Have you ever given much thought to the skill of blacksmithing? Admittedly, I hadn’t. Not until I was asked to write a novella with a blacksmith hero. That’s when I started diving into research on the craft, and goodness, it was interesting to me.
Did you know that the term “blacksmith” is a catch-all phrase? Not all blacksmiths could do all types of smithing. For instance, a coppersmith was a blacksmith who worked with copper. A blacksmith who made bladed weapons (knives, swords, and the like), was a bladesmith. One who shaped metal into firearms was known as a gunsmith. If he made locks, he was a locksmith. The blacksmith who shaped horseshoes then applied them to the horse’s hooves was known as a farrier. If the blacksmith built wooden wagon wheels and applied the iron rims to them, he was a wheelwright. A town blacksmith in early America was most useful when he could do all of these things—and he was typically well-paid for his skills.
Blacksmiths, in one form or another, have been around for thousands of years, since someone somewhere got the bright idea to take the metal bits they found in nature and melt, then pound, those raw bits into something solid and useful. Sounds simple, right? Well, no…not really.
|Blacksmith's Anvil from Oak Alley Plantation
© Jennifer Uhlarik
First, the bits of iron ore had to be extracted from stone, then all the bits put into a charcoal fire and heated to more than 2800 degrees. The iron would flow from the ore to form “blooms”. Those blooms were then extracted from the fire with tongs, placed on an anvil, and hammered into a flat bar. Several times over, the bar would be folded and hammered to create an ingot of wrought iron, which could then become the basis of whatever else the blacksmith might need to make. Because of the low carbon content of wrought iron, it was very malleable (bendable), and as often as it was put in the fire, it could be shaped again into something new. (This is different than cast iron. In a foundry, rather than a smithy, cast iron is heated to a liquid form, then poured into a mold of the finished product. Because it has a much higher carbon content, the cast iron, once cooled, becomes too brittle to be reworked. Whatever form it is shaped into is how it will stay).
|Civil War-era Traveling Forge drawing
Early explorers and seafarers brought blacksmiths on their voyages so they might fix any broken shipparts along the way. In America’s Colonial days, the village blacksmith made most of the metal tools anyone could dream of. Plows, hoes, shovels, door hinges, wheel rims, knives and swords, metal chains, horseshoes, and everything in between. And if any of those implements broke, the blacksmith was the man to see to get them fixed. During the American Revolution and the Civil War, blacksmiths with traveling forges were sent out with the troops to handle re-shoeing horses, fixing broken wagons, and shoring up any damage to the heavy artillery of the day.
However, as time (and industry) marched on, the blacksmith’s job changed. As people found ways to mass-produce items once individually crafted by the blacksmith, bits of his job died out. And with the Industrial Revolution, whole aspects of the blacksmith’s job went away. For instance, no longer would he have to craft the horseshoes in order to shoe a horse. No, he would simply select an appropriately sized shoe from a barrel of hundreds of horseshoes bought from a factory back east, then nail the pre-made shoe to the horse’s hoof. As more and more items became readily available for purchase through stores or catalogs, the blacksmith’s usefulness waned.
|New Orleans Scrollwork
© Jennifer Uhlarik
With the invention of the automobile, the once-lucrative job of town blacksmith became more of a specialty skill that few but the rich could afford. Most blacksmiths who managed to continue their businesses did so by making decorative gates and fences, wrought-iron staircase railings, and other accouterments for the well-to-do elements of society—or they found success in contracting to create the metal grills protecting old government building windows. Unfortunately, this new phase of the blacksmith’s life was short-lived. Once the Great Depression struck, no one had money for such luxuries, and the heyday of the blacksmith died out.
For the most part, the skill, craft, and artwork of the blacksmith is a thing of the past, though you can find working blacksmith shops in some places today. Sometimes they are part of historic sites or living history museums, meant to show what life was like in that given period of time. Others are meant to introduce today’s culture to the craft of blacksmithing through simple hands-on classes where you can make a simple project in a few hours. And, of course, there are those artisans who still employ the age-old methods in crafting decorative items for sale at craft shows, eBay, and Etsy.
It’s your turn: What, if anything, did you learn about blacksmiths and their craft that you didn’t already know? If you could, would you take a class to learn some basic techniques in this ancient skill?
Jennifer Uhlarik discovered the western genre as a pre-teen when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has finaled and won in numerous writing competitions, and been on the ECPA best-seller list several times. In addition to writing, she has held jobs as a private business owner, a schoolteacher, a marketing director, and her favorite—a full-time homemaker. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers, Women Writing the West, and is a lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, college-aged son, and four fur children.
Available for Pre-Order
Blacksmith Brides: 4 Historical Stories
A Malleable Heart (California—1870) by Jennifer Uhlarik
A hard-hearted blacksmith finds acceptance with the town laundress. But when his past comes to call, will he resist love’s softening or allow God to hammer his ruined life into something of worth?