This couple is hot stuff

The Coddingtons fan the flames of romance in a 30-year collaboration

Author: Deborah J. Botti
Posted: Saturday, March 01, 2008

What's the glue that allows a couple to successfully live and work together for 30 years?

"Lust," says C. Fletcher Coddington.

"Lust, that's funny. I would have said love, but that's the difference between men and women," responds his wife, Debra Feiner Coddington, who then reflects: "How lucky am I?"

While there might have been some luck involved in the forging of their relationship, it's clearly hard work, dedication, talent, humor, drive and mutual respect that have welded these two metal-workers together.

They have seen their business, Arrowsmith Forge in Millbrook, grow and evolve, much like the way a piece of hot metal is coaxed into a work of beauty. And they've done it together.

"If we're arguing, we can't get away from one another," says Debra. "It makes dealing with annoyances unavoidable, which is sometimes good and sometimes not so good."

But on the plus side, there's no time wasted on commuting. A new showroom has recently opened in the 15,000-square foot building they own in the Mabbettsville area, which also houses their blacksmith forge, machine shop and  foundry, along with facilities for sheet-metal work, welding and heavy (iron) and fine (gold and silver) metal work. A custom framer and architect also rent space in that building.

"We're trying to turn this into an artisan and design center," says Debra. And as if this isn't enough, they rent a store in downtown Millbrook, at 3275 Franklin Ave, which they opened in October.

"I fell in love with the building 30 years ago," says Debra. "I love the store. I love its energy. And the space screams for ironwork, so Fletcher is in the process of creating a magical railing and sign hanger."

The building has been a gift store for 40 years, and the Coddingtons have kept it a gift shop that offers unusual items from all over the world - with a concentration on local goods. It is also another venue in which to expose people to their iron works - from the moment their hands slide up the railing with replaceable, sculptural panels to the time they spy the dramatic chandelier suspended from the ceiling or a country French piece tucked in the corner.

"Everything is a work in progress now," says Debra, 58. "We should be slowing down, but we're not. We're speeding up."

How Arrowsmith was forged

"My work is my play," says Fletcher, a 60-year-old Millbrook native. "I'm dyslexic, so I didn't read real well. My parents spent a lot of time exposing me to all possibilities. At 17, I was working with metal and clay. Metal is like clay, only it's harder to make it do what you want it to do."

He attained an associate's degree in art, where he learned the basics, including sculpture, and then graduated from the Hobart Welding School in Troy, Ohio, where he was trained in blacksmithing, foundry work and pattern making. "Metal clicked," he says.

Debra's uncle was a dental technician who cast gold crowns by day and relaxed by creating and casting small sculptures. She was fascinated – and heeded his advice: "Anyone with good hands should use them."

She studied art for two-and-a-half years at Hunter College and took subsequent classes at The New School in New York City. In her early 20s, this Manhattan native was part of the collaborative art scene that took over abandoned buildings as a way to find affordable spaces. From her City studio, she was fashioning jewelry pieces in gold and silver, but she thirsted for more.

In the mid- to late '70s, she packed her tools, clothes, mattress and German shepherd into a van. Her plan then was to live with her sister in Montana and finish her formal education – after indulging her maverick spirit with a little traveling first.

She returned to the New York area for an ABANA (Artists-Blacksmith's Association of North America)
conference at SUNY Purchase – and received the lesson of a lifetime. This is where she met Fletcher.

"There was no dating," Debra says. "I came to visit and never left. I wanted to study blacksmithing with Fletcher; I had been studying with others who were less knowledgeable. It immediately worked."

As a young couple, they explored the United States – even reaching Montana, but Debra could not convince Fletcher to stay there very long. “He's deeply rooted, like an oak tree, in Millbrook," she says.

"I live on the same property as I did when I was 6," he boasts.

But for budding artisans, Millbrook was the place to be. "Millbrook is a little jewel in Dutchess County," Debra says. "There's great wealth, people with disposable income and great taste. They seek us out, affording us the ability to be artisans."

In the early years, there was a lot of custom work. "A blacksmith is the only artisan who makes his own tools," says Fletcher. "You're only limited by your imagination."

Custom work ranges from fencing to furniture, as well as casting worn out parts to replace irreplaceable 100-year-old plumbing fixtures. There have been requests for everything from gates to hinges. "I run the business by default – simply because I don't invert numbers," says Debra.

To keep her creative spirit regularly nourished, she does a lot of the design, finishing work and quality control. Over the years, though, she's done her share of the "bigger" work – and has the broken fingers as proof.

"We've both broken fingers, and Fletcher severed a tendon," Debra says. "Burns don't even count. And even with eye protection, stuff flies all over.

"But we have a good safety record. A new hire is watched closely by the others to see if there is a respect for the equipment. And with the custom, non-rote work, the brain is engaged, which cuts down on the likelihood of injuries."

"It's a hot, dirty shop," says Fletcher, who's frequently accompanied by Courbet, their parrot who brings some color into the surrounds. Courbet stays in the office while work is being done, and is most likely to talk when trying to coax their youngest son to play clarinet, so he's not a verbal distraction. The four cats stay at home.

"The parrot is far more dangerous than our dog [a Rottie-mix[," quips Debra.

Despite the danger and exacting nature of iron work, many of their finished products are difficult to see, says Fletcher. He cites the circular-window hinge that came with a specifically-forged set of installation tools for use by the carpenter or a European chandelier that he rewired – because they're in private homes and estates.

"We used to do carriage brakes and lantern fittings on horse-drawn carriages," says Fletcher, recalling the carriage competitions more than two decades ago. That's also about the time limited high-end production work became a mainstay.

"We were like Santa's workshop – with fire," says Debra.

Trucks would come up from the City to pick up their handmade goods such as tables, chairs, wall sconces and chandeliers and deliver them to WaterWorks, Brunschwig & Fils and Pierre Dieux. At its peak, there were 22 guys in the shop; now there are four.

"Business took a big hit about eight years ago after NAFTA," says Debra. Because of the new global market, many clients looked toward Mexico, South America and the Pacific Rim for cheaper products.

"It almost put us out of business. We thought we just needed to work harder. Now we realize we need to work differently," she says. "We always did custom work. There was an overlap, even when production was humming. We went back to trying to build a custom market."

That's when they opened a showroom, and honed their focus on unique, quality work. "If I don't love a piece, it doesn't leave the shop," says Fletcher.

"But it's like growing children," says Debra, paralleling their two boys. "You need to know when to let go."

Their oldest son, who is 30, estimates rigging for events such as rock concerts that require flying apparatus. He and his wife will make his parents grandparents in January.

Their 21-year-old son is studying sustainable agriculture. Now that he's a senior in college, the Coddingtons hope that 2008 will ring in a little more calm.

"There are constant challenges," says Fletcher, who enjoys riding his motorcycle, but is equally happy hammering away on a piece he's creating for himself, rather than a client.

"I'd love to see the business a little more self-sufficient" says Debra, who relies on Kahlyn Booth to manage the gift shop and Dotti Talcott to run the office. With the new showroom up and running, she hopes to find more time for brisk walks with the dog, the gym and hands-on work. She's also involved behind the scenes in local politics, backing candidates who support open space and saving rural properties.

Gradually, she hopes that she and Fletcher will be able to break away occasionally to travel. "I want to go to Europe," she says.

Not that either one of them are really longing for an escape. "After 30 years, it's still fun," says Debra. "How lucky are we!"

Deborah Botti is a freelance writer living in Orange County.

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