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Wallins’ iron creations
worthy of Hollywood fame

By Jarrett Boyd
Contributing Writer

VEVAY, Ind. – In a shabby, river town theater in the 1985 version of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” filmed in Augusta, Ky., hangs an eight-foot chandelier lit by candles. In the film, those notorious con men, the Duke and the King, wind up swinging from the blazing fixture.

Jerry Wallin of Vevay, Ind., made that chandelier. His wife, Sandra, made the coffee pots, plates and tableware used by Huck, Jim, the Duke and the King in various scenes on the raft and on the riverbank.
Together, Jerry and Sandra operate Wallin Forge from their historic home in downtown Vevay.
Many people dream of operating a home-based business, and many couples fantasize about working together, but few have been as successful as the Wallins, who married in the 1970s and have been successful at both ever since.
Jerry’s career path was set early on; metal smithing had been a hobby of his since his teen-age years, and after studying painting and fine arts at the University of Louisville, he set out to become a blacksmith.
“I had to call myself a metalsmith, however, because people thought all I did was shoe horses,” Jerry recalls.
Sandra became a tinsmith by a more circuitous route. A native of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, she was educated as a medical photographer.
“I was working at the Appalachian Museum in Berea (Ky.) as a photo archivist and went to Fort Boonesboro to document the work being done there. Jerry was there setting up the forge, and that is how we met.”
Shortly after their marriage, Jerry was approached by James Thomas, president of Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, and asked to do some tinsmithing. He was too busy with his other projects, so Sandra decided she could do it.
Approaching tinsmithing as a scholar, Sandra studied the history and began acquiring antique tools.
“I wanted old tools authentic to the history of the craft, and it took me one and a half years to find them,” Sandra explains.
Today, San-dra’s shop is in one large, neatly organized room of the 1835 house, built by a craftsman from Switzerland who made saddles in a shop in the side yard. The large windows on the south side of the room look out on the Ohio River, the gardens, the bird feeders and Jerry’s forge in the back.
Their house is filled with examples of their work. Sandra laughs when she says, “It’s our store, so to speak. Customers want to see samples of our work, so much of it is right here.”
In the foyer is a wonderful table with a mirror hanging over it draped in fabric and tassels. But no, it’s all iron! And just one example of Jerry’s “fool the eye” technique that has proven so popular.
A chair in the dining room appears to be a lovely piece of walnut, painstakingly turned and joined. Again, the viewer is fooled; the chair is made of plate steel, with a shaped seat and rods forged into shape. The pieces are joined just like wood, using rivets or mortise and tenon joinery.
Of this particular chair, Atlanta art critic Tom Peterson wrote, “J.R. Wal-lin’s cleverly titled ‘Not a Wooden Chair’ looks almost exactly like an Ethan Allen-style colonial wooden chair, and it strongly tempts the viewer to touch it in order to verify that it is indeed made of forged steel with a ‘faux burl burnish.’
It is a carefully crafted joke, in effect, with historical precedents in the work of Marcel Ducamp and the dadaists.”
Jerry says much of the metal smithing process is mental. “I may have a project cooking in my brain for years. I don’t always put it on paper, it just comes out as I do it. Maybe if there is a mechanical part, I will draw it to make sure it will work.”
Sandra has made all the lamps in their home.
These lamps, reproductions of fixtures from 1750 to 1850, begin with a pattern.
“A lamp can have up to 20 different parts. I start with a paper pattern, then transfer that to tin plate so I will have a permanent pattern. I do not use pure tin, but sheet tin, which is sheet iron coated with tin to keep it from rusting. This is what a tinsmith has always used.”
Tin is a rare and expensive metal and very soft, she explains. Historically, it was found only in the homes of the wealthy.
The Huck Finn work is not the Wallins’ only brush with fame. They also did the lighting fixtures for a television movie of “Black Beauty,” filmed at Shaker Village. Jerry’s work has been included in a BankOne TV commercial, the one with the branding iron. He made it. Sandra made the lanterns for Walter Cronkite’s boat. She also made lamps and lanterns for Mariette Hartley.
The Wallins visit Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill three times a year to demonstrate their crafts. The gift shop there sells many of their wares. Most of the rest of their work is custom, and they get their jobs through word-of-mouth referrals.

• To inquire about Wallin Forge, call them at (812) 427-3405.

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