Blacksmith Shop

A visit to the blacksmith’s shop at the Shields-Ethridge Heritage Farm is like visiting the hardware store 100 years ago. Around the shop you’ll see an oxen yoke, wagon wheels, barrel hoops, and an assortment of plows. Everything was “made from scratch” at the Farm, and the blacksmith was very important to everyone who lived here.

The blacksmith could make parts for the cotton gin, pot hooks for the home, spikes, nails, hinges, and latches. When something broke, the blacksmith could repair it.

The blacksmith is part scientist (metallurgy is the name of the science) and craftsman (creating something unique). While you are at the blacksmith’s shop, the blacksmith will make something pretty, so you can see the process. So, come into this dark, smoky spot and watch how a blacksmith works.

Can you see the color of the rod the blacksmith is holding in this photo? A blacksmith must judge when the iron is hot enough to hammer. He heats the iron in the forge and waits until it is dull yellow to orange—just right to hammer. If it is dull to cherry red, the iron is too cold and must return to the fire.

Photo by Jerry Pope

Can you see the color of the rod the blacksmith is holding in this photo? A blacksmith must judge when the iron is hot enough to hammer. He heats the iron in the forge and waits until it is dull yellow to orange—just right to hammer. If it is dull to cherry red, the iron is too cold and must return to the fire.

Blacksmiths use almost the same tools they have used for 250 years. You can see that a very hot fire is needed, so a blacksmith must know how to build and keep a hot fire going. Can you see the fuel used by the blacksmith? Coal is used because it burns hotter than charcoal. Coke is the fuel that burns hottest in the forge (up to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit) and is produced when coal is burned. Coal burns at 2,500 degrees and the blacksmith keeps a good supply of coal. The bellows makes the fire burn hotter, and you can feel the heat when the blacksmith uses the bellows to direct air toward the fire.

Most blacksmiths have lots of hammers. Hammers can weigh from six ounces to 35 pounds. Some are used to pound large pieces of iron; others are used for detail work on smaller pieces of iron.

Did you notice that the blacksmith is careful not to touch the heated iron? He uses tongs to handle the hot metal and to place it in a vise on the anvil. The anvil is shaped like a cube with a flat surface and a pointed end. Some anvils weigh as much as 600 pounds. The anvil at the Farm weighs about 100 pounds. The blacksmith strikes the hot iron rod with his hammer on the anvil. Now the iron can be shaped, pierced, or cut.

There were specialists among blacksmiths called “ferriers.” They made horseshoes, and they made each to fit each horse. The holes in the horseshoe were made with a sharp tool and were for nails to hold the shoe on the horse’s hoof.

Few blacksmith shops can be found today. Why do you think blacksmiths, who were so important on the farm, are so scarce today? By 1950 all the agricultural crops in the United States were tended by machine. Horse shoes, harnesses, and wheels for wagons were no longer needed. Also, inventors found a way to produce many things by using a mold. Hand forging a tool or part required time; producing many of the same parts in one operation saved time. Perhaps you have an iron fence in your neighborhood. Chances are it is a “cast iron” fence, which means it was bent in a press and then welded together. A “cast” is a mold, and a “cast iron fence” is one that came out of a mold, not from the blacksmith’s forge. A “wrought iron fence” is one hammered on a forge.

Today blacksmiths produce one-of-a-kind items, still hammered on the anvil. If you look around your house, you will see many things made of metal. Most of them were mass produced in a factory. Hunt for a hand forged tool or nail. Imagine the blacksmith as he made it. That tool or nail is an important part of our history, and today the blacksmith is an interpreter of history. If you’d like to know more about blacksmiths, their history, their craft, and where you could learn to be one, try these websites:

Wilderness Way

Appalachian Blacksmiths Association