Interview with Tim Cisneros Part 1

by Rob Edwards

Published in the April 2001 Issue of Anvil Magazine

Tim Cisneros is a blacksmith from South San Francisco, California, who began his working years as a farrier. He has made the transition from farrier to full-time blacksmith. Along the way, he invented a cleat for racehorses to use, and its application may even be relevant to Olympic horses. I met with Tim in his new shop at 2440 Adeline Street, Oakland, California. He leases space from the owner of the building, Jim Austin, a well-respected and accomplished artist/blacksmith.

ANVIL: How did you get into horseshoeing, Tim?

TIM: Well, I had attended college, was interested in metalsmithing, and wanted to be a jeweler. I took some courses at Akron University in Akron, Ohio. They had a metalsmithing program there and offered a two-year degree in metalsmithing. I also got into the fine arts program and took drawing, sculpture and art history. I went there for two years and about the middle of the second year, I was working on a raised vessel. The piece took weeks to hammer out and I was using drawing stakes to raise the vessel. My metalsmithing instructor, Professor Newman, came over to me when he saw the piece and said, `You know, Cisneros, you'd probably make a better blacksmith than goldsmith because you love hammering on stuff.' By sheer coincidence, about a week later, I ran into a high school friend of mine who had gone to horseshoeing school. He was driving a new one-ton pickup truck and was talking about the ten acres of land he had just bought and the house he was building on it. I thought, what am I doing being a starving artist, going to college? What stuck in my mind was what Professor Newman had said about blacksmithing. And so I asked this friend where he had gone to school to learn blacksmithing. At that time I didn't know the difference between blacksmithing and horseshoeing. He said he'd gone to Martinsville School of Farriery in Martinsville, Virginia, run by Danny Ward. (See Anvil Magazine interview, January, 1995) The name has since been changed to the Eastern School of Farriery.

Anyway, I decided to attend the following summer. Danny is one of the best and most talented farriers I've ever known. He had a profound influence on me. That started my whole career. I'd had horses and my parents were into the breeding and showing of Morgans. I'd seen horseshoers come by when I was young, but had never thought anything about it. We were in a rural area of Ohio and my father worked for Firestone Tire Company.

So after going to Danny's school, the following year I was doing backyard and pleasure horses. But I always kept my interest in metalsmithing. There was a historical place near Akron called Hale Farm and Village. It just so happens that the demonstrator at last year's California Blacksmiths Association Oktoberfest Conference, Bob Patrick, (see Anvil Magazine interview August, 2000) had worked at Hale Farm and Village back in the late `70s. When I saw him at the conference last fall, it rang a bell when he spoke about Hale Farm and Village. I went up to him at the conference and asked him when he'd been there. Between Bob and me, figuring out the dates, we both agreed that he must have been the demonstrator back then when I was there. It's a small world, that I would see him at the conference some 25 years later!

It was either through him or someone else I found out that there was an opening at a place in Charleston, South Carolina, as a demonstrator in a historical restoration facility. I gave them a call and they told me to come down and they'd have a place for me to stay-not a lot of money, but a beautiful area. So I went to Charleston that next fall and stayed there for almost two years as a demonstrator at Middleton Place. It is a plantation that was built in the 1700s. There is a lot of history in Charleston, as well as a lot of ironwork. I fell in love with the area there and briefly looked into blacksmithing as a full- time profession when there, but I was shoeing horses and making enough money that it conflicted with spending the time getting further into blacksmithing. I was there for about a year and a half and I did a lot of demonstrating at the forge. There were many tourists who came through and we had to wear period clothing to accurately reflect the era they were trying to re-create. It was a great experience for me. I had a chance meeting with a racetrack trainer in Charleston. He was from Florida, heading up north. He invited me out to a racetrack in Louisiana. I went to Delta Downs, but didn't stay there long. It was my first encounter with a racetrack. In the summertime, it gets incredibly hot and humid in southern Louisiana. I met some people from the racetrack who were going up to Illinois and they invited me to go up there with them. One of them was a trainer who had horses, and offered me a place to stay on his ranch. So I went to Illinois. In order to work on the racetrack in Illinois you had to be a member of the union. That was my introduction to taking the Horseshoer's Union test, and getting into the Journeyman Horseshoers Union. I took the test and passed it, then ended up going back and forth between St. Louis and Chicago. I worked briefly at Hawthorne Racetrack in Chicago. That following winter, because the winters are so cold, the racetracks shut down in Illinois. I met up with some people who were going to Phoenix and so I left Illinois and went to Phoenix for the winter. It was basically the `starving period' of my life. To travel like that on the racetrack is very difficult as a horseshoer. Most of the horseshoers are residents and newcomers are not generally welcomed with open arms.

ANVIL: Were you doing all Thorough-breds at this point?

TIM: At that time I was doing Thorough-breds and Quarter Horses at flat tracks. When I was in Louisiana I did mostly Quarter horses and also worked on the bush tracks in Texas. Racing had not been legalized in Texas at that time. But they had these `bush tracks,' which were basically unauthorized (illegal), out-of-the-way ranches where horsemen met and raced their horses, many times with only two horses in the race. We'd leave Louisiana and head for the bush track. It was a gambling, wild period of my life. But it was fun and I accomplished what I wanted to accomplish, which was to travel.

I'd also always wanted to go to West Coast, too. So the Phoenix meet ended because there is no summer racing there, due to the heat. That's when I came to California. I had some relatives here in the San Francisco area, so I came here and began shoeing Thoroughbreds at Bay Meadows Racetrack. I had to take the California state test-it wasn't a union test at that time, as they had done away with the Journeyman Horseshoer's Union. They didn't honor my union card, so I had to take the test. I failed the test the first time, which was standard procedure, from what I learned.

ANVIL: What did the test consist of?

TIM: It consisted of making two shoes, one bar shoe to a pattern, from flat stock. It could be already swedged, but it was straight bar stock. It was similar to the JHU test in Illinois which required that you swedge the shoes, then make the shoe to a pattern. You had to make a bar shoe to a pattern and also a plain shoe with a block on one side and an outside sticker on the other. A sticker is a term used on the racetrack for any type of cleat: insert, mud nail, or Liskey heel sock. Generally, they are, as a group, called stickers.

ANVIL: This is in Illinois you're speaking about?

TIM: Both in Illinois and in California. The California test had been somewhat diluted an it got worse in subsequent years. They have completely revamped it in the last five years. When I took the test in California, it was not an easy one. You had to make a bar shoe to a pattern, then a hind shoe with side clips. You had to sweat the toe grabs in, and then put an outside sticker on one side and a blocked heel on the other-to a pattern. And then we had to shoe two horses, a racehorse and a pony horse. You had to do all that in two and one-half hours. After I failed the test the first time, I had to wait six months to take it again.

ANVIL: So in the meantime, you couldn't work at the track?

TIM: That's right. But at the time they had some of the satellite racetracks-Santa Rosa, Stockton, Livermore-they had racehorses on them in training throughout the year. And I moved up to Santa Rosa and began doing horses on the track there. Then when I was able to take the test, the fairs came around in the summer. The fairs held horse races, so I was able to work there. That's kind of the way you break into the racetrack in California. You meet a lot of people at the fairs and it helps you to get established. That was 1982 and I started working at Bay Meadows the following fall. I shod horses there and at Golden Gate Fields until last year, when I retired from horseshoeing.

ANVIL: Why did you retire?

TIM: It was a combination of things. For years I had dabbled in blacksmithing and metalsmithing and had always intended on at least doing blacksmithing as a hobby. Ten years ago, I got into flying airplanes and flight instructing, eventually, which I thought might be able to lead me into flying commercially. In fact, I went back to college and got my degree in aeronautics. I started school, as I mentioned, back in the `70s as a fine arts major and then started at a community college in San Mateo, California, in 1990. Most of the credits weren't transferrable from fine arts to a science degree, so I basically had to take a full two-year curriculum for aviation. It took me seven years to get my two-year degree in aeronautics, but I did it-and did horseshoeing full time.

One thing about horseshoeing is that it allowed me to go to school. It allowed me the freedom to have the time, working at the racetrack, to attend college. I could get my horses done in the morning, go to afternoon classes at college, and be home in the evening. It was a perfect setup. When I was flight instructing, I would have my students in the afternoon. I would go to work in the morning at the racetrack, do the horses, get done by 1 pm, then go to the airport. I'd fly till 3 or 4 pm, then go to night classes a lot of the time.

ANVIL: Was that going to lead to a commercial license?

TIM: Unfortunately, it wasn't going to lead to a commercial airline job. First of all, the pay is horrible for starting pilots. What you have to do is fly cargo before flying commercial passenger planes. The pay is horrendously low. Because I got married in the interim and had children, I simply couldn't justify it.

ANVIL: And where did you meet your wife?

TIM: She was putting herself through school working as a bartender when we me at the place where she worked. In fact, about the only good thing that ever happened to me during those years was meeting my wife.

ANVIL: So she has been a very positive influence on your life.

TIM: She most certainly has. And we now have two boys, six and eight years old. They've never seen me drunk, and they most likely never will. That's a blessing. The things I have done in the last 13 years I never even dreamed I would-or could-do. Without belaboring the subject, I just want to say that the drinking years were an extremely painful time in my life. I lost of lot of jobs and I had a bad reputation during that period.

ANVIL: When did you quit drinking?

TIM: Thirteen years ago. Had I not quit drinking, I never would have gone back to school, I never would have flown airplanes, I never would have been married, nor had children. I probably would have never retired from horseshoeing to pursue blacksmithing, either. In fact, my life would be light years from what it is now, had I continued drinking to the degree I had been, which was heavy and often. I had a problem with alcohol, but it certainly had nothing to do with my chosen profession of horseshoeing. But that's ancient history now.

ANVIL: So your interest in blacksmithing was increasing. Were you getting somewhat disillusioned at the track?

TIM: No, I had some physical problems. There are horseshoers whom I know on the racetrack who have routinely shod 10 to 15 horses a day for years. I was never physically able to do that. I've had trouble with my back, my knees and my hips-more so with my hips in the last five years or so. But because of the physical problems I was having I knew I couldn't continue shoeing until retirement.

ANVIL: Are you still flying?

TIM: I do just enough to stay current. A friend of mine owns an airplane and we go flying. It was too much of my life-too expensive, time consuming, challenging and yet rewarding to ever give it up completely. I would never give up flying now after what I went through to get all the licenses and ratings that I got.

I started flying when I quit drinking. And that was the impetus to do something with my life. I got into flying and realized that, if I didn't drink, anything was possible. When I stopped drinking and began flying, my life changed 180 degrees. I knew my wife then, and after a year or more of sobriety, we decided to marry. We've been together seventeen years, and have been married since 1989.

ANVIL: How many horses were you shoeing?

TIM: Four to six a day. The most horses I ever did in one day was 13, and the next day I was so sore I couldn't even get out of bed. I knew that I could not continue horseshoeing until I was 60 years old. I've always loved blacksmithing and metalsmithing. It was really my first love as a job; I always wanted to do metal work. It was something I was good at and thoroughly enjoyed. When I get up in the morning and come to the shop now, I'm excited about what I'm doing.

ANVIL: Tell us about your transition from leaving the racetrack and coming to this blacksmithing shop.

TIM: About three years ago, I had heard that Jim Austin and Frank Trousil had a blacksmithing shop in San Francisco. I wanted to see their shop, so I went by one day. I was totally amazed at the work they were doing and the equipment they had. My experience as a blacksmith was at the historical restoration level with an anvil, a bellows, a coal fire and a hammer. When I saw the work they were doing with a Nazel 3B and a Beche', I was awestruck.

The following year I went to the fall California Blacksmiths Association conference just to check it out and that's really when I made up my mind that I was going do blacksmithing full time.

ANVIL: When you and I met at the Oktoberfest, I had known you because of a couple of articles that you had written for ANVIL Magazine, if you recall. One of them was about a blacksmith shop entitled "Henry Haus Blacksmith Shop" (see ANVIL Magazine, December, 1999). At the time you wrote the piece, you were going up to the blacksmith shop on weekends and doing some work in that area.

TIM: The reason we were going to Pope Valley, which is north of the Napa Valley, was to visit Jim Fresquez and Susan Meyers, friends I'd met through the racetrack; they own racehorses. My wife and I became friends with them and they own a small winery in Pope Valley, as well as a bed and breakfast on the same property. We started going up there on the weekends every so often. One weekend I purchased a horse for my wife from the racetrack. I brought the horse up early to the winery without letting my wife know-I wanted to surprise her, because she had wanted her own horse all of her life. Her horse is still up at the winery and I go there and shoe and trim their horses in exchange for staying in the bed and breakfast at the winery. They board my wife's horse there and I barter the labor. That was also another thing that got me into blacksmithing. Down the road from that winery was Henry Haus's blacksmith shop that I wrote about for ANVIL Magazine. My friend Jim, the owner of the winery, had told me about it and said, `You must see this place! It's unbelievable-like being in a time warp.' So one weekend we went up there and visited to the blacksmith shop. The family who owns it opened the place up for us and I was shocked that a blacksmith shop could be so well preserved. This was a shop that had been preserved in a moment in time, and no one had been in it working for at least 50 years. And yet, everything was just as it had been 50 years ago. When I walked in there, I got a chill, and the hair stood up on the back of my neck when I realized what this place was.

ANVIL: As I recall, there was a problem with the property there and it looked as though the old shop was going to end up being dismantled.

TIM: Yes, and it still could be. It's in danger right now of being dismantled and being pu into storage or sold off. Actually, there is only one family member left and she is the granddaughter. She doesn't have any particular interest in the place. It has been turned over to the historical society and the man who oversees the property doesn't have any real interest in it, other than the fact that he knew Henry Haus when he was a boy. But this man, I have to say to his credit, has been protecting the blacksmith shop all these years. He lives in the actual residence that Henry Haus built and he runs the tractor repair shop across the street. His wife is the town historian, so to speak, and they would like to preserve it. But the idea has so far been turned down by the historical society and it's a political football now. The historical society is controlled politically at this time by the local wineries. They would like to see vineyards put on most all existing property in that area. They really have no interest in preserving it as an historical site. But it's so unique, I really hope it can be saved. I've never seen anything like it. Right down the street from the Haus Blacksmith Shop is the home of Henry Haus's brother Ed, who started a winery. He was a blacksmith as well, and he had the county water trough contract, where people traveling down the road had to pay him a fee to use the facility. He had the blacksmith shop there and he was quite a businessman at the time, around 1890.

ANVIL: Tell us how you met your friend and mentor, Georgio.

TIM: I had done some work for our friends' winery; I built a gate for them. But it was th first architectural blacksmithing I had ever done. Most of my blacksmithing work had been fireplace pokers and that kind of thing: tools, candleholders, and hooks. I received a MIG welder and a set of oxyacetylene tanks in exchange for the gates.

After going to the CBA Oktoberfest conference, I had learned how to make spring swages for texturing bark on grapevines. So I cut the leaves out with a torch and welded them on the grapevine. Someone had referred me to Georgio, who does architectural structural steel work. Georgio is from a family in Italy that goes back many generations of blacksmiths. All his uncles, his father, and his grandfather were blacksmiths. His father apprenticed under a man who was an apprentice for the famous Italian blacksmith, Mazzucotelli. So Georgio is like second once removed from training under Mazzucotelli.

ANVIL: Steve Bondi wrote a most interesting article about Mazzucotelli for ANVIL Magazine, `The Iron Gate of Gladiolus' (see ANVIL Magazine, June, 1998).

Georgio is a blacksmith?

TIM: Yes and no; he actually considers himself a fabricator-he's probably one of the best fabricators in the U.S. and I know I'm not going out on a limb by saying that. I really believe he is one of the most talented metalworkers I've ever met. For example, I watched him straighten I-beams with a torch-that kind of thing. It doesn't matter how big a piece of metal that you weld on, heat from the weld will do something to it. Incredible internal forces are created inside welded metal and it will curl up a piece of plate or an I-beam like a potato chip if you don't know what you're doing. You have to alternate welding from one side to another or pre-stress with a torch or post-stress relieve with a torch. He can do all that and more. He has done some fabulous ornamental work. Georgio did a spiral staircase for the Packard building in Palo Alto back in the `80s. He did a spiral staircase for Hermes, a well-known French cologne company at Union Square in San Francisco. It is beautiful work with a brass top railing. The guy can do it all. But as he said, he can make more money doing structural steel. When he was a young man his father had him do railings. I asked him once how many railings he had done. He said `From here to Cancun!' So he doesn't really enjoy doing railings because he's done them for so long. But he is, by anyone's measure, a true master metalworker.

ANVIL: So Georgio took you under his wing, so to speak.

TIM: Yes, he did. It was because of Georgio's generosity in offering me a space in his shop which enabled me to do blacksmithing. I could come in after shoeing at the track in the afternoons and blacksmith. What's more, he allowed me the use of all his equipment in the shop to build a power hammer-from a 5-ton overhead crane to the Bridgeport milling machine, to his Marvel band saw. (See Anvil Magazine article, `In Search of Power,' January, 2001) He shared his wealth of knowledge in metalwork with me, as well. Had he not done that, I would not have been able to build the power hammer. Without his experience in setting up some of the jigs that I used to build that power hammer, it never would have worked. I'm talking especially about the guide and the way it was clamped and drilled-he showed me how to do all that. Then, when it came to welding it to the frame itself, he was the one who showed me how to weld without warping. Without that, the thing wouldn't have gone together and it wouldn't have slid up and down in the guide. Without the Bridgeport milling machine and his Hogan magnetic drill press (we set the magnetic drill press on a piece of plate, pushed the button and it clamps down magnetically to whatever you're drilling), I couldn't have done it.

ANVIL: Is he doing mostly big buildings now?

TIM: Yes; he does structural buildings, from I-beams to seismic retrofitting of buildings San Francisco. He bids on some very big contracts.

ANVIL: Did you ever actually work for Georgio?

TIM: Yes, I did. When I was doing artistic work I did a sculpture, some fireplace tools, and a lamp, and I tried to sell them, but couldn't sell them fast enough to make a living. I was going under and, again, he stepped in and gave me a job. I worked for him part time, three days a week as a welder, which gave me some money, and the other days I was able to work on my blacksmithing. Needless to say, I owe Georgio a tremendous amount of gratitude for all he has done for me.

ANVIL: So there is a big advantage to having a contractor's license if you are a blacksmith?

TIM: I think so.

ANVIL: Why is that?

TIM: Well, without a contractor's license, I would not meet the requirements to enable me to bid on particular types of jobs, for example. Not having a contractor's license would limit the type of work that I could do. Of course, an established blacksmith might not need to have a contractor's license. What I seem to find is that very often a blacksmith will do architectural work in the shop and then the general contractor will take the work and install it himself with either carpenters or laborers. It really doesn't require as much skill to do the installation as it does to do the forging and fabrication of the work itself.

ANVIL: But in many cases I would think that the blacksmith would want to do the installation just because he would have more control over the project.

TIM: That's true. Say, for instance, that you get the railing on site and see that either carpenter may have made a mistake subsequent to your taking the field measurements. I would like to have the ability, right on site, to make a correction with an installation vehicle where I had access to oxyacetylene or a die grinder, for example, and not have to take the piece from the site back to the shop to do a correction. Of course, you're getting more into a fabricating scenario than blacksmithing.

I really feel that, for me to make a living as a blacksmith, I need to incorporate every piece of equipment I can get my hands on, including a power hammer, an ironworker, band saws, cold-cut saws, plasma cutters, oxyacetylene-you name it. I really believe that it is the final product that a customer is looking at, and that they don't really care as much how you arrive at it. They want the final product to be of high quality and skilled craftsmanship. For me, if it takes a band saw, a plasma cutter, and a power hammer and anvil, then those are the tools I will use. In order to make a living, I have to make things as expediently as possible. However, I would love to just do artistic ironwork only and not worry about having to pay bills and supporting my family. Reality for me, in this economy and the way that I'm trying to survive, is a compromise between modern technology and my love of blacksmithing and traditional techniques. I try to do that as much as possible, but I will use modern equipment when it is necessary to save time.

Look for Part 2 of this interview in the May 2001 issue.

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