Cleburne ISD electrician Kris Sandoval will be going back in time this weekend to take on the role of blacksmith at the Chisholm Trail Museum’s 16th Annual Pioneer Days.
Sandoval has been a smith for five years and is a familiar face to weekend visitors to the Chisholm Trail Museum.
“I get told a lot that I was born a century too soon,” Sandoval said. “I love technology and electricity, which makes life easy and convenient. But I also enjoy working with my hands and creating art with my hands through labor. Even in my job as an electrician I try to make things aesthetically pleasing.”
His interest in forge and fire began with a fascination with swords and knives and the craftsmanship and skills in making them.
“I never had an outlet for that until I moved to Cleburne,” he said. “I met some friends who knew John Jobe, who would become my teacher. John was an instructor at Hill College and offered a one-day beginning course in blacksmithing through the Chisholm Trail Museum. I took the course four times—I told him he couldn’t get rid of me.
“Since then, I feel like I’ve become his apprentice. I’ve been out at the museum blacksmithing every other weekend the past four years.”
While his primary focus at the start of his work at the anvil was bladesmithing, he has since dedicated his time to the artistic side of blacksmithing.
“It’s a whole other venue,” he said. “By not pursuing this side of the craft I would be missing out on a lot.”
This weekend, Sandoval will be demonstrating the gamut of blacksmithing, which is traced back to the Iron Age. Visitors can see him fire up the forge, swing the hammer and make the sparks fly as he creates S hooks, flint strikers and leaf-shaped key rings.
His designs also include camping utensils and sculpted votive candle holders done in holiday themes.
“Most of the people I call friends are also craftsmen in their own right,” Sandoval said. “My wife thinks what I do is cool. I’ll bring something home and she’ll post on Facebook, ‘look at what Kris just did!’ I have a friend who is a woodworker who has an amazing creative eye. He’s my best critic—he doesn’t pull any punches—and that has helped me a lot.”
He has the same respect for the power of the flame as he does for electricity, in knowing what can happen if you aren’t careful.
“In blacksmithing, if you haven’t been burned, you’ve not worked hard enough,” he said. “But you’re working with a fire burning at 3000 degrees around sharp rusty things while swinging a three-pound hammer.
“You do everything you can to be safe — I do stress safety. This craft requires a lot of patience. To do it right, it’s not something you can rush through. You definitely need to respect the environment in which you are working.”
As he pursues the creative side of smithing, he’s also begun to collect tools of the trade from 100 years back. What he purchases he puts to use, rather than placing them on display.
“I have started collecting antique hammers,” he said. “My latest find is a 22-pound blacksmith sledge hammer, which is 100 years old. I have also come across a 14-pound sledge hammer from the 1880s.
“I like the modern things, but I also like the self-reliance of ‘old school’. I start my fire with a flint. I like the feeling I get when I do things the ‘ancestral’ way. Learning to be a blacksmith has now translated into my methods of problem-solving. If I need something, I can fabricate it. It’s a different way of working with things.”
Kurt Benson, who is director of maintenance for CISD, has enjoyed watching a member of his department develop a skill with roots in the past.
“When I interviewed Kris four years ago for our electrician position, I was impressed with his knowledge and work ethic,” Benson said. “Partnering that with his calm demeanor, I believed he would be a good fit for our maintenance team. Kris has certainly proved that belief to be correct.
“Aside from his dedication to his job with the district, Kris is an up and coming talented blacksmith. He has created some unique items, which he has shared with us in the office. We’ve seen the tools he has created with handcrafted wooden handles, necklaces, pendants, candle holders and the occasional experimental stone piece. He’s even used scrap wire to create a family of scorpions. With his talent and work ethic, I am pleased to have him on our maintenance team and proud of him being part of the Pioneer Days event.”
Sandoval says he considers himself an ‘adequate’ blacksmith, which is where he centers his creativity. At some point, smithing could become a second career.
“I would like to think when I grow up — after I retire — I may do this full time,” Sandoval said. “I love what I do in CISD and I’m only 35, so that’s way down the road. For me, blacksmithing isn’t hitting something with a hammer. It’s more than that — it’s more personal than that.
“You’re shaping iron into what you want it to be. When you’re working with your hands, you’re not going to get that factory finish. You’re leaving your mark on what you produce. That’s what I like about this. What I make will be unique, one way or another.”
While he may not be standing under a “spreading chestnut tree” this weekend, Sandoval plans to take on the persona of the “village smithy” at what will be his third Pioneer Days event.
“I’m going to be as close as possible to 1850s dress as I can,” he said. “Being a participant in Pioneer Days really pushes my skills, including the ability to put on a presentation.”
Students from Smith and Wheat middle schools, along with those from several CISD elementary campuses, will have the chance to see Sandoval swing the hammer as they attend the annual event to experience life in Cleburne in the 1850s.
Texas history is included in the social studies curriculum for grades 4 and 7.