Story and photos by Claire Stuart
In Colonial America and during the settlement of the west, “the blacksmith shop was the hardware store of the day,” says blacksmith Phil Travis, who teaches a series of classes in this vital traditional craft. He explains that the town blacksmith made all the essential tools (and tools for making tools) for home and farm, from nails and hinges to shovels, axes, forks, pots and pans.
To 21st Century eyes, the most amazing thing about blacksmithing is that all of these things can be made using only a forge, an anvil, and a hammer. Tongs are useful for holding metal stock, but not essential.
Movies usually show the blacksmith at a huge brick forge, often making horseshoes. Travis explains that farriers are another type of blacksmith, and they specialize in not just making horseshoes but also caring for the horses’ hooves. If a blacksmith was the only metalworker in town, he would be making all of the implements and hardware, and horseshoes would be a very small part of his business. If the town was large enough, there was a blacksmith and a farrier.
The big brick forge in the movies also isn’t necessarily typical. Forges come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Travis conducts his classes at forges that are about the size of a backyard grill. The forge is a very simple invention, requiring only a firepot to hold fuel and a source of air that is forced through to make the fire burn hotter.
Travis uses a coal burner and an electric fan, but explains that in third-world countries, blacksmiths use whatever fuel they have — be it charcoal, wood, or animal dung. The firepot can even be just a hole in the ground to contain the fuel and a way to blow air through it. For air, they might use a child blowing into a tube or operating a simple bellows made from animal skin.
Of course, nails were essential for early settlers, and Travis says that they were frequently made in the home. Mothers and children would make them during winter in the hearth fire. Often they would make enough to sell for extra cash, just as farm women sold butter and eggs.
Forging differs from other types of metal work because forging does not remove any of the metal. Travis explains that all blacksmithing is based on one or a series of just five processes. “Drawing” is thinning or lengthening a metal rod by heating and hammering it. “Upsetting” is shortening and thickening it by heating it and hammering in at the end of the rod. Then there is cutting (punching holes), bending, and forge welding (which joins two pieces of hot metal by hammering them together).
Blacksmiths generally work in dim light so that they can see the color of the metal being heated, which is essential to the process. As it heats up, the metal goes from dark gray through shades of red, orange, yellow and white. Golden yellow is the ideal color, and white is too hot, causing oxidation and flying sparks.
Travis has been interested in blacksmithing since he was about ten years old. As a teenager, he made a forge out of a hibachi grill. He recalls forging arrowheads out of 16-penny nails. He learned his skills by reading about blacksmithing and taking classes. In 1989, he took a class at the John Campbell Folk School in North Carolina with noted seventh generation blacksmith Daniel Boone VII, descendant of THE Daniel Boone.
Retired as an electrician and project manager with Xerox, Travis says he doesn’t call himself a professional blacksmith, but rather an enthusiast and hobbyist. He has participated in French-Indian War and Revolutionary War living history demonstrations, Shenandoah Longrifles and other events. He used to camp at the Belle Grove Plantation and he rebuilt the forge there, and he demonstrates at Sky Meadows State Park. He enjoys going to blacksmith “hammer-ins” and meeting people in the blacksmith community, who he describes as having “old American-style ethics.”
He has been teaching since 2011, and his classes are open to anyone age 16 and up. He says his students have included teens and seniors, men and women, office workers and construction workers, jewelry makers and artisans who want to make specialized tools for their craft.
“They can make a tool and then use the tool,” he says.
In his first class this year, Travis taught students to work with a coal forge, hammer and anvil to make wall hooks, nails, punches for metal work and several types of tongs. The punches made by the students were used to make holes for inserting nails to hold the two arms of the tongs together. It was interesting to see how many steps were necessary to make a small steel bar into a simple hook.
Student Jay Quintin was taking his second class with Travis. He said that he grew up on a farm and his father did blacksmithing to maintain equipment. He is trying to set up his own shop. “I make stuff like hooks and nails and give it away,” he laughed.
David Patton was taking his first blacksmithing class. He, too, says he likes to “make stuff,” especially “old school stuff” and also plans to have a small forge.
Travis recycles discarded metal and gives it new life. He indicated some pieces used in the class made from coil springs and a hammer he made out of a truck axel.
He notes that several popular old sayings came directly from blacksmithing, including “dead as a doornail,” “Strike when the iron is hot,” and “too many irons in the fire.”
Travis will teach two-day blacksmithing classes on several weekends from April through July and one five-day class. Absolute beginners are welcome in all classes and will learn to make items like bar-b-que tools, hammers, colonial boot scrapers, shelf brackets, and custom tools.
All classes are held at Opus Oaks Art Place, 2330 Crums Church Road in Berryville. For dates and details, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 540-539-6685.