Friday, December 19, 2008

Watt's Thoughts - Blacksmithing

My great-grandfather was a blacksmith and his son, my great-uncle, followed him and then moved to auto mechanics. Their blacksmith shop was in Kansas. I remember visiting it when I was a young boy.

For several years when I have seen a blacksmith course listed or mentioned at a college, it sounded interesting, although I had no idea what I would make in a class. I had done some very basic metal work in shop class in junior high and high school.

Northwestern Technical College, where I taught at the time, had a course offered in continuing education, so I signed up.

The class had a great teacher/student ratio; there were five students to start and four teachers. We basically made a project a week, although a couple projects took two weeks.

I bought my own hammers (through, and actually had to buy twice as my first set was too light. I now have a ball pein hammer and 3 cross pein hammers (two styles and weights). I also purchased several pairs of leather gloves, getting as light a weight as possible that I could for maneuvering while handling the hammer and metal. I usually had no glove on the hand with the hammer, except to keep blisters away, but I'm calloused now.

The class went from fairly simple work to making fancy ornamentation on the handle the last week. We started with a simple hook for a wall. Then it was on to a bar and three hooks to hang coffee mugs on (have not figured how to get my hundred or so mugs on three hooks). We then learned an ancient skill of how to make nails. I did OK, but you do not want me making nails.

We use our own fire tools (which we actually used in the forge) including a shovel (from a rod and flat piece of metal and riveted), and a couple of fire pokers (with some fanciness in the handles like twists and various hammered curves).

We learned to forge weld. We made crosses out of a single piece of metal split two ways and flatted, and forks by splitting metal also. And we fabricated tongs to put our metal in the fire and to get the metal out, and chisels and punch tools out of truck springs.

The important things I learned in blacksmithing were:
  1. getting the metal at the right temperature (can't be too hot or too cold),
  2. knowing how hard and where to strike the hammer
  3. knowing which type of hammer to use
  4. how to use a punch and chisel
Blacksmithing is an interesting craft to know (to go with my wood, stained glass, and photography crafts). After the class was over, I did some occasional demonstrations at the Pine Tree Festival here in Swainsboro where I live. What I may do with it, I am not sure yet.

It's funny. I've done computer work for a steel fabrication plant for years and now I actually know how to work with the metal. Just as my great-grandfather did so long ago.

- Dwight Watt
from "Watt's Thoughts," available at

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