On Blacksmithing - Information and Articles

Defining the Artist Blacksmith
This commentary originally published in MagNews (Metal Arts Guild)
Originally available on the OABA web site

A well known comment in popular culture is "You talk the Talk - But can you walk the Walk".

Terminology, what you say about what you do - and just what you mean by it, is extremely important. 'Saying what you mean and meaning what you say' is one measure of someone knowledgeable in their trade. This is even more true for any artisan involved in a traditional skill in a modern world. The blacksmith also faces the twin problems of being involved in a highly technical and mysterious process which has also been surrounded by huge public misconceptions.

To that end, some terms should be defined, with some of the related history of their use (and misuse!) given.

There may be as many definitions of the term 'art' as there are people who are involved in the creation of it - hence 'artists'. One useful way of applying the terminology  is by considering the nature of the  individual objects created  : If the function of the object is primary concern to the piece, it could be considered to be 'craft'. If the appearance been the major factor of the overall design, it could be considered to be 'art'. Needless to say, there is can be considerable overlap between the two aspects - what is useful can be beautiful and what has beauty can be functional.  At its core however, the artist is most concerned with the overall design of each object, to maximize its decorative qualities beyond mere technical constraints. In its purest form, the artist made object will be both an original inspiration and a one of a kind creation.
Ideally, an 'artisan' will be one who blends form with function, employing skill to create distinctive objects that are interesting to the eye while at the same time being a pleasure to use and high quality. Many of those who approach the creation of the object from the starting point of function (hence 'craft') yet strive for perfection of design (thus 'art') find the term 'artisan' to ideally describe their work.

Quite literally 'iron worker'. 'Smith' is derived from a Germanic root - 'smyte', meaning to strike. Historically, smith has referred to those who work metals employing hammers. Iron has been known as the 'black metal' since ancient times. This is a reference to the dark grey oxide that forms on an iron surface when it is heated to incandescent temperatures. So to truly earn the description as 'blacksmith' you must work iron metals at glowing temperatures using hammers.

The current generation of Artist Blacksmiths can trace their origins primarily to the resergance of traditional skills that took place in the late 1960's and early 1970's. In Canada, as was the case in most of North America, blacksmithing had become a totally shattered tradition by that point. The fast development of machinery for farming in the early decades of 1900, coupled with the twin blows of the Great Depression of the 1930's and World War Two in the 1940's effectively stopped an entire generation from entering the blacksmith's trade. Work with horses continued, but now diverted in a specialist skill - that of the farrier, with its concentration not on metal, but on orthopedics. A man picking a career in the 1950's, if interested in the trades at all, would consider tool and die, machinist, or welder. In this way, the ancient chain of master blacksmith to apprentice was almost completely severed.
Outside of a few rare exceptions, almost the entire current generation of blacksmiths are self taught. This has required the rediscovery of a huge body of technical knowledge and physical skills. Along with this, the re-establishment of blacksmithing has allowed for some clear advantages, for example a stress on occupational health and safety. Most importantly, the breaking of the ancient method of training has allowed for the addition of a new dynamic force, that of women, inside what had previously been a 'males only' tradition.

Coupled with this has been a significant shift in the approach to blacksmithing as an undertaking. In ancient and historical times, the blacksmith was valued for his practical skills. 'By Hammer and Hand, do all the Arts stand' is a well known statement reflecting the importance of the primary iron worker inside a pre-Industrial society. Without the tools created in the forge, no other craftsman could function. Without agricultural implements of iron, no food could be grown.
Today however, the single most common path to interest in blacksmithing is that chosen by the artist, not the technician. The skills of the blacksmith are seen as as methods to manipulate a material, chosen for their vast possibilities to create novel forms and textures.

Hand Forged:
The forge is the fire used by a blacksmith to heat the metal. So 'forged' refers to metal which has been heated and then shaped while it is hot. (It should be noted that jewelers use 'forged' to refer to any metal that has been hammered, in their work primarily cold. As the term originally derives from the work of the blacksmith, this usage is incorrect.) 'Hand' means just that - work that is undertaken with hand tools. A modern alternative would be industrial 'drop forged' where all the hot forming work is done with mechanical tools.

Wrought Iron:
Is a specific type of iron metal. It is created using a special equipment that results both a distinctive physical structure and also a specific chemistry. All three of these factors combine to a metal that is quite different than modern steel alloys. 'Wrought' in this case refers to the hammering process required to compress and purify the spongy iron bloom that is extracted from a bloomery furnace. There will always be some microscopic layers of silica slag remaining within any wrought iron bar. It is this slag that gives this metal its distinctive  fracturing pattern, breaking as short tendrils. "Iron' is the primary element in the metal, and unlike modern alloys, most wrought iron will have few other components. Typically wrought iron has extremely low carbon content, on a grinder the sparks will test as dull red balls. Wrought iron is an ideal material for the process of hand forging. It will remain workable over a wider range of temperatures than modern steels. It will tend to de-laminate as it is worked, requiring it to be re-welded to consolidate the surface (a step not required with steel).  Any forge welding is considerably easier with wrought iron, where the slag incorporated within the material tends to float to the surface at welding temperatures, so that often no additional flux needs to be applied.
The modern steel alloys start replacing wrought iron when the Bessemer furnace was introduced about 1855. This new technology not only allowed for greater control in the iron smelting process, it also increased the volume of production by an order of magnitude. Both of these factors made the new steel more dependable in quality and also considerably cheaper than the old wrought iron. By the early 1900's very little of the older metal was still being produced.
The last commercial production of true wrought iron was stopped in 1974. There has been no new wrought iron produced * anywhere in the West since that date.
Any real wrought iron available for sale today will be reclaimed from structures being dismantled. Most commonly the material will be from structural elements from things like bridges. In some cases, larger diameter bars may be reworked down before being sold. A modern industrial substitute is sold, under the trade names 'Electric Iron', 'Rivet Iron' or 'French Iron'. These materials are in fact low carbon content steels, with a carbon content in the range of .05%, but still with the crystal structure of modern steel.
Typically, only small amounts in random dimensions of true wrought iron, often originally created in the 1850's, can be found. Often this collected by blacksmiths as personal stockpiles of these historic materials. Historic wrought iron is treasured for its easy working when hand forged and its better aging characteristics than modern steels. It also becomes an interesting addition to the mix when creating layered steels for knife making.

The term 'Wrought Iron' has undergone a radical shift in its meaning at the hands of popular culture. The term moved from the technical language of the blacksmith into a descriptive term used by antique collectors in the early 1900's. When referring to objects hand forged by blacksmiths in the Settlement / Colonial period, they were correctly described as being made of wrought iron. Eventually however, the definition became less exact, coming be used for any object that was hand forged - regardless of the metal content. Over time (into the 1950's, as blacksmiths disappeared) the term 'wrought iron' has come to refer to 'any piece of metal with a shape that is painted black'. Now objects that are composed of modern mild steel, formed cold, shaped by machine (even plasma cut!), and then painted black - are referred to as 'wrought iron'.  This is almost as far from the correct meaning of wrought iron as its possible to get.

( * There are two exceptions. There are a small number of museums preserving the history of technology and industry. Some of these will conduct smaller scale demonstration firings of their historic furnaces. The metal produced is typically kept inside the museum community for restoration work. The second exception are the small group of people using experimental archaeology methods to rediscover what are often ancient and lost smelting techniques. Yields from these  test smelters are quite small, typically 5 - 10 kg per firing.)

On Production Methods:
There are obviously other methods of taking the modern raw material - lengths of industrially produced mild steel bar, and converting these into objects, be it practical or decorative in nature.
At one end of the scale will be the Welder. It is possible to purchase industrially manufactured elements, both structural and decorative, and assemble these pre-made pieces into a larger construction. More stress has been placed recently on the technical skill of welding through recent changes to the Ontario Building Codes. Obviously this type of work requires no direct manipulation of the metal in any form whatever. With care and a good eye, pre-made elements can be combined into effective designs, however this work is simply not Blacksmithing in any form.
On a level of complexity, the next step would be that of the Fabricator. In this process, some new elements are created by working metal stocks while cold over standardized jigs or using bending machines. These elements may be combined with the same industrial elements mentioned above. The results may be decorative elements that are distinctive to a workshop, but most commonly are repeats of standard patterns between individual objects. Once again, the forge is not used in the creation of forms, so this also is not Blacksmithing.
The most complex work will be that of the Blacksmith. Metal will be shaped hot from the forge. In the very best artistic work, each individual bar will be radically transformed from its original industrial shape. The true Artisan Blacksmith may work within a recognizeable style, but each object may be a one of a kind creation.
Be it a modern gas or more traditional coal fired, the forge remains the required heart of the true Blacksmith's method. Although technical ability is important to produce objects of quality, without a creative spark the work will not inspire the viewer.

Truth in Terminology :
We all know how retail stores and mere fabricators deliberately and knowingly misuse the technical language of the blacksmith to increase the value of their products in the eyes of the customer.  Its also painful to admit that within the blacksmithing community itself there are those who have converted what were once technical terms into mere advertising copy. Unfortunately, this relatively recent trend has also been increasing in frequency. "Its just easier to tell them what they want to hear" is an explanation that is often given.

If those who have a genuine interest in the traditional skills of the Blacksmith are not informing and educating the general public on the true nature of this trade - who then will do this? All of us involved in the work of the Artisan Blacksmith have a double sided responsibility to both correctly use and continually define our specialized terminology to the public.
The first and quite selfish reason is that a clear understanding of the distinctive way that we work can only increase the perceived value of that work in the eyes of the public. Only a fool would continue to attribute Walmart prices to the skilled labour required to create a one of a kind forged metalwork.
The second, and perhaps most important reason to 'Say what you Mean, and Mean what you Say' is to uphold the tradition passed down to us from the ancient line of Blacksmiths that stretches behind us all. As part of a generation who had to re-discover so much from what had been an almost shattered tradition, may of us do understand how easily that thread can be severed. As one line of Blacksmiths hands the hammer to a new generation of enthusiastic Artisans, it is crucial that the responsibility for preserving that hard won wisdom is passed on as well.

Author's Note:

The text here is offered as a consistent and measured discussion of the topic. It is the opinion of the author and does not reflect that of OABA.

An issue of The Iron Trillium  published an 'article' on this topic attributed to me in the winter of 2006. The content was cut together from a pair of e-mails which in turn where only a small part of a larger discussion on the Metal Arts Guild disusion group MAGLIST.  That text was copied and printed without my knowledge or permission. 


(Content now on the main Wareham Forge site.)

Defining the Artist Blacksmith

A commentary on Terminology and Tradition
Originally on the Ontario Artist Blacksmith Association web site.
"Will you take an Apprentice?"

A commentary on the reality of the single person studio
Originally Seen on my blog Hammered Out Bits
A Career as an Artist Blacksmith?

Considering a Life as an Artist
A short article originally published on the Squido web series .
Teens as Students?

Some wisdom on the physical demands - and hazards, of working in as a blacksmith.
Wrought Iron Work?

What it really is - and what it really means!
On Buying an Anvil
Some information on what to look for
From my original GeoCities blog

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