Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Blacksmithing

Originally posted in 2009.

If you want to spend a few days surrounded by scenic landscape, you could do worse than Bealkelly Wood in County Clare, Ireland. There, decades ago, an old survivalist bought land at the edge of Lough Derg, planted trees and maintained the forest, and still lives off the land today – and occasionally greets a hundred or so guests.

The land is now the site where the non-profit CELT– Centre for Environmental Living and Training – hosts courses in fishing, smithing, carving, stone building and many other traditional crafts. This past weekend, our whole family journeyed across the island to one of these events, and everyone took a different course -- my wife took copper-smithing, my mother-in-law wood carving, The Girl played with other children in a central area in view of all of us – and I tried my hand at blacksmithing.

You don’t become an expert blacksmith in a couple of days, of course, but the class bestowed the basic information and a little experience. Two very patient smiths worked with myself and three other students, walking us through the basics, correcting us and stepping in when we went wrong, until we each came away with some hand-crafted work.

In movies blacksmiths look like WWF wrestlers, dramatically slamming white-hot metal with sledgehammers. Our experience was different – a plate-sized fire, small tools and frantic tapping. The forge was an old metal hubcap, with small holes drilled in the middle, standing on a metal pipe. At the other end of the pipe was a hand-cranked blower – I don’t know what it was originally, but the smith said you could substitute the metal fan from an old Electrolux vacuum.

Our elderly teacher began each day by lighting a small fire in the middle of the hubcap, right over the holes. Once the fire was going, he placed charcoal delicately over it, and then a ring of coal around the charcoal, and the crank fan blew air through the middle to keep the fire hot. Iron-working only appeared in the last 5,000 years or so – the final 0.3 percent of the time humans have had fire – because ordinary wood fire does not heat iron enough to work, and large amounts of charcoal and air are needed. The coal, I was told, helps the fire continue but is not necessary.

The four of us quickly learned that you need to spend a great deal of time standing over the fire, with the metal part in just the right place – in the middle, above the blower and slightly buried in charcoal – to get the right temperature. Too little heat, of course, and the metal cannot be worked, but too much and it begins to “burn,” liquefying and deforming. A lot depends on the size of the metal piece – the tractor axel we put in took ages to heat, but I accidentally burned off the tines of my fork in short order.

Once the metal was glowing orange, we had to rapidly move it to the anvil without yanking it out and sending hot coals everywhere, and without burning the people standing shoulder-to-shoulder with you. Once at the anvil you had only several seconds of BAMBAMBAMBAMBAMBAM ... until it was black and solid again.

Also useful are steel vices (vises to Americans) and hefty pliers, which allowed us to grip metal while turning it – hence the twist in the fork handle. None of us wore gloves, but leather aprons and goggles were recommended against flying sparks and coals.

In the end we came away with two roasting forks – one made by me, the other won in a raffle – and a horseshoe that I’m not including in a picture. I was supposed to shape it into the head of a horse, but mine looks more like a praying mantis.:-)

Blacksmithing is one of the dozens of professions that were widespread until just the last century, now is kept alive only by a few aficionados. For thousands of years in metalworking cultures, smiths were a vital and respected role – look how common it is as a surname today. They might become vital again if the coming decades bring the turmoil we anticipate. With charcoal and tools, a smith could turn landfill scrap and old car parts into useful tools again – and as far as I know, there is no end to the number of times metal can be recycled.

When the world is no longer able to mass-produce new materials at its former rate, when there is no new plastic and fewer forests, we will have billions of tons of landfill waste. Movies like WALL-E posit garbage covering the Earth, but in real life much of that garbage would not only be reusable, but precious. Some of it will be metal – the U.S. alone will have a car for every person, and a few decades from now few of those cars will be driving. The Chinese are doing their best to buy up all this precious resource from U.S. junk dealers, along with the plastic we might need again, but hopefully enough landfills will remain to become mines.

Some of my favourite books as a teenager were Frank Herbert’s Dune novels, about human cultures scattered across space in the far future. In the pivotal novel of the series the prescient leader gradually transforms the titular desert planet into lush greenery, its Bedouin-style inhabitants, called “Fremen,” into farmers. He bids a small minority of them, however, to live in the one remaining desert as Museum Fremen, keeping the old traditions alive. He is the only one who knows that the planetary transformation is only temporary, that someday the land will become desert again, and the Museum Fremen can teach the others how to live. Weekends like this allow us to become museum people, accumulating the knowledge that our children might need.

Top photo: The fire, with a tractor axel in it. Bottom photo: the forks.

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