Open Forge Nights Feature Blacksmithing

10/19/2013 7:00 AM
By Paul Post N.Y. Correspondent

LAKE LUZERNE, N.Y. — In the early days of American agriculture, if a farmer needed a tool, he made it himself or hired someone who knew how.

There was no Tractor Supply Company or Ace Hardware store around the corner.

Adam Howard keeps this aspect of farming heritage alive by teaching the centuries-old trade of blacksmithing at the Adirondack Folk School, founded three years ago to preserve the culture and crafts of upstate New York’s Adirondack region.

“Smithing was a huge part of both agriculture and industry here in the Adirondacks and continues its relevance in the celebration of that culture,” he said. “Smithing enjoyed its heyday during the Industrial Revolution and truly went into decline after World War II. It now enjoys a full and robust renaissance as is evident by what’s going on here at the Folk School and elsewhere.”

On Oct. 9, the school hosted the latest in a series of monthly “Open Forge Nights,” where instructors give hands-on demonstrations to attentive listeners.

There are an estimated 3,500 professional blacksmiths in the U.S. Some do contemporary sculptures, while others have specialties such as tool work, architecture of historic reproductions. In addition, there are tens of thousands of hobbyists who like blacksmithing for the sheer fun and joy of it.

“Items most commonly produced for agriculture were shovels, rakes, spades, hoes, cultivators, trowels, plows, harrows, iron hardware for wagons and wheels, horse shoes, ox shoes, scythes, pitchforks and more,” Howard said. “Early farmers certainly would employ anything in a make-do situation, but for the most part, hand-forged implements were the most desirable owing to their quality and durability. Local rural smiths produced a lot, but much was also imported or shipped to rural areas from both Europe and the industrial North.”

Howard was trained as a historic smith, so he not only shows people how it’s done, but explains the trade’s history, physics and raw materials as well, such as where ore comes from. Rich iron deposits in the Adirondacks contributed greatly to blacksmithing’s prominence in the region.

The skill of blacksmithing came to America with the first settlers.

“In Jamestown Colony or Plymouth, one of the first things they did was bring in a good blacksmith,” Howard said. “If not, it would be like trying to go someplace without a mechanic.”

Blacksmithing was not only important to agriculture, but all walks of Colonial life, from cooking utensils to providing the tools needed to build towns, villages and cities.

It’s demanding work that requires equal parts concentration, coordination and creativity in addition to physical strength.

“I find that I don’t think about all the things that annoy me when I’m blacksmithing,” said Steve Gurzler, a school volunteer. “You really have to focus when you’re holding a 2,000-degree piece of iron.”

Howard let a couple of onlookers try their hands at tapering a red-hot bar with a hammer. The key, he said, is to strike the same spot repeatedly with one hand, while drawing the metal toward you with the other. Leaning inward with body weight helps keep the metal in place, too.

“The anvil is the blacksmith’s work bench,” he said.

So he keeps his anvil in pristine condition, careful to avoid scratches, marks and dings that would diminish his craftsmanship.

Iron becomes red-hot at 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit and is ready for forging (bending and shaping) at 1,700-2,000 degrees. The process is much like working with clay, only harder.

A single piece of iron might have to be re-heated 10 times before the finished product is done. Working steadily and quickly, Howard strikes his hammer more than 100 times with each “heat.”

A professional smith (a derivation of the word smite,’ which means “to hit”) may strike more than 10,000 hammer blows per day.

If nothing else, it’s a great way to let out frustrations.

“There’s something satisfying about this,” class participant Ellen Stone, of Boston, said smiling.

Two courses are scheduled this month that people may sign up for: “Hearth Tools,” Oct. 19-20, and “Make Your Own Camp Ax,” Oct. 26-27.

The courses are among the dozens of skills people can learn at the school including weaving, soapmaking, rustic furniture making, woodworking and photography. Year-round classes range from half-day sessions to multi-week courses.

“Everything that we do at the school’s blacksmithing studio preserves, promotes, educates our students in not only the techniques of the work, but its history and relevance to culture both present and past,” Howard said. “Smithing is totally relevant to contemporary agriculture and gardening, too, in the areas of repair, fabrication, sharpening, and even garden art and sculpture.”

When visitors show up, it’s always easy to find Howard. Just listen for the clang of his hammer striking metal.

“There’s a lot of camaraderie in the trade,” he said. “Everybody knows each other.”

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