful family, would help tenfold when he started his own business and made contacts in the world of construction and excavation. But first he had to overcome a family tragedy.
“After the unexpected death of Leo and George, I wasn’t able to maintain the name [of the company],” said Valle. “More important than the name, though, I was able to purchase all the equipment, including a Buffalo iron worker, a Marvel band saw, a milling machine, lathe, etc. What proved to be most important was all my grandfather’s blacksmithing tools, that are all vintage, including a Saint Johnsbury power hammer and the techniques and craftsmanship he passed on. Two guys with a sledge couldn’t even compete with it. They still work better than the new stuff.” ?
Thus, as a tribute to his family of teachers, Valle’s Forge was born.
“We targeted the high-end ornamental market. We had to reeducate these younger owners, architects and designers, as they didn’t understand the labor that went into hand-forged work,” said Valle. “After a slow start, it took off, and we became known in Boston as the premier shop.”
Metal crafting is being passed on to the next generation.
“I couldn’t have done this if it was not for the ongoing advice and work of my Dad, now 87, Lewis, my incredibly talented stepson, William Darling and my brother-in-law Ernest Hermanson,” said Valle.
However, dealing with the aspects of the modern economy can take as many unexpected twists as a weak piece of metal.
Welding Heavy Iron
“As we all know, in business times change. We thought we made it through the latest downturn, but it just took a little longer to get us,” Valle said. “Ornamental work became scarce and shops were undercutting each other. Rather than lower our quality, we decided to evolve as my family had done in the past.”
That auspiciously began with just one call to a past client, Ted Ondrick Company LLC, Chicopee, Mass., one of the area’s portable crushing companies, which also offers a complete service asphalt plant along with the production of EZ street asphalt patch.
“After a short discussion, they decided they could use my services and we were back in the race,” said Valle of his expanded service of welding and repairing heavy iron, such as excavators, dozers, earth movers, dump trucks and related vehicles.
“We will always be grateful for the opportunity. As the commercial and heavy equipment work began to grow, it was clear we needed a portable truck,” said Valle. “I stayed true to what I was taught and didn’t overextend. [We purchased] a 2002 GMC pickup, we did a little frame work, made a custom aluminum bed, built in our shop, mounted the welder and compressor and we were off.” ?
Valle’s Forge still does ornamental metal, but the bulk of their work at this time is miscellaneous iron fabrication and heavy equipment repair. ?
“The portable work can be as simple as welding on shanks, to complete bucket rebuilding. Thanks to Ted Ondrick Construction, I have been involved in asphalt plant repair and maintenance, as well as working with other welders building from scratch over the road trailers for crushers, conveyors, screen decks, etc.,” said Valle.
“For Ted Ondrick, we did all kinds of things. Maybe 15 years ago, we worked on putting up their big silos, maybe 80 feet tall, the silos they put their asphalt in,” Valle said.
He also has done extensive work for other companies, like Collins & Sons Excavating, also in Wales, Mass.
“Lee is a friend and I’ll work on his heavy equipment. I welded a shank on a bucket, we mounted a hydraulic thumb to his excavator, and we resurfaced, plated over, the side plates over his bucket when it got worn and we do other general maintenance,” said Valle.
“He is the best, said Lee. “I have some fantastic photos of him working on my machines.”
Four Generations at One Time
It is not unusual to come to Valle Forge and see four generations all working together in the light of the sparks and embers.
“My Dad, who is 87, still helps us out. He does the ornamental stuff. My stepson has gone back to college, but on breaks, he still comes in and works,” said Valle. “Both of my grandsons, Tyler and Bryan Darling, can be seen there. Tyler is ready to graduate college next semester. Brian does tile work, and helps in the shop. We’re pretty experienced, so we all bounce ideas off each other.”
Ornamental jobs remain more of a challenge than repairing heavy iron.
“Like most art, most of our ornamental work is one of a kind. It is not unusual to forge the iron several times before the final piece is created. Unlike days of old, the cost of labor now exceeds the cost of materials in most cases, with the exception of silicon bronze, which runs almost 50:50. At a cost of more than $15 a pound for silicon bronze bars you can’t mess up,” said Valle. “I remember my Dad always saying, ’the material was the important thing. Labor was the cheap part.’ Now, that is totally reversed; labor costs the most, materials not as much, with the exception of silicon bronze, which is the preferred metal for most high end ornamental work today.”
Sometimes you have to display the same stamina as that aforementioned super hero to endure the grueling nature of the work
“It’s definitely a hard job and you have to get used to a lot of discomfort,” said Valle. “There are tons of welders; then again, there are only a few who can take a piece of metal and make it work the way it should. That’s where the blacksmithing helped me incredibly, because blacksmithing is all about moving metal.
“The key for me is not to think I know everything, but to bring what I have to the table and continue to listen and learn from all the knowledgeable people in the trade. One such individual is Pete Mayberry of Mayberry Portable Welding. Pete’s welding knowledge and experience has helped me so much. We work on several jobs together and we always try to do good work. We try to please people, we try to service them. It seems to work,”
Valle’s Forge is located at 53 Howell Road, Wales, Mass. For more information, call 413/875-5756.
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