Category Archives: On Blacksmithing

Four days of thesis immersion research at Old West Forge

Reviving what was (almost) lost

The shift from the 19th to the 20th century was dramatic for its increased reliance on machines, which rang the death knell for the ancient art of blacksmithing.

“At the beginning of the 19th century, with the industrial revolution, the blacksmith craft had passed its peak. The increasing precision in dimensions of the milled iron stock fundamentally changed the appearance of finished works. Chamfering and texturing was supposed to recreate the old familiar look.

“The development of cast iron has to be considered as an additional factor contributing to the descent of blacksmithing, and the invention of new welding techniques (gas and arc welding) was the final major step towards the decline of the art of traditional blacksmithing.” (From The ABCs of Blacksmithing by Fridolin Wolf, Blue Moon Press, 2006.)

I keep an eye out for signs of the “old methods.” Here is a photo I took during a visit to Roosevelt University’s Auditorium Theater in Chicago. The building, constructed in 1887, is replete with hand-crafted balustrades.

The art of blacksmithing might have evaporated entirely, except for a few people like Francis Whitaker. Here is a Youtube of Francis Whitaker instructing others on how to make a wrought iron gate. There are important levels of initiation into the art — apprentice, journeyman, master. The way Francis Whitaker kept the craft alive was by visiting the old masters in the U.S. and Europe, and subsequently, passing his knowledge down to those eager to learn.

In 1966, just as the popularity of TV dinners were threatening yet another corrosion of people doing for themselves, the Foxfire magazine was born, a publication that began to revive ancient knowledge via interviews with residents in the Appalachian Mountains of Northeast Georgia. Numerous books and how-to publications have sprung from this initial effort.

But it appears a revival of this ancient art is underway. My niece who is currently attending CSU in Fort Collins tells me in her backyard, her roommate has cobbled together a blacksmithing forge. I hear the membership of the Northwest Blacksmith Association continues to rise. Such reports give me hope that all is not lost.

Blacksmith axes and the tomahawk

Because I’m researching and writing about early American blacksmithing methods, people are always telling me: “You must go to Colonial Williamsburg.” And they’re right–it is an amazing place. But not the only one.

Here’s another place I must go: Prickett’s Fort in West Virginia. Housed in a fort built in 1774, “Prickett’s Fort State Park uses a living history style of interpretation to preserve, document and exhibit the past.”

I happened upon it while searching around for more details about blacksmithing apprenticeships. Here’s a guide published by Prickett’s Fort: Blacksmithing of the 18th Century. In it, I found useful info about apprenticeships, and, as is usually the case on these research forays, something more.

The blacksmith in the 18th century could make or repair just about anything of that time, but probably his greatest accomplishment was what is known as the American Ax. Sometime around 1700, the blacksmith added a square poll on the back of the ax, which added more weight. Then by the mid-1700s, the ears were added to the eye, the square poll was elongated, and the eye was changed from round to a triangle shape. All of this added to the stability in the swing of the ax and it has seen very little change in the last 225 years.

Another important invention, that took place in the 1740s -1750s, was the pipe tomahawk. These were highly prized by the Native Americans, for they loved to smoke and make war on the settlers. The Native Americans already had the tomahawk, beginning with the first encounters with Europeans. This version added a pipe bowl and hollowed out the handle to create one of the biggest trade items used by Native Americans as well as white settlers. These were produced until well after the Civil War.

Okay, I admit the language of the guide where it says Native Americans “loved to make war” is suspect, but putting that aside, I was intrigued. On further research, the existence of the pipe tomahawk is pretty widely known; more ornate versions are still made today. May the adventures of history research never end.

Blacksmithing is “primal, raw and useful”

This morning I opened the Seattle Times to “Northwest Wanderings” article about a local blacksmith shop. Some nice pictures can be found at the Seattle Times web site. The forge is in Belltown, 2316 Second Ave. in downtown Seattle, and they are hosting an open house this weekend.
Friday: 5 to 9 pm
Saturday: 11 am to 6 pm
Sunday: noon to 5 pm

Just sayin’.

Due yesterday

Time is up! My thesis was due yesterday. If I intend to graduate in August, my thesis should already be in the hands of my first reader. Not quite there yet, but there is still (a ray) of hope.

Technically, I’m beyond the research stage and full-square into the writing. “Full-square?” you ask. Just today I found out “full square bolts” had a place in the carriage industry. Here’s a link to a page with historical information on blacksmithing carriage bolts.

Oops, back to writing.

Blacksmiths and tulips

This weekend I attended the Northwest Blacksmithing Association Conference at Skagit Valley Fairgrounds in Mt. Vernon.

The weather was fine, the tulip fields splendid, and as always, the blacksmiths uniquely creative.

And creatively unique. I enjoyed watching Team Mayhem make steel from iron and carbon (and a few other mystery ingredients) in a mudded-in chimney. The results were colorful, bright white and almost molten.

Lots of other stuff going on, too. Some hands-on workshops, a station with forges and anvils so members could create things on their own,  and “wars” where participants competed. Being the literary type, I lurked through the library and found some gems for my thesis research.

It seems the ancient art is alive and well. Thanks to the NWBA for their laid back, metal-making vibe.

ColumbiaKids Making History: Hammers and Anvils

The Washington State Historical Society (WSHS) has it going on, with the History Museum in Tacoma, the Capital Museum in Olympia, plus a terrific research center and other resources. My article “Hammers and Anvils recently appeared in their ColumbiaKids “Making History” section.

Hammers and Anvils

A shout out to the ColumbiaKids team, especially Stephanie Lile, Managing Editor, for a terrific publication.

Proud member of the NWBA

Sometimes we need to be sad, and although my research tour of the Rhineland was a most marvelous and unforgettable adventure, I returned to a hospital bedside vigil and the death of my 89-year-old aunt, which laid me low for a while.

A couple of weeks have gone by, and only now am I beginning to feel the deep underwater pressure of grief lessen. As I re-emerge, I’ve been writing, and wondering: What would help reawaken my sense of direction? What would give me that extra push to keep going and draft this manuscript about 19th century culture, and crafts, and lifestyle that happened long ago.

And then it hit me, loud as the clang of a sledgehammer on metal. Keep making history live. Join the Northwest Blacksmith Association. I’ve been meaning to become a part of the organization ever since my class in Blacksmithing in June at Old West Forge (see O, a Blacksmithing We Will Go and posts following). So I signed up.

Once again, the creative fires are stoked …

Friedelsheim Blacksmiths

When my relatives take me to see an historic working blacksmith shop in Friedelsheim (a village not far from Freinsheim), it feels like I’m seeing the ghosts of my deceased ancestors. Albeit stalwart ghosts.

When these men laugh, the whole room rumbles. Matthias tells me they are speaking in a very heavy Palatinate dialect, the kind that booms like a subwoofer from the back of the throat.

It’s the most authentic blacksmithing I’ve witnessed to date. Note the coal forge, and the enormous bellows hanging from the ceiling (double click on photo to enlarge).

“I asked the guy about that,” Dave said to me after I’d roamed the shop taking photos of everything in sight. “He said the bellows are just for show. One of these guys had their oven vent fan replaced at home, so they brought the old one down and installed it here. That’s what they’re really using.”

Close enough. After the visit to the Schmiede, I study 19th century relics in a side room— a machine to form iron wheel casings, a drill press, a leather-punch.

When I finally tear myself away, we walk over to a bakery for a peasant “treat” – bread spread with lard, then topped with salt and radishes.


I took the four day blacksmithing class in mid-June. What with one thing and another, the summer is almost over and I never did finish my metalwork.

My plant hanger and fire pokers still had traces of scales (slag) that needed to be polished off with a stiff metal brush. What’s more, rust had begun to speckle my projects, a sure sign they needed their finishing touches.

“When you get home, you’re gonna want to finish these,” Tim Middaugh had said, a cup of coffee in his hand, his safety glasses still on as he tipped back precariously in his plastic lawn chair. “Heat ’em up in your oven, or on your grill, to about 200 degrees. Brush ’em really good, and while they’re still warm, rub ’em all over with Johnson paste wax.”

With some trepidation, I went ahead and followed instructions. Our outdoor grill worked like a charm. I could have used a vise, but settled for a less-than-perfect brushing. Still, most of the scales came off, and the paste wax did the rest. Now my metalwork is officially finished, it feels like summer has come to a satisfying end.


This old photo on the wall in the forge where I took blacksmithing reminds me of Henry Wadworth Longfellow’s classic poem. (That orange glow in the lower righthand corner is a reflection from one of our forges.)

The Village Blacksmith

Under a spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.

His hair is crisp, and black, and long,
His face is like the tan;
His brow is wet with honest sweat,
He earns whate’er he can,
And looks the whole world in the face,
For he owes not any man.

Week in, week out, from morn till night,
You can hear his bellows blow;
You can hear him swing his heavy sledge,
With measured beat and slow,
Like a sexton ringing the village bell,
When the evening sun is low.

And children coming home from school
Look in at the open door;
They love to see the flaming forge,
And hear the bellows roar,
And catch the burning sparks that fly
Like chaff from a threshing-floor.

He goes on Sunday to the church,
And sits among his boys;
He hears the parson pray and preach,
He hears his daughter’s voice,
Singing in the village choir,
And it makes his heart rejoice.

It sounds to him like her mother’s voice,
Singing in Paradise!
He needs must think of her once more,
How in the grave she lies;
And with his haul, rough hand he wipes
A tear out of his eyes.

Onward through life he goes;
Each morning sees some task begin,
Each evening sees it close
Something attempted, something done,
Has earned a night’s repose.

Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend,
For the lesson thou hast taught!
Thus at the flaming forge of life
Our fortunes must be wrought;
Thus on its sounding anvil shaped
Each burning deed and thought.