Hammer and tongs: What is it like to be a blacksmith for a day?

One of the participants starts work on making a hook from steel. Image: (C) Tim Sandle

How often do you take up the challenge of trying something different? Arts and crafts provide an interesting avenue to explore and appreciating the artistry of different crafts is something best undertaken at close hand, or even better, by taking part.  

For me, the area I decided to try out was blacksmithing – the art of working with hot metal. This was in the form of spending a day at a blacksmith’s forge in London, being taken through the steps in a group with two other participants.

Blacksmiths work by heating pieces of wrought iron or steel until the metal becomes soft enough for shaping with hand tools, such as a hammer, an anvil and a chisel. Smithing is one of the oldest metalworking occupations, with origins dating back to pre-industrial times.

In many parts of the world, including the U.K., the ancient art of blacksmithing has seen a resurgence, partly fuelled by renewed appetites for crafting and societal concerns with sustainability.

Ready for action – Digital Journal’s Tim Sandle trying out being a blacksmith. Image: (C) Tim Sandle

For the blacksmith experience day, the focus was on making a hook in the morning and a poker during the afternoon. This involved learning various techniques, including hammering metal down to make a point, and then bending, folding, and twisting hot metal.

Why try working with metal? For this journalist, this was stepping outside of my comfort zone, in the context of a challenge being a good thing, and a desire to connect with long-preserved crafts and the feeling of achievement that comes with creating something.

Inside the London blacksmiths. Image (C) Tisane

Work begins by heating pieces of steel until the metal becomes soft enough for shaping with a hammer, working on an anvil, and later a chisel.

This is the art of forging or shaping metal by hammering. This differs greatly from machining since forging does not remove any material. Instead, as smiths, the process requires hammering the steel into shape.

Tim Sandle hammering away. Image (C) Tim Sandle

This requires a bit or practice, but more challenging is the use of tongs, not least in trying to get the metal in the right orientation.

The heating process requires a forge, in this case fuelled by coke and controlled by the flow of air.

The forge is lit – ready for the metal. Image (C) Tim Sandle

Colour is important for indicating the temperature and workability of the metal. As iron heats to higher temperatures, it starts to glow red, then orange. The ideal heat for forging is the bright yellow-orange colour that indicates ‘forging heat.’

Striking while the iron is hot. Image (C) Tim Sandle

Hotter temperatures are needed for bending. Heating iron or steel to a “forging heat” enables the metal to be bent as if it was a soft, ductile metal.

Creating a poke – bending, twisting, forging. Image (C) Tim Sandle

Other techniques attempted include punching – in order to create a decorative pattern and polishing down the finished object.

It is hard work and it the process takes time, care and attention. At the same time, it is enjoyable and rewarding.

At the end of the day, one is left with an enormous feeing of satisfaction, having designed, developed and produced something through effort and craft.

Digital Journal was at Hot Metal Works in London under tutorage of Neil Brown, an expert craftsman and patient teacher.

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