The History of Blacksmithing
Who has a more personal connection to high-temperature metals processing than the blacksmith?
Do you think blacksmiths no longer exist? Think again. This field is experiencing a bit of a resurgence as people look for a craft with an artistic component that can provide a usable product for those who are looking for something out of the ordinary.
Many of today’s blacksmiths work with the tools and techniques utilized for many centuries. The first evidence of smithing by hammering iron into shape is a dagger found in Egypt dating to 1350 B.C. Although in Egypt, it was likely the product of a Hittite tradesman. The Hittites likely invented forging and tempering, and they kept their ironworking techniques secret. When the Hittites were scattered, their ironworking skills were spread to Greece and the Balkans. This early Iron Age occurred about 800-500 B.C. The smith can also be found in the classical mythology of the Romans, Greeks, Phoenicians and Aztecs.
Early smiths likely heated iron in wood fires. They found that wood converted to charcoal produced a better fire – the intensity of which could be increased with an air blast. The smith began to specialize in the Middle Ages, especially with the onset of the Industrial Revolution. The whitesmith was someone who worked with lead, and the blacksmith was the ironworker. The farrier was a specialist in the making and fitting of horseshoes, while the chainsmiths and nailsmiths had their specialties. The number of folks with the last name of “Smith” demonstrates the prevalence of the vocation. Other surnames such as Miller and Cooper have similar origins.
In the 16th century, cast iron came into greater use. A Frenchman named Jean Tijou introduced the art of decorative blacksmithing in the late 17th century. The flair seen in today’s art is, at least in part, due to the early work of this smith. Most blacksmiths are drawn to the art of the trade versus its utility. The uniqueness of the goods produced by today’s blacksmiths is what attracts buyers.
Some of today’s blacksmiths have more sophisticated equipment, but many have chosen to do it the old-fashioned way. In either case, the forge is heated to temperatures of 2000-3000°F using coke and a blower or bellows to concentrate the air. The steel is usually heated to around 2000°F. The key tools of a smith are still the anvil, tongs and a hammer. A securely mounted leg vise complements the anvil. The anvil can be quite expensive, and every part of it – the face, horn, square and circular holes – serves a unique purpose.
Today’s interest in blacksmithing can be seen in a variety of ways. The Western Maine Blacksmith Association has put together a traveling forge to share this bygone-day art with more people. A quote from the co-president of the organization sums it up: “People’s interest in the association is they are interested in seeing how people did things back in the days when they actually did things.”
In the Adirondacks of New York, blacksmithing is being taught in summer camps as well as schools in the area. The smith responsible for beginning these programs has personally taken blacksmithing classes in Massachusetts, Maine and two classes in New York City. In North Carolina, a blacksmith has begun a course at a local community college. It is fortunate that opportunities exist for people to learn this skill so that one of the longest-established crafts known to civilized man will continue to survive the test of time.
Lest you think that smithing is a skill-less trade, the road to becoming a journeyman smith in the American Blade Association requires a rigorous knife-making test. The knife must be able to slice apart a 1-inch rope, cut through a 2x4 and retain enough sharpness to shave hair from the maker’s arm. In the final test, the knife must withstand being bent in a vice more than 90 degrees without breaking.
Hopefully, this glimpse into the world of the blacksmith – of today and yesteryear – will spark an interest of your own.