Local Blacksmithing Heats Up

It’s fun to build a geodesic dome in nice weather, and not so fun to do it when your fingers are freezing. So learned Travis Duckworth, a Nevada City-based high school teacher and activist who launched the Sol Learning Institute, a sustainable building and farming program for teens, last year during the pandemic. Duckworth’s students were happy to build outside all day in the sunshine when the program began, quickly erecting a self-composting toilet, dome, and goat barn. However, when the weather turned cold, the forest around Duckworth’s house that served as their classroom turned bitterly dreary. 

That’s when Duckworth’s intern, Tim Barfield, got the idea of teaching the students blacksmithing. He knew the basics and had the equipment. Soon the forge, a contraption about the size of a small pizza oven, was fired up. The students learned how to heat and shape metal into basic knives, spoons, and hooks by hammering it against an anvil. They ultimately made all the latches and handles, for their goat barn. And they stayed warm.

“It’s pretty amazing to take a raw piece of metal and hammer the crap out of it and turn it into something that can be used,” says Duckworth. “The effect is confidence and empowerment – a sense of ‘I can do this!’” 

Students blacksmith at Sol Learning Institute.

Sol Learning Institute’s blacksmith program wasn’t the only one in town. Early this year, Nevada City makerspace The Curious Forge launched its first blacksmithing classes. These two forges join a longstanding blacksmith apprenticeship program operating out of the Empire Mine State Park. Clearly blacksmithing is having a moment in the area.

Why now? 

“Technology and culture is moving too fast for us,” says blacksmith Jefferson Mack. “Our brain can keep up with it, but I say that our spirit is suffering for it.” The solution to this sense of cognitive dissonance, says Mack, is to pick up one of the most anachronistic of hobbies.

Mack is a master blacksmith who builds ambitious architectural pieces, such as art nouveau-inspired gates, out of his shop in San Francisco. In 2019 his landlord raised his rent, so Mack downsized and donated a large portion of his equipment to The Curious Forge in Nevada City. 

A gate made by Jefferson Mack.

Mack and his friend Michael Joss began teaching the first blacksmithing classes there last February. Joss, who grew up in Germany, describes himself as a black sheep who dropped out of college in 1978 to apprentice with a 250-year old blacksmith shop outside Stuttgart. 

“Everybody said blacksmithing is a dying profession. Now it’s an up and coming thing again,” says Joss. “And it’s not just a huge guy kinda thing.” He notes that in the short time The Curious Forge’s program has been around, three women have gotten certified as blacksmiths, meaning they have learned enough about the process to use the equipment independently. 

Blacksmith Michael Joss at The Curious Forge.

Maile McGrew-Fredé of Grass Valley became certified in blacksmithing at The Curious Forge this year. She recently left a career as a Bay Area librarian to pursue her desire to make art. She plans to forge a pair of hinges for a door she’s constructed near the roots of a tree – a sort of fairy portal to another dimension. She’s already constructed a prototype of the hinges from polymer.

“I like the part where I heat up the metal and I get to pound on it on the anvil,” says McGrew-Fredé. “Watching its inner glowing color – It has an otherworldly look to it. It’s beautiful. I like working with it when it’s in that state.”

Mack describes the process of learning to blacksmith as learning a series of moves, made between heatings when the metal is still pliable. They include making a taper, forming a hook, giving it a twist, and texturizing your piece by hammering it all over. This last skill is one of the quintessential features of blacksmithing. Your raw material is typically a precisely square ⅜ – inch square steel rod. You take that manufactured shape to a hand-hammered shape, to give your piece the handmade look that people are, as Mack put it, “starving for” in our modern era.

Mining History

Empire Mine State Park’s historic blacksmith shop in Grass Valley is another place to dive into the art. The shop is staffed by volunteer docents who take a six week class to learn the basics, then go through an apprenticeship program to become adept at making items like candle holders to sell in the museum’s gift shop. Once apprentices learn the skills, they can come in and work on their own projects.

The Empire Mine State Park’s blacksmith shop.

The Empire Mine blacksmith forge typically turns out 10 new smiths a year. Dan Perkins of Auburn, one of the more senior blacksmiths at Empire, and head of education for trade organization the California Blacksmith Association (the CBA), says that new smiths are seeking a tactile hobby.

“I think a lot of it has to do with people who have jobs that are office-oriented and not doing hands-on crafts,” he says. “And people want to get back to that.”

On a recent Friday morning, volunteer Bill Blount was sitting in the dusty blacksmith shop giving visitors a spiel about its history. Originally, smiths made most of the mining tools – picks, shovels, sledge hammers, drills. As things became more mechanized, they repaired machine parts. 

When I observed that the blacksmith shop was not exactly a “demonstration” forge, along the lines of Colonial Williamsburg, Blount laughed, “I’m not demonstrating anything!” He says that when he is working in the Empire blacksmith shop, he’s not into creating artsy stuff, and just prefers churning out tchotchkes for the gift shop. 

Volunteer Bill Blount in the Empire Mine blacksmith shop.

Other smiths, however, have found a more creative niche. Dan Perkins, for instance, makes custom bits and harnesses inspired by vintage horsemanship. He also constructed an impressive steak turner/bottle opener for the CBA’s bottle opener challenge.

Whether you’re in it to make a fairy portal or a bottle opener, or just stay warm in the woods, blacksmithing is a transformative hobby. Unlike most crafts and construction, blacksmithing doesn’t involve chipping or cutting anything away. You solely work with the metal you have, and bend it and hammer it into something different. That means you’re also leaving no waste byproduct.

“The whole method is based on redistributing the material rather than subtracting it,” says Mack.”That drives the design, function, and technology.”  

As the summer weather climbs into the triple digits, this might not be the time to begin your new hobby of hammering next to a burning hot forge. But it might be the time to start watching the popular History Channel show, Forged in Fire, where smiths compete to make knives out of random scrap metal. Once you’ve gotten stoked and fired up, you’ll have local options to take your desire to smith from fantasy to reality. Who knows, you may just create the most breathtaking BBQ tool set in the 530.

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