When Helmut Hillenkamp first came to the US in 1984, it was as an itinerant journeyman pipe fitter and welder. He was looking for new and creative ways to work with iron. When the opportunity to design and build a number of railings at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur opened up, he took it and moved in for a few years as the resident metal fabricator. He was able to hang out with colleagues from the California Blacksmith Association and learned the first steps in forging iron.
He enjoyed this so much that soon he tried to be the Johnny Appleseed of blacksmithing. Along his paths in Santa Barbara, California, Aachen, Germany, and Zürich, Switzerland, he put together on-the-fly shops where he taught oxyacetylene and stick welding, as well as the basics of working with anvil and coal forge. In the process the participants were creating sculptural and utilitarian pieces of their own.
Upon meeting blacksmith Christoph Friedrich he served several terms of internships at this master's smithy in Sennwald, Switzerland. From here he was sent on missions to Cuenca, Ecuador, to teach forge work and help keep that local tradition alive. There he also had the opportunity to participate in a short apprenticeship with the late legendary locksmith Manuel Guerra.
By 1991 Helmut was ready to wind down his travels and settle down in one place. After working with architectural blacksmith Tom Joyce for a short stint, he decided to rent his own shop in Santa Fe and make a go of custom ironwork. He has been living in Santa Fe since then, grown his business iron-to-live-with, and raised two children together with his wife Christy. Christy is a ceramic artist. The couple has realized several large public art works together, including a sculpture of Vulcan emerging from a volcano in Ecuador, a piece honoring the blacksmiths community.
Recently Helmut took on the Say-Mak line of air hammers, which he is pictured with, importing these beautiful machines from Konya, Turkey, and making them available for sale to his American colleagues. He travels to Turkey on a regular basis, continuously improving the products with the factory and implementing customers' wishes for new designs of parts, bases, and dies. He runs a small blacksmith shop with two employees and continues to make hand forged custom work mostly for local customers.
Helmut holds two journeyman licenses issued by the Aachen Chamber of Trades, one in heating and HVAC (steam fitting), the other in metal design (blacksmithing). He is the recipient of the Bealer Award for merits on behalf of the craft.