Proving His Metal

Forget all that "village smithy" stuff. There's nothing romantic about blacksmith Bill Mogavero's origins. "My parents weren't gonna buy me stuff, and I wanted stuff. That's it in a nutshell," he says.

From the age of 13, Mogavero lived for speed, and all he wanted was a racecar. Because no one was likely to buy him one, he had to build his own—from the asphalt up, one weld at a time.

Now Mogavero is 41, and he has welded himself into one of Long Island's few remaining blacksmiths, though with his big frame and huge hands he looks as if he were born to be one. He has slowed down enough to be considered an artist in iron. But he hasn't slowed all the way down. Holding a hearty packaged hot lunch that he will eat on foot, Mogavero walks through his shop yard at Custom Metal Fabrications, in an industrial area of Westbury near the train tracks, and talks about the beautiful work he currently has in process.

A lyrically curlicued archway, soon to be fitted with a hanging light, is being created as one of three that will surround a swimming pool at an interior designer's home in Brookville; each arch will cost $4,000. Several rusted wrought-iron flower boxes—originally hot-forged sometime between 1904 and 1908—are being restored to their original beauty for a home in Macy's Channel in Hewlett. A streamlined, modernist catwalk destined for Jerome Stern's art gallery in Quogue now lies in pieces on the cement floor of the industrial building housing Mogavero's shop. Elsewhere, Mogavero proudly shows a visitor drawings and photos of some elegant iron grillwork and railings he built for Bridal Couture in Manhasset.

What's a grill like that doing in a place like this? Mogavero wasn't always into this kind of beauty. "A couple of my neighbors in Salisbury were motorheads," he says of his childhood. "We started out with mini-bikes and motor bikes, graduated to dirt bikes and cars. We bought 'em and stripped 'em. I always wanted to build my own rod. I was always tearing something apart."

And he put together his career by focusing on one thing: how to build a hot rod.

"I began working right out of high school at Win-Holt in Garden City," he says. "A guy showed me how to weld with his eyes closed. He showed me that if you have the right rod and the right heat, it does it itself. Then the hot rod needed a sheet-aluminum interior, so I went to Norm and Sons in Hicksville. I did everything there. They made aluminum ducts. I learned to work with sheet metal."

And at home he was working on his car: a '67 Chevy II.

"Next," he recalls, "I went to Kuno Steel Products in Hicksville—they did heavy structural steel work—I-beams and girders for buildings. I did driving, welding, erecting. I learned everything from Kuno, especially how to work hard. He even loaned me the money for a motor for the car."

 

NEXT STOP: FRANCIS A. LEE IN HICKSVILLE

"I learned how to work from a plan," he says. "I did a big structural job for a bank and it fit like a glove. I did lots of heavy welding and more technical work. I was also doing a lot of side work. Good thing, because I got canned. I had been renting a garage on Sullivan Street for a few years, to store my racecar in. So I hooked up the welder. I specialized in anything and everything...rotted floors in cars, trailer work, truck work. There were some cement guys I worked with—back then you made $200, you kept $200."

Always adaptable, Mogavero moved into blacksmithing as a practical matter. "When competition came into this area in '93, I knew that I had to do something a little different, a little better," he says. "I saw an article in Fabricatos magazine about blacksmithing, and a bulb went off in my head. I joined the Artist Blacksmith Association of North America and got every back issue I could get my hands on. I went to conferences and demonstrations, bought about $3,000 worth of books on the subject. I read and read and read.

"Then I built my first forge, a little propane forge, used a hairdryer to fan the flames."

One of his first creations was a serpent that's both playful and gothic. The craft itself was anything but playful. "I threw out my elbow, my arm, my wrists—threw everything out—I wasn't used to it," says Mogavero. But steady work gave him strength and confidence. After crafting railings for a house in Roslyn, he got a big job in Brookville: 300 feet of railing and at least 300 more feet of outside of work—a three-year task. And then Oheka Castle called, needing repair of its courtyard and archways. "Don't know how they got my name," Mogavero says. "I found an 80-year-old guy in Boise, Idaho, who knew how to do French repousse work. He faxed me complete detailed directions. I spent one Sunday at the shop, making the tools. I followed his instructions and it all fell into place."

Everything takes time, especially when you're crafting something that is designed to last—whether it's a bar of iron or an entire career.

"Hand work," says Mogavero, "always takes longer than you think it will."

 
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