Oldways – The Art & Craft of the Blacksmith

Ever since I was a kid, I have loved craft. Any kind really – crocheting, knitting, sewing, candlemaking, all manner of food craft – but the completely intriguing crafts are the magical ones. The alchemical crafts that turn a raw, brutish element into something with a functional beauty… those are the crafts of gods. How can mere mortals turn steel into swords? The fiber crafts are less mystical, if no less wonderful. It’s obvious that a soft, pliable ball of wool will easily turn into a soft, pliable sweater. But a bar of steel? What’s obvious about what that will become?

Ask a blacksmith that same question, and I imagine that at first you’ll likely get a blank stare, but quickly following that you will get an enlivened tutorial on the limitless possibilities of that bar of steel, from the mundane objects of household living (the fire poker or the bottle opener) to the beautiful and whimsical (handcrafted furniture and garden gates). The bar of steel becomes, with the application of fire and hammer, whatever is needed or desired. It transforms.

My earliest exposure to blacksmithing was at the Autumn Pioneer Festival, held every year in the town neighboring the one I grew up in. It was fascinating to me. Over the years, I’ve always loved to seek out the forge at other living history sites (Old World Wisconsin is another favorite experience). I was over the moon when I happened across a blacksmithing episode of Monty Don’s Mastercraft series, where he profiles students learning the legacy crafts. (Side note – all of Monty Don’s television programs are pretty good – Big Dreams, Small Spaces is riveting if you’re into garden makeovers.) And the History channel has not one, but two, different blacksmithing shows on the air – Forged in Fire and Milwaukee Blacksmith.

Blacksmithing (and craft in general) are in the midst of a Renaissance, so today it’s trendy to do some work with one’s hands. Is it screen fatigue; a revolt against the virtual reality of the internet? Are we straining against our digital chains? I don’t know (though I suspect that’s part of it) and that’s getting pretty meta, even for me, so to suffice it to say that craft is solidly a part of the daily lives of many of us again, and thank goodness for that. But blacksmithing certainly isn’t a hobby or trade one can pick up as easily as watching a YouTube tutorial on knitting and spending $20 on yarn and a pair of bamboo needles. There is some serious kit involved in blacksmithing (namely the forge, which for the uninitiated, is basically a furnace with actual fire in it). And the tools, and steel (can’t exactly pick that up at Hobby Lobby), and oh wait – how does one actually do it, anyway? If you’re a book person, the answer is in The Art and Craft of the Blacksmith: Techniques and Inspiration for the Modern Smith. (Full disclosure – I did receive a complimentary review copy, but I only review things I like! And that is an affiliate link.) It’s not the first blacksmithing book on the block, but I think it’s one of the best. It’s gorgeous – the color photographs are not only eye-candy, but are imminently practical, showing you exactly what the tools and techniques look like up close. And it’s comprehensive beginner guide, covering the principles of metal, history of blacksmithing, tools and kit, a multitude of techniques, and design. But the showpiece of the book is in the project session, where it shows the novice blacksmith how to execute a project from start to finish, notably how to make the tools you’ll need in your kit. Once you’ve got your kit fitted out, there are projects for house and garden too – a bottle opener, fireplace tools, bookends, trivets – even a side table. And they are all gorgeously wrought. Even if you have no intention of stepping up to an anvil, this book is still a lovely read, enabling one to really appreciate the history and effort behind metalwork. As Thomas notes, his book is an introduction; a stepping stone into the larger, more dynamic world of blacksmithing. So if you’re inspired to try your hand at it after reading the book, you might look for a local club or class. They are increasingly easily to find – google “folk school” for your area, and you’ll more than likely find some options. For those local to Illisconsin, there’s a blacksmithing club in McHenry county called Anvil & Hammer that meets monthly (the Northwest Herald profiled them last year). So whether you’re an armchair smith or want to get your hands dirty, there are some great options available for getting your start in learning the craft.