In almost every film and novel, the village blacksmith is a massive man who uses brute strength and sheer will-power to pound, flex and bend red-hot metal into whatever is needed.
When I went to the large warehouse-size forge of Artisans of the Anvil
, I discovered three men -- Andrew Molinaro, Josh Blum and Rich Prevost -- who didn't so much defy the stereotype as refine it, forging the role of blacksmith into something very personal, creative and precise.
Here, Andrew, the master of the shop, tends one of the forge fires. Later that day, he had me try my hand at blacksmithing, explaining how he judges the heat of the fire and of any metal he puts into it, by color. He instructed me to be sure to place the metal rod at just the right place within the flames, for maximum heat. But to be very careful to not let the metal burn.
Both Josh and Andrew spent some time working out their designs and proportions, by drawing on the large metal workbenches with white chalk. These drawings are templates, the exact size of what they want the final piece to be. So, there's lots of measuring, chalking, and remeasuring, before anything else is done.
Here, Andrew carefully draws the design for a series of heating vent grates he'll be making for a old historic mansion.
Each one of those curves and curleycues for the heating vent grate in the above drawing starts out as a straight rod.
To create the individual scrolls, first, Andrew worked the rod evenly to a point. Then, reheating it, he got it all one consistent temperature of about 1500-1800 degrees (orange) to 2300 degrees (white). He said that makes it easier to create the scroll.
When Andrew hammers at the rod, it's not with the great arcing swings of cinema matinee heroes, but with powerful, precise short strokes.
When I tried my hand at the anvil, he had me hold the hammer close to the head, for greater control. Then, the trick is to hit the rod with measured strokes, keeping the pressure even, so the metal remains smooth and regular (except where you want it to be uneven).
That was far harder than it sounds. The hammer seemed to have a will of its own, and my arms soon ached from fighting it. In the end, I had completely ruined a rod, but had lots of fun trying.
I was fascinated by how each and very turn, twist and pound of the metal seemed to require a different method. At one point, Rich used a large vise to hold a long piece of hot metal, while he manhandled it into a sweeping curve. Other times, a gentler touch was required.
"Metal hardeneds under heat," Andrew told me, as though it were one of the most important facts in life. "If you heat it past critical temperature and then cool it, it becomes harder -- the hardest state the metal can be in." So, to temper metal, you heat it to a very high temperature, cool it quickly (in water) and reheat it.
“What man has done with that property [the ability to temper metal] in the past 1,000 years is incredible,” Andrew exclaimed. “Josh is using tempered steel [a saw] to cut steel right now. That’s just incredible.”
Back and forth, Andrew would go, from the chalk drawing to the forge to the anvil, measuring each adjustment he made to the rod, until it was just right. Then, he had to repeat that for all the other pieces of each grate.
They use traditional methods of blacksmithing, such as riveting or fusing (heating the pieces so hot that they meld into each other) rather than welding.
“Welding is like using a hot glue gun, and it hides the workmanship. We like to show how it was put together,” Andrew told me.
I plan to return to their forge, over the coming months, to document some of the other processes they use.
For Andrew, metal is a passion that brings out the poet in him. I could have listened to him for hours, talking about the unique properties of metal and fire, and how he has spent years trying to come up with designs that take advantage of the inherent nature of metal.
To demonstrate what he meant, he took a break from making his grates to help me understand. He took a simple, straight rod and went to work on it very quickly, almost as though he were dancing, lithe and spirted, clearly very happy and energized.
“I just think of it like clay,” he explained. And that’s what the metal looked like in his hands.
The end result was this beautiful leaf, which he finished with beeswax and linseed oil.
It's a matter of pride for him to not take modern shortcuts. “It’s how people approach the whole way they live.... Everything is plastic coated now, and it rusts in 15 years. This type of finish doesn’t go on as clean, but I’ve seen work 90 years old that’s as beautiful as it was when it was originally made.”
I was thrilled when he presented the leaf to me. It now sits on my desk, as I type this. And I keep wondering if it would be possible for me to somehow afix it to a barrette, to wear in my hair. I'll have to ask Andrew when I see him.