14 years ago
By MICHAEL POLLAK
Published: December 23, 1999
TO understand blacksmithing's current appeal, forget about Henry
Wadsworth Longfellow's village smithy under the spreading chestnut
tree with his arms like iron bands. Instead, suggests Brian Gilbert,
consider the lowly kitchen spatula. Everybody has one.
''I have one, too,'' Mr. Gilbert of Chattanooga, Tenn., wrote by e-
mail, ''except mine is handmade, and if you take the time to notice,
has decorative touches that make it really nice to hold. It's a pretty
piece, there's not another exactly like it anywhere else in the world,
and I'm proud of it.''
Mr. Gilbert is editor of The Hammer's Blow, one of two publications of
Abana, the Artist-Blacksmith's Association of North America, which was
founded in 1973 in Lumpkin, Ga., by 20 blacksmiths attending a
convention. Ten years later, membership was 2,250, and today, it is
4,500, with more than 300 joining each year, according to Abana's Web
.html. There are more than 50 Abana chapters, including chapters in
Australia and New Zealand and some on university campuses where
decorative arts and metalworking are taken seriously. On the site, one
can subscribe to Abana's two newsletters, The Hammer's Blow, with many
how-to hints, and The Anvil's Ring, which showcases new creations.
There is also an online store.
Blacksmithing is most often associated with shoeing horses, an
association not all blacksmiths care for, said Jim McCarty, who edits
The Anvil's Ring. ''I know many blacksmiths who would not like to
admit this,'' Mr. McCarty of Taos, Mo., wrote by e-mail. ''They wear
pins with a horseshoe covered by the 'Ghostbusters' symbol as a sign
of disdain for the mere shoer of horses. The fact is had they not
continued their trade, blacksmithing would have died.''
Farriers, blacksmiths who specialize in shoeing horses, kept the old
traditions alive, Mr. McCarty said. ''The farrier saved
blacksmithing,'' he wrote. ''While the need for blacksmiths to make
tools, repair farm equipment and forge household items ended around
World War II, there has never been a time when the services of the
farrier were no longer needed.''
A second reason for the resurgence of blacksmithing, he wrote, was the
efforts of the Sixties generation to rediscover lost arts. And there
were revered teachers like the late Francis Whitaker, who died in
October at age 92 and whose contributions are outlined in a special
page in Abana.
You are not going to learn blacksmithing without doing it in person,
but the fraternity will be glad to give you plenty of online help.
Blacksmithing has its own Web ring, and one of its sites,
anvilfire.com, has a How Do I Get Started in Blacksmithing page with
many suggestions, including these: Sign up for a welding course at a
local college or trade school. Buy a few books, recommended online.
Join Abana. ''Start to look for equipment and scraps of steel to
experiment with or to build equipment. Be imaginative. Don't get stuck
on setting up a classic 19th-century shop!'' The site also posts basic
information on hammers, tongs, forges and anvils, as well as how to
buy out-of-print blacksmithing books.
The Blacksmith's Compendium, sponsored by the Celtic Knot, has an
Frequently Asked Questions list of sorts, indexed from Abana
/compendium/guide.shtml). Topics include anvils and anvil repairs,
''blacksmith's elbow,'' chain mail, blade steels, Damascus steel and
''Coal: A Brief Primer.''
For a blacksmith's page for women, try ''In
many ways, women make better blacksmiths,'' Mr. Gilbert wrote, ''since
they often have less upper body strength. They cannot force the iron
to move as easily as a large man could, so they work smarter, often
with better hammer technique and control than the average male.''
Perhaps the most enthusiastic and charming site is the Blacksmith's
Virtual Junkyard the creation of Neil Winikoff,
79, of Bellevue, Wash., a former writer for industrial magazines and a
blacksmithing devotee for 30 years. Interspersed with pictures of
Cassius, his junkyard dog, and audio of appropriate rock songs are a
joke page, how-to pages for beginning and advanced metalworkers,
listings (you want to contact a smith in Sri Lanka?), a sketchbook
page for drawings and ideas, and an online junkyard.
Blacksmithing sites are far removed from any guild-style secrecy.
''The near loss of this art form isn't lost on today's smith,
either,'' Mr. Gilbert wrote by way of explanation. ''Some of the
original founding members of Abana are still around. These 30 or so
people realized that secrecy was death, and they freely shared all
that they knew, and encouraged others to do the same.''