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The Starry Plow

Last year a client approached me about designing and building a small railing for their front steps. They were interested in having something with a more creative flair.

Since returning from Germany last May, I've tried to incorporate a sense of place into my work. This is in addition to fleshing out a more personal perspective to my work. Cincinnati, where I was born and raised, was one of the lynch pins in the Underground Railroad, the network of secret routes and safe houses used to guide escaping slaves out of the South and into northern states prior to the Civil War. Growing up in Ohio, this was always a very big part of our history classes and had an outsized impression on me.

For the new railing design I decided to try and explore this fact. I was drawn to the imagery of the old American folk song "Follow the Drinking Gourd." It is said by some to be based on earlier slave "map songs," which urged escaping slaves to follow the Big Dipper to freedom in the North. The constellation has also been a prominent symbol in the Irish labor movement as well, where it is known as "The Starry Plow." This is a history that has always been important in my family.

After developing some sketches, I hit upon the idea of punching holes in the vertical pickets of the railing, so that when you looked at it from an angle, the holes would form the constellation Ursa Major, or the Big Dipper.

I built a sample piece of the railing to give the clients an idea of scale and how the piece would look.

They liked the idea and approved the design. The holes for the pickets were punched hot by hand from 1" x 1/4" flat stock. The rest of the railing was built using 1" solid square steel bars and the cap rail was made using 2" x 3/8" flat stock which was bent hot at the anvil. The entire piece was MIG welded together. After some unexpected delays that popped up in my life, after a few months I managed to complete the railing and get it installed. Below is a wholly inadequate photo of the finished piece.

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