by Rebecca Guenard

photographs by Eamon Queeney

The metal transforms under her skilled hammer strikes, yielding easily in its malleable state. She guides the molten steel into precise tapers and graceful curves with only a few controlled blows. Meanwhile, attempts by one novice result in misshapen, tortured metal, as if to prove her deftness. Today’s goal is to fashion a hook, and though the beginner’s metal is too
thin in spots and oddly misaligned, it is hook-shaped – so that’s something. Besides, she is a master craftswoman, at the helm
of an all-levels blacksmithing class.

The craftswoman is Mary Catherine (“MC”) Floyd, one of the co-founders of ShopSpace, a forging and fabrication studio in the Boylan Heights district of downtown Raleigh. Floyd teaches evening classes in metalwork, along with her husband and co-founder Dave Nicolay and fellow metal artist and other co-founder Lucas House (there is also a fourth co-founder, Bill Knight). They regularly welcome world-class craftspeople and intrepid beginners alike to the shop, ushering them into a well-stocked, no-judgement place for learning and honing.

Creating Space

ShopSpace’s four co-founders all share a dedication to their craft. Lucas House, a native of Western North Carolina, moved to Raleigh to attend N.C. State’s College of Design in 2002, when he also joined artist co-op Antfarm Studios. After graduation, he opened his metalworks business IronHouse Forge, specializing in custom designed commercial and residential pieces. Through the years and the ups and downs of small-business ownership, House kept in touch with College of Design classmate Dave Nicolay. For his part, Nicolay applied his design training to work as a general contractor, specializing in historic restoration. Nicolay often borrowed House’s shop tools and space for projects.

Worlds collided in 2009 when Floyd traveled to Raleigh for the installation of her honeycomb sculpture in the now-closed Busy Bee Cafe restaurant. Nicolay was friends with the restaurant’s remodelling contractors and helped Floyd install her sculpture. At the time, Floyd was a blacksmith’s apprentice at the National Ornamental Metals Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. After the Busy Bee project, the two dated long-distance for awhile before Floyd returned to her native Raleigh, married Nicolay, and wound up in a studio at Antfarm, collaborating with House.

The trio spent a lot of time in the metalworks studio, imagining a place open and inviting to the community. House and Nicolay were inspired by the shop they had access to as students at the College of Design and were determined to provide Raleigh with a similar space where people could be creative with metal. Luckily, House had his IronHouse Forge studio, and he was willing to have it do double-duty. In 2016, the ShopSpace idea was born; longtime friend and supporter Ben Knight joined the team to help get the space up and running.

ShopSpace accommodates a range of metalwork expertise. If you have always wanted to give the work a try, there are two-hour beginner classes in blacksmithing and in fabrication. Then, as your skill and appreciation for safety grow, you can sign up for open shop time to work on an independent project. 

Nicolay says that in the year-and-a-half since ShopSpace opened, over 700 students have crossed the threshold. They need more space. In the fall, the team will move out of its current 1,500-square-foot Antfarm spot (and House’s professional studio) to a 8,000-square-foot warehouse on Capital Boulevard. The extra room will allow the trio to teach a wider range of classes and offer memberships for anyone interested in coming and going freely during regular business hours.

Most of ShopSpace’s clients are not craftspeople, according to Nicolay. “Their careers are a little more desk-oriented and this is an outlet for them,” he says.

On a recent Thursday night class, for instance, there were a number of software engineers. There was a young, married couple who delighted in learning a new skill together, and a gentleman who hopes to someday repurpose railroad ties into a set of oyster knives.

Floyd began class that night by informing the group that at 1,800 degrees, metal behaves like clay—in the malleable state. It turns out, that’s only after you’ve practiced a few times. Clay willingly acquiesces to pressure, and for a first-timer, metal stubbornly refuses. But Floyd demonstrated how to make the hot metal accede. The class eagerly set to work trying to influence the metal in the same way. Despite the outcome, the challenge was addictive.

As class wrapped up, most students lingered, not seeming to want the experience to end. The beauty of ShopSpace is that now, there will be an opportunity to try again soon.