Fluid Metal -- Iron Artist Roman Torres Leaves His Mark On Gateways And Stairways

ROMAN TORRES LIGHTS HIS forge with the toss of a match. He is a brawny man wearing a thick leather apron and a single leather glove. Folding his arms over his chest, he watches as the mound of blacksmith coals takes fire. Soon flames shoot up and start to dance. He smiles. When the fire slows, he shuffles the coals with an iron poker, then pops in a handful of5-foot-long iron rods. A spark floats about the workshop as the rod ends turn from dull black to soft burgundy to the red Torres sees as his green light. Cherry red indicates around 1,500 degrees F. The iron is ready for him.

With his gloved hand, Torres flips a rod onto his anvil. With the bare hand, he hoists a 12-ounce hammer as if it were a feather and starts to make music - a syncopated clang of hammer against hot metal. In a heartbeat, he has coaxed the square rod end into a fluid curve that arches to a lyrical point.

"Fluid shapes from such a hard raw material," he says. "It's part of the trade." Torres next turns to his work table. He aligns the curved end within the grooves of an iron jig, then pulls slowly and steadily on the rod's cold end, transforming the curve - now crimson - into a scroll. As the hot iron bends, an ashy surface crust cracks, revealing glowing orange metal beneath. Torres removes the crust with quick strokes of a wire brush, then lifts the scroll from the jig and places it gently back in the forge. He does not pause. The man doesn't even break a sweat. He flips another rod onto the anvil.

So passes an afternoon at Mexican Artistic Iron & Brass Works, Torres's Magnolia workshop. In just under 10 minutes he has finished two scrolls. "I get full exercise," he says. "You lift, you bend, you twist. It keeps me in shape; you use your body and your mind."

Though the surface of each scroll bears distinct marks and finish, they mirror each other's dimensions exactly, a mark of skill Torres is keen to point out. "That's where you seethe real craft," he says.

Torres, at 71, has been known to make 150 scrolls in a day. He once made a wrought-iron fence for an estate in Mexico that required 12,000 scrolls. The handmade gates he now creates for stately houses on Lake Washington Boulevard contain anywhere from a dozen scrolls to 200 or more - along with numerous spiral balls, twisted bars, and other handmade embellishments. His iron fences, doors, window grills, screens, balconies and stairways also grace homes, commercial buildings and public spaces throughout the Puget Sound area.

Most locals and visiting tourists have seen Torres's two wrought-iron railings at Victor Steinbrueck Park at the Pike Place Market. Painted a pale green, the railings evoke Northwest flora with abstractions of cat tails, reeds and seaweed. In the center of each are the engraved names of both Torres andVictor Steinbrueck.

It was Steinbrueck, an architect of the Space Needle and champion of the Pike Place Market, who recruited Torres for the 1981 commission at what was then Pike Park. It was Torres who interpreted Steinbrueck's designs for the medium and determined the weave of the integral pieces, all of which began as iron rods. Today, Steinbrueck's original sketches for the railings hang from a nail on the wall of Torres' shop.

"Mr. Steinbrueck was a wonderful person to work with," Torres says. "We were supposed to work together on an historic building in Alaska next, but that's when he died. One of these days, I'm going to frame those sketches."

Born on a ranch in Cuernavaca, Mexico, Torres learned the blacksmith trade from an uncle. At 8 years old, he was a reticent student.

Torres started out restoring antiques of iron, brass and copper. Eventually he competed with his uncle, finding his niche in elaborate gates, railings and fences of traditional Mexican Colonial style - always entirely hand-wrought despite the advent of mass-produced, prefabricated components.

Then, in 1968, a romance brought him to Seattle, where he found little interest in the Colonial-style ironwork, or, for that matter, wrought iron. "When I first arrived, I looked in the phone book," he says. "There were less than a dozen metalsmiths here at that time." He worked for two of them before opening up his first Seattle shop in 1970 on West Nickerson Street. Fireplace screens and tools dominated his initial commissions. He later moved to his present location by Fishermen's Terminal.

Over the years, ornamental ironwork and Mexican Colonial-inspired architecture and decor gained a foothold in the Northwest. Through word of mouth, Torres's reputation for fine, handcrafted workmanship spread. His son Carlos joined him to meet the demand. Today, their clients range from shop owners and church pastors to former Seahawk Kenny Easley.

"I never pay much attention to past jobs, though," Torres says. "When I do a design, I do it right here in my shop. And when I'm done making it, the whole thing disappears."

Torres begins each commission by sketching directly on his work table in colored chalk. To envision the finished piece, he places leftover scrolls and other iron scraps on top of the sketch until he senses what works. Then he fires up the forge.

His fee depends on the intricacy of the commission. A Torres-designed door pull costs anywhere from $25 to $500 or more; a driveway gate, from $2,500 to upward of $5,000.

Not long ago, he created a dramatic stairwell railing of scrolls and leaves for the remodel of a Mediterranean-style Madrona house. For the railing, he charged $2,500. That commission serendipitously teamed him up with home designer Peter Steinbrueck - Victor Steinbrueck's son. "What life sometimes gives you," Torres says, "is a nice surprise."

Freelance writer Trish Reynales has reported on art and architecture for publications including Islands, Los Angeles Times Magazine and Latin American Art. Barry Wong is a Seattle Times photographer.