Category Archives: On Blacksmithing

Four days of thesis immersion research at Old West Forge

Writing retreats and 21st century blacksmiths

I’m on Whidbey Island again for a writers residency. For MFA students (the program from which I’m a 2011 graduate), it’s a nine-day, intensive writing start to the 16 week spring semester. For non-MFA students like myself, it’s an opportunity to advance our skills, and connect with other writers in a vibrant community.

Case in point, I stood in the dinner line last night with poet Gary Lilley, the new poetry faculty at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts MFA program.

Somehow the conversation got around to blacksmithing (as it inevitably seems to, based on the subject of my historical novel The Last of the Blacksmiths). I mentioned how, while I was writing the novel, I came across an article about how blacksmiths are still hired by the City of New York maintenance department — one of their jobs being to forge basketball hoops for city parks.

This morning I googled New York City blacksmiths to verify what I remembered, and located the article. It appeared in 2010 in The New York Times here. What I’d missed in the ensuing years is that one of the four NYC positions for blacksmiths became vacant in 2014, a job that pays an annual salary of just over $100K. The write-up about the opening appears in the Brooklyn Magazine here. (Sorry I didn’t know back then, or I would have spread the word.)

As we talked, I learned that Gary has personal experience with these NYC custom-made hoops. An expression crossed his face I’ve seen often at writing conferences and retreats — the expression of a writer inspired. He confessed a poem had started to come to him. I completely understood.

It’s what makes these gatherings of writers so vital, where words and rhythms clang and vibrate like ghetto rims, called into being from the mysterious workings of language and the mind.

Off the beaten track

Jamestown, NYI left Buffalo heading south to the upper Ohio River valley to fit in a little book research on the Scots Settlement. On the way, I decided to make an extracurricular stop at the Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz Museum in Jamestown, NY, just to see what it was like.

imageOften it’s these off-the-beaten-track side trips that bring about the most wonderful encounters, and this sojourn proved no exception. I had just seen a sign that I’d entered Conewango, NY, when a horse and wagon trotted over the rise in the road coming straight toward me, then made a sharp turn into … a blacksmith shop! By the time I’d figured out I wasn’t imagining things, I was a quarter mile down the road.

imageOf course, I turned around. Sure enough, the sign for the shop hung plain as day: Rabers Blacksmith Shop. The horse and wagon I’d seen was parked right out front. I pulled into the parking lot and hopped out of my car, camera in hand. I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to witness a working blacksmith shop in the 21st century. No sirree bob.

imageJust then, a young man with a black beard, broad-brimmed Amish-style hat and a kind smile strode by. He glanced down at my iPad.

“Mind if I take some pictures?” I asked.

He gazed at me reasonably. “That’s fine. Just don’t include any people in the shots.”

imageAs we walked toward the shop, I nearly cackled with happiness but managed not to, thank God. Inside, the forge fires weren’t lit just then, but I soaked in the ramshackle array of metal and rust, tools and worn wood. One blacksmith was just then loading a box of horseshoes. I asked if that was the bulk of their work.

“We used to do wrought iron work, but we got out of that,” he said.

“I hear wrought iron is a little hard to come by these days,” I said.


imageI lingered for a while, talking with three blacksmiths in all about the changes in the artisan craft, about how I’d written a novel, oddly enough, about 19th century blacksmiths, and about how guys who were practically kids showed  up at the Raber shop these days to watch and ask questions, which we all saw as a positive trend. It pleased me to leave a book with them, in trade for taking the photos. As I handed it over, the white pages were instantly blackened by coal-dusted hands. The blacksmith laughed. “A book’s gonna get dirt on it pretty quick in a blacksmith shop,” he said.

I smiled appreciatively, not minding in the slightest. Back on the road, I continued toward Jamestown, thanking my lucky stars.

Historic Zoar Village

What a beautiful Saturday for opening day of the season at Historic Zoar Village.

I enjoyed talking at the Old Schoolhouse, and lunch at the Canal Tavern where John Elsass showed us a cellar to rival the cellars of southwest Germany.

For a few moments I was able to visit with Scott, the blacksmith who gives demonstrations and teaches classes at the operating coal forge.


If you’re ever in the neighborhood — off I-77 just South of Canton — I highly recommend a visit.

The trailer

My nephew Nicholas Gebben put together an awesome book trailer for me. I hope you like it:

The Last of the Blacksmiths trailer

Turning rebar into art

Last week I had the good fortune to meet up with blacksmith friend Bruce Weakly for an afternoon of fun at his workshop. Behind me there is his new forge, a Tabasco one-burner. Very nice.

blacksmithing on whidbey leafWhat’s that I’m hammering away at? An old piece of rebar. Yup. My skills were as rusty as the metal, but at the end of three hours, I managed to craft this leaf. I’m still carrying it around in my pocket, rubbing it like a good luck charm as the launch of The Last of the Blacksmiths comes ever closer. One month and counting.

Here’s an initial line-up of events:

February 15, 2-6 p.m.: Launch party at The Stables in Georgetown

February 19, 7 p.m.: Whidbey Island Community Education Center

February 25, 1:30 p.m.: Coupeville Library Book Talk and Signing

March 9, 4-6 p.m.: Island Books Talk and Signing, Mercer Island

I’ve got a bunch more stuff in the works, so stay tuned.

If I had a hammer

Blacksmith hand hammerTwo weekends ago I stopped by the Coupeville Art Fair blacksmith tent to say hello to friend Bruce.

“Are you going to Mt. Hood?” he asked me.

Bruce was referring to the Western States Blacksmith Conference and Blacksmith Wars World Championship.

“Wish I could,” I said. “I’ve got a bunch of other stuff going that weekend. Anyhow, I don’t even have a hammer.”

“You should reconsider. It’s going to be great.”

I knew he was right. We proceeded to talk hammers — I have a couple of pointers now for what to look for. Even better, Bruce offered to spend a day or two this fall helping me refresh my blacksmithing skills. Hopefully I’ll find a hammer by then.

Highlights of this year’s Western States Conference are the Blacksmith Wars, Farrier Competitions, and Glass Tile and Bead Making Workshops. Check out the most updated schedule below:

Western States Blacksmith Conference
August 22nd through 25th, 2013

Government Camp, Mt. Hood, Oregon
Online registration closing at 6 pm tonight!
(if you miss online registration just register at the conference when you arrive)

Updated Conference Schedule!

Updated 8-19-2013 – Subject to Change

Thurs Aug 22nd
Registration 9:00 am / Site #1
Farrier’s Competition 9 AM – 4 PM / Site #4

1:00 pm
Opening at Cascade Ski Club

1:00pm – 4:00 pm
Gunsmiths: Jon Laubach & Richard Sullivan / Site #3
Rick Smith / Site #1
Bob Kramer / Site #2
Hands-On / Site #1


6:00pm – 9:00pm
Blacksmith Wars / Site #1

Friday Aug 23rd
9:00 am – 12:00 pm
Maria Cristalli / Site #1
Bob Kramer / Site #2
Gunsmiths: Jon Laubach & Richard Sullivan / Site #3
Hands-On Blacksmithing / Site #1
Bladesmithing: Bill Burke & Shane Taylor / Site #1
Repoussé / Site #1

10:00 am – 2:00 pm on the hour
Fused Glass: Betsy Valian / Upper Arts Cabin

LUNCH 12:00 pm – 1:00 pm

1:00 pm – 4:00 pm
Rick Smith / Site #2
Freddy Rodriguez / Site #1
Gunsmiths: Jon Laubach & Richard Sullivan / Site #3
Hands-On Blacksmithing / Site #1
Bladesmithing: Bill Burke & Shane Taylor / Site #1
Repoussé / Site #1

5:30-6:00 pm

6:00 pm -9:00 pm
Blacksmith Wars / Site #1

Saturday Aug 24th
9:00 am – 12:00 pm
Maria Cristalli / Site #2
Freddy Rodriguez / Site #1
Gunsmiths: Jon Laubach & Richard Sullivan / Site #3
Hands-On Blacksmithing / Site #1
Bladesmithing: Bill Burke & Shane Taylor / Site #1
Repoussé / Site #1

LUNCH 12:00 pm – 1:00 pm

1:00 pm -4:00 pm
Blacksmith Wars / Site #1
Gunsmiths: Jon Laubach & Richard Sullivan / Site #3
Hands-On Blacksmithing / Site #1
Repoussé / Site #1

4:30 pm
Panel Discussion – Timberline Lodge Amphitheater

Banquet Timberline Lodge

Sunday Aug 25th
9:00am -12:00pm
Blacksmith Wars Conclusion & Judging / Site #1

Auction 12:00 pm
Immediately following Blacksmith Wars the items created by each team will auctioned off. The proceeds are given to the team who made the item in the Blacksmith Wars competition.

Gallery opportunity
NWBA Member Opportunity
Bring your finest creation to display in the NWBA Gallery at Western States Blacksmith Conference. People from all over the western United States and the world will be attending this conference, it is an opportunity for your work to be seen by hundreds of people. Bring them for display, or for sale. More info at Western States Blacksmith Conference and Blacksmith Wars World Championship web site.

2013 blacksmith blasts

NWBA logoThe Spring Conference of the Northwest Blacksmith Association — “Just Hit It Harder!” — will be held in a couple of weeks, April 26-28 at the Cowlitz Expo Center in Longview, Washington. Demonstrating will be Berkley Tack, a Master Smith from Rainier, Oregon, and Alec Steele, a new aspiring smith with amazing talents coming from England. Hands-on instruction available for making punches, chisels, a spike knife, rivets and rivet headers, scrolling tongs, and hinges. For more info, see the Northwest Blacksmith Association web site.

August 22-25, don’t miss the Western States Blacksmith Conference at Mt. Hood in Oregon. In addition to demonstrations, hands-on workshops, a members gallery and auction, there will be a Blacksmith Wars World Championship and a Farriers Competition. Make lodging arrangements as soon as possible as it is a busy season at Mt. Hood. For more info, see the Western States Conference website.



Telltale signs

Blacksmith SignWe can stare at old photos, such as this picture of my great-great grandfather’s Cleveland carriage works, for a long time without grasping the signficance of what we see.

The horseshoe above the door here is a bit blurry, but I assume the immediate significance of such a symbol meant it was the entrance to the smithy (since blacksmiths were sometimes also farriers who shoed horses). At “Horse Quotations and What They Mean” I found the following in item #2: “Hang a horseshoe over the door for good luck.”

There is … a legend from the middle ages about a blacksmith named Dunstan. Dunstan was visited by the devil in his blacksmith shop. The devil wanted Dunstan to make him shoes, but Dunstan refused and beat the devil, making him promise never to enter a place where a horseshoe hung over the door. To prevent luck from running out, the horseshoe must hang toe down.

Hmm, the blacksmith reference fits, but this horseshoe hangs toe-up. Also, I remember my daughter returning from horse camp with a horseshoe, and the assertion that it must be hung toe down as it held luck, and if it was upside down, the luck would run out.

After a good bit of searching, which elicited superstitions about how horseshoes over a stable door prevented witches from riding the horses furiously all night, how in Germany, finding a horseshoe is considered good luck, etc., etc., my eureka came at ‘The Lucky W’ Amulet Archive.

The use of worn-out horseshoes as magically protective amulets — especially hung above or next to doorways — originated in Europe, where one can still find them nailed onto houses, barns, and stables from Italy through Germany and up into Britain and Scandinavia. …

There is good reason to suppose that the crescent form of the horseshoe links the symbol to pagan Moon goddesses of ancient Europe such as Artemis and Diana, and that the protection invoked is that of the goddess herself, or, more particularly, of her sacred vulva. As such, the horseshoe is related to other magically protective doorway-goddesses, such as the Irish sheela-na-gig, and to lunar protectresses such as the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is often shown standing on a crescent moon and placed within a vulval mandorla or vesica pisces.

In most of Europe, the Middle-East, and Spanish-colonial Latin America protective horseshoes are placed in a downward facing or vulval position, as shown here, but in some parts of Ireland and Britain people believe that the shoes must be turned upward or “the luck will run out.” Americans of English and Irish descent prefer to display horseshoes upward; those of German, Austrian, Italian, Spanish, and Balkan descent generally hang them downward.

Hence, to the mid-nineteenth century eye, this sign on my ancestor’s shop also meant most likely a blacksmith of German descent hammered within.

Blacksmiths and mythology

I just spent four days in a kind of crucible, an excellent “Story Masters” writing workshop with Donald Maass, James Scott Bell, and Christopher Vogler. Vogler, author of the well-known The Writer’s Journey, led off the sessions by talking about myth, how myths are metaphors for universal mysteries.

Which got me thinking again about blacksmiths in mythology, a subject I had not visited since first launching this project. Back in the beginning, when trying to figure out the psyche of a blacksmith, I had looked into the Greek myth of the lame smith Hephaestus (Vulcan), who on Zeus’ orders created the beautiful, yet fateful, goddess Pandora. Zeus, his father, made him do it. In The Illustrated Book of Myths (Philip) I made a note about this additional story:

Zeus and Hephaestus: to cure Zeus of a terrible headache, his son, Hephaestus, struck him with an ax; Athena sprang, in full armor, from the cut in his head.

Ouch. Reminds me of the god Thor with his hefty hammer, how in one of the Norse myths Thor kept pounding it in the head of a sleeping giant. Today, I did some more exploring, which led me to this website: PANTHEON: ARCHETYPAL GODFORMS IN DAILY LIFE. Wow, a thesis and a half. I give you two excerpts:

Hephaistos, God of the Forge, is the personification of subterranean and terrestrial fire, including human lustiness. … His dominion over primal fire ranges from the wild force of volcanic activity to the harnessed fire of metallurgy. He is the archetypal mechanic or engineer. Technological man has inherited his legacy, and his woundedness, and in this regard Hephaestos shares something in common with Prometheus who stole “fire” from the Gods. The boon carries a bane inherent within its nature — for one thing, he is preoccupied, even obsessed, with details. We see this today in the obsessive loner techno-geek type.

I love how Miller concludes with the loner techno-geek. Below a whole lot of Tarot, Qabala, astrology, and Jungian thought, she lists additional 21st century professions that contain archetypal blacksmith characteristics.

I also happened upon a wealth of good blacksmith storytelling (for instance, The Blacksmith and the Devil) at Anvilfire! Enjoy.

Wrought iron curiosity

Before signing up for a four-day, beginning blacksmithing class at Old West Forge, I called first with some questions.

“I need to learn about 19th century blacksmithing methods–I understand blacksmiths back then used to work with iron, and use a coal-burning forge?”

“We don’t use a power hammer here or anything like that,” Tim Middaugh said. “You’ll learn to forge by hand. But if you’re looking for iron, you’re not gonna find it here. We use steel stock, and propane forges.”

I went ahead and took the class, and got a lot out of it. And later I was able to see a coal forge in action when I visited Freidelsheim, Germany, so I didn’t feel as if I had lost out.

Still, I’ve always been a bit confused by the idea that wrought iron is no longer available. I ran across the same situation when I talked to Roger Shell at the Camlann Medieval Village about the “living history” blacksmith shop there.

“We’re thinking about forging an anvil,” Roger told me, “the way they were once made in medieval times. Trouble is, we have to wait until we collect enough iron. It’s not available anymore, so we have to get it off old junk, farm tools, that kind of thing.”

When my great-great-grandfather began his apprenticeship in 1857, I’m sure they were working with iron. Up until the end of the 19th century, it was the lifeblood of the blacksmith. Recently, I came across a terrific book called The Blacksmith: Ironworker and Farrier (Aldren A. Watson), about 19th century blacksmithing methods. The first chapter is about wrought iron, with simple and helpful definitions of various types of metal.

“Pure iron as such does not exist in a natural state. Rather, the constituents of iron are trapped in [iron] ore; in order to combine and release them, a smelting process is required. The smelting of iron ore yields a metal which always contains some carbon, the exact amount of which variously influences the characteristics of the finished iron. The more carbon it contains, the harder, more brittle, and more easily fractured it will be. Thus, cast iron is a variant of the metal which has a fairly high carbon content; iron with a moderate amount of carbon is a steel; and an iron with very little carbon in its final composition is wrought iron. … The smelting process used by New England ironmakers was an ancient one. Their wrought iron was still being made in individual, small batches by the direct process–a one-run-at-a-time method that produced blacksmith iron that could not be matched for forging qualities by any other method. This smelting process did not undergo any real change until nearly the end of the nineteenth century.”

A footnote is added, stating that the manufacturing of steel alloys has made wrought iron obsolete ” almost to the point of being a curiosity.”