Artisan Skills: The Blacksmith

Metalworking has a long and varied history – advancing hugely in some parts of the world while being neglected in others. The labourers which drove this progress were known as blacksmiths.

Blacksmiths have, over the course of history played an enormously important role in the advancement of civilisation. In medieval Europe, their craft was regarded as one of seven mechanical arts (the others being tailoring, agriculture, architecture, warfare, trade and cooking). It was an art whose advancement had a profound impact on any society that fostered it.

What’s a Blacksmith for?

Thanks to popular culture, many of us have the preconception that the primary purpose of a blacksmith is the creation of weapons. And this preconception is probably justified. That said, a blacksmith can also forge a variety of other useful tools. Tools which make farming easier, like the scythe, and those which make cooking easier, like the pot.

Blacksmiths thereby hugely improved the farmer’s ability to provide food for everyone, and the cook’s ability to cook it. They created shoes for horses, which enabled horses to help on the farm and the battlefield, and to improve transport links between remote settlements. Blacksmiths were also artists – as well as functional pieces, they created ornate, decorative ones, like rings and other jewellery – and so their direct contribution to a society’s art and culture should not be downplayed.

We should remember that films, books and video games – whether it’s Shakespeare’s bloodbath Titus Andronicus or the latest entry into the Call of Duty series – naturally incline towards violence. This is largely because violence is a potent source of conflict and drama, and therefore useful for creating an enthralling story, and getting adrenaline flowing.

We’d be wise, therefore, to treat the image of a blacksmith forging an endless stream of broadswords with a degree of scepticism; after all, Game of Thrones would probably not enjoy quite the same success if it focussed on agriculture rather than gruesome war, betrayal and dismemberment.

That said, the influence of blacksmithing on world affairs came primarily through its influence on warfare. If your tribe, kingdom or empire had access to weapons that could literally shred your opponents to pieces, then you’ll be in an incredibly advantageous position.

It’s for this reason that the Bronze Age gave way so rapidly to the Iron Age. Once blacksmiths had worked out how to craft weapons from iron, their societies were able to march armies into their bronze-wielding neighbours and cut down all who stood in their way.

What’s so great about Iron?

Iron has several properties which made it superior to other metals available at the time. The foremost of these is that it does not transition immediately from solid to liquid once its melting point has been reached. Instead, it morphs slowly from one state to the other, becoming more and more plastic as it does so. It does this over a range of more than eight-hundred degrees Celsius, making it very forgiving to work with. This meant that even an inexpert ironsmith could make far superior weaponry to even the most talented bronzesmith.

The technology necessary to totally melt iron ore did not come to the west until some three-thousand years after the dawn of the Iron Age, in the form of the blast furnace. This allowed cast-iron items to be created in Europe – though by this time, the Chinese had been enjoying cast-iron cookware for more than a thousand years.

Blacksmith

blacksmith at work in a repair shop

Of course, just as bronze gave way to iron, crude iron found itself rendered obsolete by steel. Roman soldiers would remark, after their encounters with iron-equipped Celts, that their opponents were unable to use their swords after a few swings, and would have to stand on them in order to straighten them out.

Steel is created when Iron is alloyed with other metals, most commonly carbon. This process requires skill, which had to be developed over a long period of time. This meant that, while the introduction of steel into blacksmithing had a profound influence on world history, this influence was not as sudden and dramatic as that of iron – but its consequences would be remarkable nonetheless.

An Indian Revolution

A particular sort of steel was developed in on the Indian subcontinent as early as the sixth century BC. The steel was covered with bands of different ferrites and cementite’s. While the precise chemistry of the process might not have been well-understood at the time, the results were clear for all to see: a steel that was far tougher, and could remain sharper for longer.

This steel came to be known as Wootz steel, and was considered the finest in the world, exported to the Romans, Egyptians, Chinese and Arabs. Wootz steel was forged in several different ways, but the most widespread involved heating black magnetite ore alongside carbon within a clay crucible. The carbon was typically sourced from bamboo and leaves.

In Damascus, this particular sort of steel was imported en-masse between the 3rd and 17th centuries. Such was the reputation of this steel that a phrase entered the Persian vernacular – to give ‘an Indian answer’ meant ‘to cut with an Indian sword’. The result was a golden age of weaponsmithing, with some of the best blades in history being produced. These weapons relied heavily on their tungsten and vanadium content – had the Indian steels not contained any trace of these elements, then the resulting weapons would not have the required qualities. This meant that there was a constant demand for Indian steel throughout this time.

What Tools Does a Blacksmith Require?

Old anvil with blacksmith tools  isolated on white background

Old anvil with blacksmith tools

Generally speaking, blacksmithing is a simple process to understand, and one which theoretically requires just a handful of tools. Let’s take a look at some of them.

Forge

In order to heat iron (or indeed, any other metal) to a temperature at which it becomes malleable, a blacksmith will need a source of heat. This comes in the form of a forge, a specialised form of hearth used especially for the purpose.

Hammer

Once the metal has been heated to the extent that it can be manipulated, the blacksmith will need tools with which to do the manipulating. After all, it’s rather difficult to do so with one’s bare hands! This is where the hammer comes in – by striking the workpiece, the blacksmith can alter its shape and material properties. There are many different sorts of hammer in the typical smith’s workshop, ranging from light hammers, used for ‘peening’, to heavy sledgehammers, which are most often wielded by apprentices under the direction of the smith.

Anvil

Naturally, being able to pound a piece of red-hot iron is not much use unless you have something to pound it against. A blacksmith will therefore also need an anvil – a large block of metal, typically made from forged steel or cast-iron. This will mean that the energy of the hammer blows will be transferred entirely into the piece being worked on, rather than being dispersed. The more massive the anvil, the more effectively it can do this.

An anvil’s iconic shape provides many different sorts of surface, which can be used to shape the work in many different ways. The anvil’s distinctive horn, for example, has a rounded surface which makes it ideal for creating bends, while the topmost face of the anvil is used for flattening the work.

Other tools

While manipulating metal in principle requires just these three items, in practice other tools can aid the process, and so blacksmiths keep them around in order to make life that little bit easier.

Slack Tub

Arguably, the slack tub is as omnipresent as the main three tools. Simply put, it’s a bucket of water, into which the Blacksmith might plunge a heated piece of metal. This will produce a torrent of steam, a sizzling noise, and – most importantly – will quickly cool the metal to point that it is no longer malleable. By partially submerging a piece, a blacksmith can create differences in malleability within just a few inches of one another – and thereby alter the shape of the piece in new and novel ways.

Tongs

If you’re going to be dealing with white-hot materials, it’s advisable to use tongs. This tool allows the blacksmith to hold materials even when they’re scalding hot – it’s a simple, inexpensive contraption, and no blacksmith worthy of the name would go about their business without a set.

BlackSmith

Old blacksmith

Why is Blacksmithing no Longer Used?

Modern metalworkers have largely dropped blacksmithing in favour of more modern techniques, like arc-welding. Such advances allow things like cars, storage containers and skyscrapers to be constructed – things which would certainly be impossible if we were to rely solely on hand-hammering out the steel.

And yet, while these modern contraptions are undoubtedly hugely beneficial, there are certain items which benefit from the touch of a real blacksmith. These hand-crafted treasures require immense skill, and their trade helps to maintain this most traditional form of artistry. If you’re thinking of introducing some tradition and beauty into your home, then a handcrafted metal item might be just the ticket!


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