The fork bender

The fork bender

Artists: The fork bender

The fork bender

The fork bender

When Brion Kerlin sees an old silver spoon or fork, he sees raw material and endless possibilities.

Story: Bridget Broihahn

Photos: Rick Danzl

When Brion Kerlin sees an old silver spoon or fork, he sees raw material and endless possibilities.

“Just call me the Happy Fork Bender,” Kerlin said from his Urbana home and workshop.

Kerlin makes jewelry and other pieces of art for his business called Spoonforkcreations. He can be seen every Saturday morning, from May to November at the Urbana Farmer’s Market on The Square, where he sets up shop and sells his products. It makes him really happy when customers enjoy his work.

“It’s almost as good as money,” he said.

Kerlin has always worked with his hands.

“I had a furniture shop in Woodbine, Illinois when my kids were younger, for about six or seven years,” he said.

Kerlin is a graduate of University High School in Urbana. He attended the University of Illinois at the age 16, eventually getting a BS in anthropology. From there he worked as a counselor at the Adler Mental Health Center. He then completed a teaching degree and certificate in industrial arts from Illinois State University. “I taught at Champaign Central and then on to Door County, Wisconsin on Washington Island,” Kerlin explained.

He was also a licensed delivery boat captain for the United States Coast Guard, putting in over 25,000 miles on the water.

He sold his silver creations on eBay for eight years.

“eBay bought PayPal, so then the charges started eating up my profits. I decided to get out of that and now I do weekend arts and crafts shows only,” he said.  “I make a decent profit.”
It may seem a little backwards, but Kerlin recently retired form Florida to Illinois.

“I have grandkids in the area,” he said. “Plus I am a native of Champaign-Urbana. I guess I came home.”

Kerlin took his first silversmith class at the U of I in 1967. He then created techniques in making antique silverware jewelry. He has sold jewelry at hundreds of shows in Florida, Tennessee and Illinois. This silversmith is a self-professed one-of-a-kind guy. According to Kerlin, design and production quality of silverware pieces from 1870 to 1920 is unrivaled for creativity, beauty, and exceptionally fine detail. The silverware he uses is no longer produced.

“I am the one silver guy in the area. You can hardly find antique silverware. I have a large inventory of spoons,” he said. “There is a scarcity now, because people melted it down.” At one point, silver was at an all time high of $50 per ounce so people melted it down. According to Kerlin, the price is now at about $20 per ounce.

“The designs on the silverware I work with were made with a die strike, just like the making of coins,” he said.

A die is one of the two metallic pieces that are used to strike one side of metal. A die contains an inverse version of the image to be struck on the metal, whether it is a coin or silverware. The equipment and the highly skilled technicians needed to produce these pieces are long gone, said Kerlin. Attempts to produce counterfeit pieces-fakes-fall short of the originals and are easily spotted with crude surfaces and lack of detail.

“I do all cold work,” Kerlin said. “The softening and melting points are just a few degrees apart for silver.”

He only uses silver. “All of my rings are made from antique sterling pieces. I do not use silver plate, as the base metals in plated pieces-nickel, zinc, tin-often cause allergic reaction-green finger-and the plate eventually wears away,” he said.

Kerlin held a budvase made out of a fork and a knife handle. The various parts of the vase are held together by silver solder.  Silver solder is made mostly from tin. “It can be nerve wracking to solder, because it’s intense. The temperature has to be just right. It’s critical. It’s hard to get just right,” he said.

Silversmiths have existed for thousands of years, dating back to approximately 4,000 B.C. Most tools of the trade are still used today. Many artisans create their own tools and Kerlin is no different. His workshop is a combination of tools used to do his specialized work: lineman’s pliers, a metal forming tool that he found on eBay, which he states was probably made in the early 1900s, and some that he has created himself.

“Leather is the best protective surface between the tools and the silver,” he said.

Kerlin held up a spring-loaded fork bracelet. The design came from another silversmith named Coy Overall, a Native American who, according to Kerlin, has a brilliant mind. Overall’s designs retail up in the thousands for some of his select pieces.

“He was willing to let me try to copy the design when I asked if I could recreate a fork bracelet, but he didn’t think I could do it,” Kerlin said. “I did it. Anything worthwhile can be difficult, but it’s worth it”