In the deep shadows of the western corner of Pilkington’s Metal Marine workshop on East Cordova Street sleeps a relic of days gone by. The cast iron behemoth, fondly referred to as the Hammer by the soot-stained welders working around it, is a throwback in today’s modern steel fabrication industry. Though it used to run eight hours a day, five days a week, it is now only put to work about once a month. Like a difficult show pony loyal only to one owner, the Hammer is tricky to run, but it operates well under the knowing hands of Ralph Pilkington, who started learning the business from his dad at 14. Now 85, he is likely the oldest working blacksmith in Vancouver, the only one capable of running the old machine.
“It’s a good piece of equipment, but if you don’t have the way, you just can’t operate it,” says Pilkington with a chuckle. “I thought I had a few guys interested in training to use it, but they usually go for coffee and never come back.” Pilkington’s Metal Marine has been turning out fishing-related hardware since 1927, when a plethora of tow boats, halibut boats and trollers frequented Vancouver’s harbours. The Hammer was used primarily to make boat-tow hooks, and Pilkington still gets satisfaction out of knocking about his garage, bending chunks of metal into functional form with the old machine. “He’s put in a long career, and he still works. He can still handle the forge. I don’t know where he gets his energy from,” says Pilkington’s son Clark, who runs the business today. When Ralph Pilkington finally hangs up his blacksmithing chaps, Clark will keep the machine until he decides what to do with it. A few local antique collectors have expressed an interest in buying it, but the Pilkingtons aren’t quite ready to give it up. “It was a great piece of equipment, and it never seems to wear out,” says Ralph Pilkington. “I’m just hanging on to the tail end of the old way, but you get a certain amount of satisfaction turning out something that works and performs properly.”