Passersby may not immediately recognize the Red Dog Forge, tucked in a small garage in Rocheport, as anything special. It’s only when they peer inside to see the glow of a red hot fire and hear the loud clanking of hammers on metal that they decide to take a second look.
Red Dog Forge, a blacksmith shop in Rocheport, keeps the art of blacksmithing alive in mid- Missouri by training young apprentices and selling one-of-a-kind, handmade products. The shop is connected to a store, Arts & Antiques. Husband and wife George and Christina Robb have run both establishments for more than 20 years.
“I’m a one-of-a-kind blacksmith,” said George Robb, 77. “If you can dream it, I can make it.”
Customers come to Robb with ideas, and if he feels an attachment to the product, he’ll make it. Robb recognizes that there are other places where customers could get similar products, but he argues that there’s a personal element to his work that is difficult to find elsewhere.
“It’s my expression,” Robb said. “I get attached to these products. When pieces leave, part of me has gone there. If I make a shovel, there’s a part of me in that. It was just a flat piece of metal before I did anything with it.”
Robb’s first apprentice, Ethan Lee, a master bladesmith, said there will always be people who appreciate handmade products.
“When people see what goes into it, they have a lot of respect for someone who can make something from nothing,” Lee said. “That drives a lot of interest.”
One thing that cools interest for some customers is the pricing.
Cocktail tables, which are among Robb’s more popular items, are priced around $6,500. A larger table could be up to $10,000.
“Everybody underestimates the time that goes into projects, unless they try to do it themselves,” Robb said. “A candle stand could take a weekend, and it goes for about $100. A large cocktail table could take six months.”
Before a project, Robb gives customers an estimate for the maximum price of the project. That price is frequently discounted based on the amount of time it takes to complete a project or the difficulty level. Sometimes, Robb will have customers who commission him for a project, only to change their minds halfway through the process.
“In the past 30 years or so of doing this business, I can look at a person and tell whether I like them or I can trust them,” Robb said. “If I don’t like them or feel like I can’t trust them, then I ask for half the price of the product up front, and if they don’t come back, to heck with them. That’s not overly aggressive business; that’s good business.”
While Red Dog Forge has a small social media presence on Facebook, Robb said he gets most of his customers through word of mouth.
“One of my favorite examples is when I had this lady in Chesterfield that I made a cocktail table for, and three months later her sister-in-law calls the shop,” Robb said. “She said, ‘Did you make so and so’s cocktail table? I want you to make me one, only I want mine to be better.’”
On a typical day, Robb says 10 to 15 customers will stop in the shop. But over the summer of 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Red Dog Forge saw its best three months of business yet.
“People were at home, and they decided, ‘This is really not a bad place, but it needs some work.’” Robb said. “Even Home Depot saw increased sales.”
During these months, Robb took on his seventh apprentice to date, 17-year-old Harry Trice.
“When I was pretty young, we used to come to Rocheport all the time to try to visit this shop,” Trice said. “The apprenticeship happened pretty fast. My dad mentioned the opportunity, and then a couple weeks later I was here doing it.”
Robb says apprentices like Trice are the reason he takes on the mentor role.
“I get an apprentice only when I find somebody really special,” Robb said. “Harry’s a natural. I don’t even have to watch him. He knows what he’s doing, and he’s very conscientious.”
Robb also feels a higher calling to pass on his skills in blacksmithing to a younger generation.
“God gives people gifts, and if you’ve got a gift, you’ve got to give back,” Robb said. “That’s how I feel. I love teaching.”