Edge of the anvil
The blacksmith of yesteryear brings to mind an image of a robust and independent
craftsman who was a main force in the early history of our country. He was a
central figure in the life of the village, because he provided most of the tools
and implements that were needed for the life of the community. The scale of
his work was small, personal and communal.
In some ways, however, he changed this image and brought about his own demise,
because he had the knowledge and skills to work iron. He created and invented
the tools and processes that were a part of the Industrial Revolution. Most
of the early inventors were blacksmiths. The result was a change in life-style
from the small shop run by the individual multipurpose craftsman, to the large
factory hiring specialized workers for mass production. The result was an abundance
of mass-produced goods causing the death of the small-scale operation of the
blacksmith. This was true of my grandfather.
Too frequently we have criticized mass production without seeing its benefits.
One benefit is that with an abundance of goods, today’s craftsmen have been
freed to produce those things that have individuality and character.
Perhaps your work with blacksmithing will allow you to reorder your priorities,
giving emphasis to new values and providing a new life-style.
Graham Scott Williamson, in his book, The American Craftsman, asks, what is
Where does craft production stop and industrial production
begin? . . . Our conception of craft as consisting of the spirit in
which, rather than solely the means by which, a production
process is carried out. This would appear to be the only
conception of craft and craftsmanship which can hope to take
root in this technologically advanced age.
Later he quotes Alien Eaton of the Russell Sage Foundation:
The time will come when every kind of work will be judged by
two measurements: one by the product itself, as is now done, and the other by
the effect of the work on the producer.
I believe this leads us to some realization that there is hope for the future
and that we do not have to be puppets of our culture and technology, but can
be forceful in redirecting the thought and movement of our society, if we, as
individual craftsmen, set an example by means of our attitudes to our work and
towards others. The ideas set forth and the alternatives suggested in E. F.
Schumacher’s book, Small Is Beautiful, are in striking contrast to the general
direction of our country today. Those who read the book may come to feel, as
I do, that new attitudes and life-styles are in order.
At a time when there is so much emphasis placed on “progress,” growth and expansion
on a nationwide scale, it is almost heresy to say, “Small is beautiful.” But
the two elements can coexist. It is precisely because of the fast pace of all
of our lives, the huge industries, vast population and overwhelming bureaucracy,
that a reexamination of our values is essential. We see this all around us in
the resurgence of interest in crafts of all kinds, in such small things as vegetable
gardens and in a return to the “simpler” life. I feel that the village blacksmith’s
smaller scale of work is the kind of thing with which we should temper today’s
living. We need not ignore the advances of science and technology, but we must
recognize that in the haste to acquire and consume, we ourselves will be consumed.
The world is too much with us, late and soon.
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers. . . .
Gandhi proposed that we should think in terms of “production by the masses”
rather than in terms of “mass production.” The home smithy, where only one or
two people work, would certainly fall into this category. If work by its nature
ennobles and enlightens, then we are working on the development of mind, body
and spirit. A technology of “production by the masses” would use the best of
modern knowledge and experience to help us to live in ecological balance in
the world. It would serve the people; in contrast, in a world devoted to mass
production, the people serve the machine. Schumacher calls this “intermediate
The contemporary blacksmith is an example of what is meant by intermediate technology.
His work combines the advances of modern technology with the scale of the individual
craftsman. He takes pride in each object that he makes and derives pleasure
from the creation of beautiful art forms.
The poetry of the blacksmith shop has been a theme for writers
for centuries, but there is little poetry in it to the blacksmith who
stands at the forge day after day pounding and shaping unless he
has studied, and finds new themes in every heat, spark, or scale.
If he can create beautiful forms in his mind, and with his hands
shape the metal to those forms, then he can see poetry in his
work. If he is but a machine that performs his work automatically, the dull
prose of his occupation makes him dissatisfied and
unmanly. [M. T. Richardson; Practical Blacksmithing, vol. Ill]
How do you see your forging, as poetry or work? It is vital to see it as poetry,
if you wish to find satisfaction.
Even poetry must be structured, and before you can make anything at the forge,
you must design it. There are many factors that influence the design process.
Some of these are: personal direction and attitude, experience and observation,
historical perspective, current trends, the function of the piece and its placement,
and finally the material and the forming processes used to create it.
Your work will be influenced more strongly by certain factors than by others;
this is what makes artistic creation individualized. No one way is the “right”
Don’t be intimidated into thinking that you can’t design. You can.
Do it, and you will find that each time you work, you will improve, because
the experience of forging and the work itself will give you feedback. Be your
own most severe critic, but at the same time, talk to others about your work.
A powerful design influence on your work is your own personal direction, life-style
and attitude. Your work will express your own personality and creativity; it
will be you.
Your experience will be a major influence. Your design will reflect your travel
Historical perspective affects your design considerably. As you become familiar
with the rich heritage of blacksmithing and learn about the development of ironwork,
you will be inspired. When you study different periods in the development of
iron, you will gain a greater understanding of the forms and the reasons for
their design. It is interesting to copy one of your favorite old pieces, first
making it the way it was originally made, and then making another one, this
time using your ideas and methods.
History is being made by the new generation of smiths. They will soon be influential,
because their work has the power to excite your .imagination, and lead you to
new ideas of your own. Study their work. The entire contemporary culture, for
that matter, can give you inspiration.
The most powerful factors affecting design will be the material itself, the
tools used and the processes involved in forming it.
Forging iron is a direct working process...
It is exciting to try to combine another material, such as wood, clay, leather,
glass, plastic or fiber, with iron, as a challenging exercise in design. Explore
the relationship of iron and the other material, using the two substances in
different ways together.
Because the forging process itself and the tools that you use have such a powerful
form-giving potential, you might want to create a process or design a new tool.
This would in turn be a design influence. If you are making many similar or
identical pieces, the design of the tools used to make them influences the design
of the pieces themselves.
The formal aspects of design, such as control of line, plane, shape, space and
texture, are important. If you have training, then it can be used to good advantage;
if not, art courses will give you the formal knowledge that will enable you
to design and analyze your work. But don’t feel that you can’t design because
you have not been to art school. You can, and you do it everyday in all areas
of your life, by dealing with other problems or challenges creatively
and imaginatively. Incorporate this habit into your work with iron.
I do my designing in my sketchbook, which is nothing more than an 8 x 10 bound,
plain paper book. If I have an idea for a new piece of iron or a new way to
work it, I draw it here. I really enjoy this book, because it is the place where
I can give form to my ideas and have fun with them. First, I envision the complete
piece and then I draw it to understand how it will be forged. This process has
been invaluable to me, because many of my trials and errors have been on paper
and not at the forge. This has saved me a lot of time.
A work session at the drawing board is as important as a work session at the
forge. This is as true today as it was at the turn of the century, when the
following was written:
The young man who thinks of learning the blacksmith trade
should first learn whether he is physically fitted for the peculiar
labor. If satisfied on that point, he should immediately begin a
course of study with special reference to the working of metals.
He should also study freehand drawing. Every hour spent at the
drawing board is an hour spent shaping irons, as he is training the
hand to perform the work and the eye to see that it is true. And at
no time should he drop the pencil. He should keep in mind the
fact that the most skillful are the most successful. We do not
mean skillful in one line only, but in all. The man who can direct,
as well as execute, is the one who will make the greatest
advancement, and to direct it is necessary to know why a thing
should be done as well as how. [M. T. Richardson, Practical Blacksmithing, vol.
Drawing is a tool as essential to the blacksmith as the hammer.
Drawing gives form to ideas, just as the hammer gives form to the metal. If
you try to forge without preparation, forging will be more difficult. You may
occasionally want to experiment at the forge, but in general, it is a good idea
to plan your work ahead of time. Try working for a whole day at the forge without
any preparation and see what happens.
There is one very important aspect of drawing that I want to stress: Anyone
can draw, but it takes practice and experience to draw well. So start; the more
that you draw, the better your drawings will be.
There is a way to draw three-dimensionally, and that is by using clay as a sketch
medium. You can give substance to your ideas by forming in clay those things
that you would like to form later in iron at the forge. Clay is a good medium
in which to practice while you are assembling your equipment and setting up
your forge. You will undoubtedly create many new forms and perhaps invent a
new tool or a new technique.
Not only can you sketch with clay, but also you can use it in place of iron
to practice the forging operations before lighting up. Clay, like hot iron,
is plastic and can be easily formed. But hot iron cannot be directly felt and
worked with your hands; it must be worked quickly and with tools. In contrast,
clay can be worked with your hands at leisure. Practice some of the first forging
exercises in clay, and then design a few pieces to make at the forge. Who is
the piece for and where does it go? These questions will challenge you to come
up with some original creations. If you are just forging things for yourself
and your own enjoyment, then the design of your work will be different than
it would be if you are selling your work. My cousin, Don Briddell, who is a
maker of painted wildfowl carvings, said it very well:
I’ve found an important ingredient is respect for the customer.
Too many creators value their way too much. To make a
customer happy is as much a part of the design as any other
element. Ask yourself: “Am I in this to make myself happy or
the customer?” The best solution is to arrive at a design that
makes both of you happy. Arrogance does in many an artist, as
does its inverse, submissiveness. A good designer finds the
middle way in these matters. Let it be known that such a design
I think you should focus your thinking on what you are going to do with your
blacksmithing. The focus of your blacksmithing work can take many forms: You
can be anything from a full-time smith to just an interested person. Only you
can determine the scope of your involvement and commitment to blacksmithing.
approach is casual and leisurely, you will not need to be too organized. However,
if you intend to devote a lot of time to blacksmithing, or if you are considering
earning part or even all of your livelihood from s mi thing, then make plans
and get organized!
I recommend The Craftsman’s Survival Manual by George and Nancy Wettlaufer and
How to Organize and Operate a Small Business by C. M. Baumbeck, K. Lawyer, and
P. C. Kelly.
If you are one of those who intends to start your own business, then you should
plan to develop your image, your selling strategy and business procedures.
Your reputation as a person and as a craftsman is the most important factor
involved in selling your work. If you excel, you can count on word-of-mouth
A good portfolio will do a good selling job for you, too. Photograph your work
as you do it. I wish I had done this, because I have already forgotten some
of my early pieces.
A well-designed business card and stationery are also helpful in creating an
image, selling your work and meeting the public.
Eventually you might want to tag each piece to explain it and compile a catalogue.
Keep all of these visually coordinated. The result will be an image of yourself
that will come across to the public: a blending of your work, personality and
the above visual aids. Work on your image and forge it as well as you forge
Records are an important part of running a business. The “job-work file” is
the most important of your records. This is the record of each job and contains
the vital information about it, including billing. Mine is made up on 5 x 8
cards. I use a work card for every job. I number them consecutively, and file
them when the job is completed. These cards form the basis for my work schedule.
Start and continue your blacksmithing in an orderly way.