An iron symbol of faithAfter a farm accident left him wheelchair-bound, Jeff Malm found a new calling — creating traditional iron crosses like those found in cemeteries in Germany and Sweden.
By: Kari Lucin, The Jamestown Sun
After a farm accident left him wheelchair-bound, Jeff Malm found a new calling — creating traditional iron crosses like those found in cemeteries in Germany and Sweden.
“I love building, creating and building, the opportunity to use a God-given gift,” Malm said. “I had no idea I’d be doing this. I guess he did.”
Malm’s crosses are handmade, and though some may use the same design, each cross is unique. Each one includes at least one, and perhaps as many as four, iron roses.
Every rose has five layers of petals, and Malm curls the petals with a small propane soldering torch to make them lifelike. They take about five hours each to make.
“None of them will ever really be the same — it’s all by eye,” Malm explained.
The farm accident left him with his hand in a cast, with damaged tendons that had to be fixed in a Minneapolis hospital. Simple activities such as getting in and out of vehicles were suddenly a challenge, and continuing to farm just wasn’t in the cards.
“I didn’t know what else I’d be able to do,” he said.
Malm had a reservoir of creativity to draw on, though. He was a woodworker and a welder, and “could fix anything with iron,” he said.
Some of his friends provided him with inspiration, returning from a conference where a folklorist had spoken about a traditional arts apprenticeship program. The folklorist had said an iron cross-maker was needed.
“I’ve always loved these kinds of things,” Malm said.
With the help of a grant provided by the North Dakota Council on the Arts, Malm started learning the art from blacksmith Herman Kraft of Timber Lake, S.D.
Malm’s first cross was donated to the Germans from Russia Heritage Society at North Dakota State University.
Another went to a grave site for infants in Mott, S.D. He has a few designs for children — they’re smaller, with a heart. Some have a butterfly, a common Christian symbol of rebirth. One design features two hearts within a circle, for twins.
The cross itself is the most important symbol of the faith, Malm said.
“I’m very thankful for the ability. It’s service,” he added.
Malm, 57, lives in rural Kulm, N.D., with his wife, Lucinda, a school counselor in Edgeley and Kulm.
His crosses range from $200 to $600 in price, depending on their size and complexity. Some are made only for display, because they’re too fragile for cemetery use. The cemetery crosses can be made with a heavy base suitable for being cemented into the ground.
Malm has some designs ready, but he can also come up with new ones by request. He’s also made a Christmas tree iron cross and an iron altar and communion table for a church in St. John, N.D.
Though he is a craftsman and an ironworker, Malm doesn’t believe he can call himself a blacksmith, because he doesn’t use a forge.
Most of his work is done without heat, with two exceptions — the rose petals, and the three-quarter-inch shafts needed for some of the larger crosses, which are too heavy to bend without a torch. Working without heat allows him to make more consistent pieces, free of the warping heat can cause.
Each cross takes a couple of weeks to make, assuming Malm spends five or six hours a day working on it.
To begin, he draws a full-scale model of the cross on paper, using scrolls he’s already rolled out to create the pattern.
Malm’s metal is standard iron, and comes in plain 20-foot lengths from a machine shop. He uses mild steel, which is soft enough to bend, and cuts it to the proper length.
He tries to stay as traditional in method as possible, within reason — and the occasional weld can be masked by shrink-tight clamps that would have been used by historical craftsmen.
Because he makes an unusual product, Malm has had to make some of his tools himself, such as the one he uses for making the circles on some of his crosses.
“I like the detail work,” Malm said.
When he’s finished, he cleans them up and sends them to Bismarck to be professionally powder-coated, which can be done in a wide variety of colors, including black, antique bronze or silver, or even bright red or green.
“I just love designing and building and creating,” said Malm, who has also created a pillared fireplace out of an old doorway, built his home’s wooden window treatments, repurposed old doors to make his kitchen cabinets and made a hammered dulcimer.
“God’s given me lots of opportunities,” Malm said.
For more information, call Malm at 701-647-2729 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sun reporter Kari Lucin can be reached at 701-952-8453
or by email at email@example.com