This past weekend, I took a blacksmithing class and, true to form, I tweeted all about it. However, since this was my second time going to a class at the forges, my thread missed many things I couldn’t capture in the 240 character limit of a tweet. I asked if y’all wanted more and you overwhelmingly did. So, while I wait for my author copies of Pantheon 2: Ares & Athena to arrive, let’s talk blacksmithing! After all, if you’re supposed to “write what you know,” then this is all most fun and authentic when I’ve actually done the thing!
*Standard disclaimer, I’m not a professional, learn from someone who has more than two classes of experience and I’m in no way responsible for your burnt/smashed fingers and hands.
The Basic Class:
I take my classes at a local forge (Traditions Workshop) that focuses on folks who want to dip their toe in the world of blacksmithing. They provide classes that build groups of skills then offer open forge time for those who move beyond classroom instruction. They require you to take an introductory course that focuses on safety and basic skills before you can progress on to more advanced classes.
I took my intro class back in July and let me tell you, standing in the dragon’s fire while surrounded by Floridian high summer is quite the experience!
The class starts with a 20 minute or so safety lesson: how hot the forge is (2000+ degrees Fahrenheit), how to move safely around other blacksmiths (“hot metal!”), and the location of all the quenching buckets. After that, we moved on to forge familiarity, learning the basic tools, the structure/design of the anvil, and what types of metal can be worked and how.
It was nearly an hour before we struck the first hammer blow, which is probably wise. Our first creations were nails. My first nail came out a bit wiggly, the top was nowhere near flat, and I was soaked with sweat. But, it was fun, engaging, and certainly a challenge. I was able to turn the end of a ¼” diameter iron rod into a nail in about fifteen minutes. Heat, hammer, turn, hammer, turn, heat, and create the tip. Heat once more, slam it into the nail maker to break the tip off, then smash the top flat. (My top was way off-center, oops!) I felt very proud of my accomplishment until my instructor told us that an apprentice blacksmith of old was expected to churn out almost sixty an hour. I don’t think I’ll be seeking an apprenticeship anytime soon. I made two more nails as we got everyone up to par on the skills then we moved into the class’s intended outcome: crafting a coat hook from the remainder of our rod. This taught us several of the basic blacksmithing skills: drawing out, upsetting, and punching. One frustrating, but still enjoyable, hour later, my coat hook wouldn’t win any prizes, but it was done! And so were my hands, I blistered most of my right hand. Not from hot metal or hot flake, but from the sweat causing friction on the hammer.
The Advanced Class:
This weekend we tried one of the advanced classes that was intended to make a “Viking spear.” This class combined all the skills we learned with the into class plus a few new skills. And, with the ever capricious nature of unknown steel… a few more!
The class started with no safety brief as we were all held accountable for our previous class and dove right into the making. No whiteboard, no chalkboard, you listen and listen good, or you lose out on a step. Our instructor walked us step by step through the plan, which we soon deviated from. We also learned that we would not be using expensive, but predictable, propane forges. We were going to the less expensive, less visible, and much more temperamental coal forges.
The first steps seemed relatively easy: heat your metal, craft your tip, create your shoulders, then draw out the steel to create the spears flared shape.
What happened: heat the metal, craft the tip, manage the fire, heat the metal, rework the tip, manage the fire and dig out metal bits to keep the air flowing and the fire hot. Rework the tip again. Realize the flue was cracked open and there wasn’t nearly enough airflow to keep the desired temp and why the metal wasn’t getting hot enough to work. Reheat the metal. BURN AND SLAG OFF MY ENTIRE TIP WHILE I GRAB A SIP OF WATER.
Want to cry.
Look like I’m going to cry (after 1.5 hours of work, wouldn’t you?)
The instructor hastily remakes my 1.5 hours of work in 15 minutes. Proceed to step two: shape the shoulder of the blade and draw it out. At this point, I just have to laugh.
Three hours in, we are severely behind pacing, there isn’t enough metal to make the collar of the spear and they have us try to forge weld the file onto itself to have enough material. We’re all frustrated.
Instructors call a halt so we can grab lunch while they hastily construct collars from spare metal and weld them on. I munch on sandwiches and an apple in my blissfully air-conditioned car and contemplate how long it will take to finish and/or wash all the coal off.
An hour later, we’re revived, the collars are on, and it’s time for the grinder. Twenty minutes behind a belt sander, we’ve got the weld smoothed out, the edge formed, and we’re ready to harden and temper the blades.
This was relatively easy and fun. Mostly, we held our blades in a pair of tongs while the instructor heated the metal, then once the blade was no longer reactive to a magnet (lemme tell you, chemistry and physics are WILD!), we dunked them in oil.
The last bit was to temper the blade, so it didn’t crack overnight, a simple matter of reheating the center again. The final bit, now 2.5 hours over our time, was to affix the blade to a shaft.
Blacksmithing is fun! It’s also a lot of physical work in hot and dangerous conditions. It’s probably not like what you see on TV and your fellow blacksmiths don’t look like they’re described in high fantasy novels. Do you remember Perrin Aybara from The Wheel of Time series? With his broad “blacksmith’s shoulders”? It’s a lie. A damn dirty lie. The most talented, skilled, and experienced blacksmith at my forge is a wiry man in his middle years. He probably weighs what I do. It’s solid muscle, to be sure, but he is lightly built, not bulging with muscles.
Next time I go to the forges, I’m looking for smaller projects that take less time or skills. I will admit that my attention span can be short and I am a perfectionist. If it takes 6.5 hours and is not perfect, it is not worth my sanity to make it. (Yes, writing is a huuuuuge counter to this. Nothing I write is every perfect, it’s just done.)
So, yes. I will blacksmith again! (But in smaller doses and with cold beer waiting at my house after.)
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