The Art and Mystery of the Blacksmith
The piercing ring of my father’s sledge hitting the anvil echoes in my mind yet today, 40 years later. Holding the red hot metal with tongs in his powerful hands as he easily flattened, ground, and bent the black iron – shaping it skilfully over and over until it fit the horses hoof perfectly. Smoke rises and the smouldering smell of the burnt hoof makes me cringe. He winks at me to let me know it’s alright – the horse can’t feel a thing. He drops the shoe in a cool bucket of water; three more shoes to go. Blacksmiths; their work spans the ages.
I have visited many historical landmarks and every time I am drawn to the stone and coal forges, fire tools, and metal brandished items on display. Often there are demonstrations by a burly man in a leather apron and I feel right at home.
Traditionally, tradesmen working with iron or black metal, as it was known, were called “blacksmiths” because they would smite and work with different metals. They were held in high esteem because everyone needed something from these custom toolmakers in the 18th and 19th centuries.
One out of ten early settlers were farmers who needed tools to clear and work their land. They often had horses, and cows along with other livestock. A blacksmith made plough shares, sickles, scythes, and metal parts for wagons and carriages, as well as wheel rims, axe heads, hammers, shovels, hoes, and pitch forks. Moreover, horses required shoes to protect their hooves from the rustic rural roads and the freely roaming cattle required cow bells to notify farmers of their where a bouts. Certainly, the American Axe which has remained relatively the same for over 225 years, was the single most significant contribution to tools made by the blacksmith.
Some of the lesser known items blacksmiths forged in their fires were items for women; utensils for preparing and eating meals; forks, knives, spoons, cooking pots and pans, coffee or tea pots, cast iron kettles, lanterns, sewing and other household tools. Trades and Industry workers needed tools as well. Builders needed door hinges, chandeliers, hooks and nails or screws. Vessels in the harbour needed anchors and chains. Woodworkers needed tools like crosscut handsaws, planes, scrapers and chisels1. Additionally, they needed gimlets for making small holes in wood, centre bits and braces to bore large shallow holes quickly. Hunters and warfare soldiers of the 18th century sought out hand forged blades like the Bowie and long hunter knives. Swords of various lengths, metal canteens, tomahawks, and gun parts are other types of contrivance created by skilled blacksmiths. Camp ironwork included tripods, trammels, cauldrons, spatulas, ladles and strainers.
Blacksmiths also maintained their handiwork with a grindstone – sharpening all metal blades; knives, ploughshare, axe, saw, sickle and the scythe.
Main Tools of the Trade
A symbol of the blacksmith is definitely the “anvil”. Without it, there is no craft; yet it is only one of the various tools of the trade. In an article By the Mother Earth News Editors (November/December 1975)2, it mentions various sizes of anvils ranging from tiny to the large 500 lbs models. I can easily imagine the blacksmith seeking out a tree butt to fasten a 200 lb. anvil securely to it. Lighter anvils weren’t as steady, more difficult to fasten and prone to crack under heavy hammer strokes while the larger models were hard on the back.
Instrumental to the blacksmith is the hammer. Customizing hammers to fit their skills and jobs, most blacksmiths had several types of hammers; a heavy sledge, or lighter ball-, cross-, and straight-peen which they forged themselves. Handles were an essential component to the hammer. Usually made from hickory or ash and properly wedged plus fitted to the palm of the blacksmith to make forging seem effortless. Knowing which hammer to use, when and how to utilize its effect, with the least expenditure of energy, was the quintessence of this trade.
Link, belt, hoop, and horseshoe are all types of tongs. Sometimes, a blacksmith will have a large variety of different sizes and shapes made for specific purposes. Known as the fire proof extension of the crafters hands, tongs are extremely personal. They are strong but have been known to slip in a loose grip and send red hot bits of iron flying when a hammer hits hard. Most blacksmiths created a hand held vice by adding a catch at the end of one handle to their tongs preventing it from opening and avoiding possible injury or fires.
Upright Chisel is a tool that fits into the anvil’s very hard, flattened top surface square hole, called the “hardy hole”. This hole is used to hold several tools; including, swages mandrels, fullers and the hardy – its name sake.
Finishing touches to the trade tools punches, files and a water trough. Making holes in metal was made with points of different shapes called punches; files were coarse or fine and used to grate metal deposits creating a smooth surface. To cool down the metal and solidify the finished product a water trough or quench tub was used. It was also handy to have water available to douse the flames if they burned too high.
The Mystery Revealed
An article about 18th Century Blacksmitting states iron made in the North American settlements was called Bog iron – a low grade ore gathered in marshes and ponds. If you got permission from the King, you could set up an iron furnace but you had to own vast amounts of natural resources; wood for charcoal making, limestone outcroppings to flux the ore and a huge ore supply. Therefore, iron was difficult to obtain in the yearly settlement years due to British restrictions.
The article continues to describe the fundamentals of making iron as a trade within itself. When enough ore was gathered the iron furnace fired up with coal and worked twenty-four / seven for two to four weeks. As the iron was smelted from the ore and fluxed with limestone it was tapped. Resembling a sow and her suckling piglets the molten iron ran down into ditches. It was called pig iron. Refined in a foundry-like shop, pig iron was cultured into useable iron metal ready for the maker’s hand – a blacksmith to skilfully shape, contour, strike, pound, and hammer.
The blacksmith life was a hard one but nothing compared to the blacksmith apprentice. Masters gladly took on an apprentice at no charge for roughly a four or five year period and these boys would learn the secrets of the trade in exchange for clothing, lodging, and food until he became a master himself. Small item nails, screws, bolts and hooks were usually made by an apprentice.
During the mid-to-late 1800s, one could find a blacksmith in cities and towns all across Canada. However, with the Great Depression and World War II, the trade was all but wiped out, leaving only Farriers – a specialized subsection of blacksmithing focusing on horseshoes. The rest of the labour formerly done by blacksmiths was swallowed up by factories, leaving little room for the blacksmith of old. Some blacksmiths were trained to shod or fit shoes on horses. These men were called farriers. They worked with horses exclusively; shaping the shoe, rasping, burning and nailing the shoe on the hoof to protect it. Some farriers evolved into taking care of the lame and sick animals thereby becoming the first veterinarians.
The majority of settlement communities had a blacksmith shop. Some with very large doors so horses, wagons and farm implements could fit inside but most were small and poorly lit. The shop was usually near the livery stable (barn). Generally ignored by historians, the livery was a vital resource for settlers. Among other things, a livery provided wood and coal for heat, as well as hay and gain for livestock. One of the most important functions of an early settlement livery was to provide vital transportation service; a stable where settlers could hire horses, teams and wagons. If you were lucky enough to own a horse, the livery was the place to board it for a short time when travelling which is why the livery was often attached to a hotel or boarding house.
On the other hand, there were a couple downfalls of a town’s livery. It was common knowledge liveries were, well, lively with socialization. Noise and vermin was a problem and it has been documented that disgusting odours were also generated in and around liveries. Time and again, in many locations, towns attempted to control the locality and activities of their liveries. Unscrupulous behaviours such as gambling or stag shows, and cockfighting were vices enjoyed by some in the livery venue.
Today, there are few blacksmiths who pursue the traditional ways of the early blacksmiths which involves forging, welding, riveting, and repairing metal parts for farm machinery. Nevertheless, there has been a true renaissance in artistic Blacksmitting within the last 10 years. Artisan blacksmith businesses in Southern Ontario specialize in custom hand-forged iron products, custom metal fabrications, and welding services for the home, garden or a business. Some offer demonstrations at special events like at enactments or small town heritage festivals. The Artist-Blacksmiths’ Association of North America (ABANA) now claims nearly 5,000 members, double the number it had 10 years ago.
Sparta Ontario has one of the oldest blacksmith shops, built in 1827; the cob (clay and straw) building is now the Forge and Anvil Museum. This historic blacksmith shop has wall 9 inch thick clay walls and stores many artifacts that reflect the history of the Sparta Area including Port Stanley which has, among others, a livery in the heart of the town.