What The Heck Is A Blacksmith?

Definition and Meaning Of The Word Blacksmith

The word itself refers to the dark color that certains types of iron oxides exhibit. What Is A Blacksmith? Good question, a blacksmith is a craftsman who shapes wrought iron or steel by heating the material and then shaping the steel through a series of hammer blows. This is commonly referred to as forging.

Why must a blacksmith heat up a piece of steel? Steel – like most iron containing materials – is incredibly hard. Heating a piece of steel to over 2200 degrees fahrenheit (1204.44 celcius), makes it significantly softer than it would be at room temperature. This allows a blacksmith to shape the otherwise unyielding steel into a more desirable shape.

As a rough rule of thumb, a good forging temperature for most metals is 70% of the metals melting temperature in kelvins.

Blacksmiths have been shaping wrought iron or steel in some form or another for thousands of years. These ancient craftsman were vital to their local economies, as they supplied many of the tools needed by local villagers or townsfolk.

What Do Blacksmiths Make?

Blacksmiths can make just about anything as long as it’s made out of a ferrous material and can be handled by a small team of people. The following is a non exhaustive list of commonly produced tools:

  1. Plows and other agricultural tools
  2. Weaponry
  3. Armour
  4. Hinges, nails, and a variety of fasteners
  5. Religious and decorative work
  6. Tools for other craftsman
  7. Light fixtures
  8. Horseshoes and farrier equipment – this was vital in a time before cars!
  9. Kitchen utensils
  10. Gates and railing
  11. Hinges

In colonial times, blacksmiths often played a vital role in the strengthening of old wheels, as purely wooden wheels would wear down too fast. Blacksmiths would supply a perfectly measured strip of iron to the wheelwright, who would in turn fasten the strip of iron to a wheel. (Wheelwright Source)

A Blacksmith's Den
A Blacksmith’s Den Image Source

How Blacksmiths Have Changed Over Time

For much of history, the forge work performed by a smith was the peak of human technology. Metal generally has favorable characteristics that are not seen in other building materials such as wood or ceramics. For example, metal has a much higher mechanical strength, this high mechanical strength combined with metals ability to be shaped into a sharp edge made it the ideal material for many tools. Later on in the industrial age, metals were used for their good thermal and electrical conductivity in addition to their mechanical properties.

But metal is not perfect for all applications. It tends to be susceptible to corrosion and is often more expensive than other materials – this was especially true before the industrial revolution.

Pre Iron Age

While the term blacksmith specifically refers to smiths that work with iron or steel, you can see the beginnings of many metal working techniques in the ancient smiths who worked with copper,bronze,gold, and silver. These materials did not have the same mechanical strength as the iron based alloys that eventually replaced them, but they are more easily found on the earth’s surface in a ready-to-work state. These softer metals also have a lower melting temperature and are more malleable than iron, reducing the barrier to entry of ancient smiths.

Many techniques that are used to treat iron based metals were first perfected on these softer metals. Techniques such as :

  • Forging
  • Casting
  • Smelting
  • Work Hardening

Advances in metallurgy and metalworking techniques came sporadically, and they seemed to come largely from tinkerers benefiting from trial and error. Ancient smiths did not have a great scientific grasp on why things worked the way they did. I’ll provide an illustration below:

History shows that metallurgy passed through all the stages of quackery with everything else in olden times. In Europe, as late as the sixteenth century, scientists and metallurgists still adhered to the phil Osophy of Aristotle regarding the nature of iron and its ores. The origin of ores was said to be due to a condensation of vapors in the interior of the earth. Two principal forms of matter formed the substance of all metals, according to the then prevailing theory. Sulphur and quicksilver were these principles or bases. The natural heat of the sulphur forces and roasts the quicksilver in the crevices of the earth in such a way that the combination of both these sub- stances is the origin of all metals, differing only in purity, but not in composition. Gold represents these combinations in its purest, iron ore in its most impure, state. Some maintained that, if the purification of iron ore had continued, it would also have become gold. Steel was considered purified iron. Albertus Magnus says: “Steel is nothing else but iron, only more refined, since the watery parts of the iron have been driven off by distillation, whereby the iron is made harder and denser.” Agricola and Birrin- guccia, who had advanced beyond the philosophy of Aristotle, agreed with Albertus Magnus. Monardus declared steel to be iron with less sulphur than the latter, which was driven off by treatment of the iron in fire. Caesalpinus thought if the refining of steel was continued for a sufficiently long period, it would become silver. It is not done, however, because of the resulting loss of metal, and because in its steely state it was best suited for its purpose. The medic- inal qualities of iron were attributed to this mixture of sulphur and quicksilver. Since most scientific metallurgists of the sixteenth century were physi- cians, much stress was laid on the medicinal quali- ties of iron, although iron played an important part in the medical knowledge of the ancients. Carpenter and Builder

Obviously that’s all nonsense, but that came from as late as the 16th century! The above quote is sourced from an open domain book from the late 1800’s – about 10 years after my scandinavian ancestors got shipped up to minnesota by box car – called “The Blacksmith & wheelwright”. If you have some free time I recommend flipping through it, it’s a blast seeing a snapshot of technology from 100+ years ago.

If it seems counterintuitive that they were able to make progress without understanding the science, you are not alone. For a long time I just naturally assumed that technological innovation stems from scientific discovery. But CLEARLY that’s not the case for ancient and medieval smiths. So what gives?

One of my favorite authors, Nassim Taleb, gives a clue in the following article.

Further, it is in complex systems, ones in which we have little visibility of the chains of cause-consequences, that tinkering, bricolage, or similar variations of trial and error have been shown to vastly outperform the teleological—it is nature’s modus operandi. But tinkering needs to be convex; it is imperative. Take the most opaque of all, cooking, which relies entirely on the heuristics of trial and error, as it has not been possible for us to design a dish directly from chemical equations or reverse-engineer a taste from nutritional labels. We take hummus, add an ingredient, say a spice, taste to see if there is an improvement from the complex interaction, and retain if we like the addition or discard the rest. Critically we have the option, not the obligation to keep the result, which allows us to retain the upper bound and be unaffected by adverse outcomes.
This “optionality” is what is behind the convexity of research outcomes.

So basically trial and error in situations where the error doesn’t hurt you much can advance both yourself and society.

If this sounds interesting, he has a whole book on the topic that is one of my favorite books ever written.

I promise the book is an easier read than that edge article. He has an entertaining writing style that makes otherwise dry math concepts interesting. And I’m not alone, just look at those reviews!

However don’t get totally swept up in the world of undirected chance. I think Peter Thiel gives an excellent counter argument in his article You are not a lottery ticket.

But I’m getting off into a tangent, back to the topic at hand…

Iron Age

It’s difficult to make broad generalizations about the transition from the bronze age to the iron age as things varied wildly based on geography. Different geographical areas had access to different resources and technology. As such, forging techniques were not spread uniformly across the continents.

In addition, it’s not enough to merely have a few iron based artifacts for a civilization to be considered an an iron working society. Generally a civilization is considered to be in the iron age once cast iron or wrought iron tools are widespread and noticeably better than their bronze counterparts.

Another important thing to note is that not all iron based alloys are the same. Iron alloys with extremely low carbon contents, are not much harder than bronze. So civilizations that had access to large supplies of the relatively rare tin (tin is necessary to make bronze) may have prefered bronze over low carbon iron in some situations.

But iron is much more common than tin, making it more economical for many civilizations. In addition, smiths at different times and different places stumbled upon a new iron alloy known as steel. Steel is is an iron alloy that has carbon as a part of its composition. As a rough rule of thumb, the more carbon in an iron alloy, the harder it is. This comes at the expense of brittleness, to repeat, harder steels tend to be more brittle.

There are advances in modern metallurgy that somewhat circumvent this rule, but when examining iron alloys in a historical sense, this is a good rule.

An iron age civilization would have significant advantage over a bronze age civilization – this is especially true for civilizations that had techniques for adding carbon to their iron alloys. This advantage comes from better weaponry and better tools. Hardier tools allow laborours to get more work done before the tool must be repaired or replaced thus increasing output. Better weapons allowed generals to win battles at a lower cost of life.

It was during the iron age that blacksmithing first became a specialty. A person who was experienced in working iron and iron alloys would prove to be immensely valuable to his community.

Blacksmiths During The Industrial Revolution

Blacksmiths were not immediately phased out as the industrial revolution progressed,rather the demand for a blacksmith’s work decreased in phases. These phases were the result of a number of technological and cultural changes.

The adoption of interchangeable parts reduced the need for small scale artisans such as blacksmiths. Creating large volumes of replaceable parts in a factory setting meant that it was often cheaper to buy a replacement part than to have the local smith fix up a tool or machine.

Speaking of machines, the rise of machining further reduced the need for blacksmiths, as new machining production practices could produce certain tools and parts at a much lower cost than a single blacksmith could.

Finally, the adoption of automobiles also reduced the need for blacksmiths and farriers. With the adoption of cars, there was less demand for horses(horse shoeing), wagons, and carts. All of which had provided a source of income for blacksmiths.

A sign for a blacksmith shop
A sign for a blacksmith shop

Blacksmiths Today

Prior to the invention and adoption of the internet, most businesses were HEAVILY constrained by geography and distribution. Business would make products in factories, sell them to wholesalers, who in turn sold those goods to retailers. As an end result, products only got made that had enough mass appeal that they could be sold by retailers. This distribution constraint greatly reduced the variety and types of products that could be profitably produced. It simply wasn’t profitable to make highly niche products that were only interesting to a few people.

The internet has largely lifted this constraint. With the internet, it is now possible to sell highly niche products, as your customers no longer need to be concentrated around retailers who sell your product. If you have a potential market of only 2000 customers, and they are dispersed around the globe, it is now possible to sell these highly niche products to them in a way that is affordable.

So what does this have to do with blacksmiths? Well, while most people don’t care whether it’s a machine that makes their products, or a craftsman who imparts thousands of years of tradition into a hand crafted piece of art, SOME PEOPLE DO. And with the internet, it’s now possible for artisans like modern blacksmiths to affordably sell their wares to these people. The internet has reignited cottage industries like blacksmithing, by fundamentally changing the way the distribution of products works. This is really exciting!

No longer are blacksmiths relegated to antique restorations and renaissance fairs. It’s now possible for blacksmiths to fully or partially skip the wholesaler to retailer distribution network described earlier; they can sell unique works of art to customers regardless of geography.

This means more products for consumers, and more opportunities for small scale craftsmen who are not interested in producing mass produced interchangeable parts. It has opened up the art market in a way that has never been seen before.

It’s now possible for a business to make a comfortable living serving just a few thousand (or less) fanatics. The technical term for this business model is called “The long tail of the internet” – or some variation of that. It refers to the long tail of a power law distribution.

I find this topic endlessly fascinating, especially in terms of what it means for blacksmiths…but I can’t cover this topic thoroughly in this particular article. If you are interested in more information, check out these resources

  1. https://kk.org/thetechnium/1000-true-fans/
  2. https://www.therobinreport.com/the-long-tail-theory/
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long_tail

To summarize, the long tail of the internet may be reversing the economic trends we have seen since the dawn of the industrial revolution…how exciting!

A Forge
A Forge image source

Blacksmith Techniques

Blacksmiths utilize a number of different techniques when shaping metal. Most of these techniques are fairly straight forward, so I will only describe them briefly.

Blacksmith Forging Techniques

While there are lots of small niche techniques that exist, the most common techniques are as follows:

1. Drawing

Drawing is the technique used to lengthen a piece of steel at the expense of reducing the other dimensions along the stock.

There are a number of different techniques used to draw out a piece of steel. The two most common that I see involve using a “fullering” tool or the edge of the anvil.

A fullering tool is a tool with a rounded or parabolic head that is used to create indentations in the piece of steel. Once the smith has made a series of these indentations, he then hammers out the ridges with his hammer or with the help of a tool called a “flatter.” This elongates the steel but reduces it along the dimension being hammered.

Fullering tools come in a variety of forms:

      • They can be attached to a hardy shank (bottom fuller)
      • They can come in the form of a hammer shaped object which is placed on top of a piece of stock. The fuller tool is then struck with a hammer on the backside of the fuller which creates an indent in the stock.
      • They can be attached to a spring apparatus which allows the smith to fuller two sides at once. These are commonly called spring fullers.
      • They can come in the form of a guillotine, which is similar to the spring fuller in that it allows the smith to work two sides at once. The guillotine apparatus is also commonly used with blacksmith butchers, a tool used to form even shoulders on a piece of stock. The guillotine is sometimes simply referred to as a jig.

Fuller tools come in a wide variety of shapes and angles, a skilled blacksmith will often have many different fuller tools.

The other technique used for drawing out steel is to use the hard edge of the anvil as a fuller. Just like with the fullering tools, the smith will create a series of ridges on the drawing piece by placing the steel at an angle to the anvil edge. The smith will then flatten these ridges with his hammer.

2. Bending

Bending is exactly what it sounds like. Generally the smith will place an object in the shape of the desired bend under the piece of steel, and then strike the top of the stock until it matches the shape of the object below.

Smiths use a variety of tools to accomplish this task. They will commonly use the horn of the anvil to shape a round shape for example.

They also use a tool called a mandrel. Mandrels are cone shaped tools that are either placed on the floor or inside the hardy shank of a blacksmiths anvil. The smith will then bend stock around the edge of the mandrel.

There are also many custom made tools, some of which don’t have formal names. Smiths will often forge their own tools to make bending easier.

3. Upsetting

Upsetting is the opposite of drawing. It involved thickening a portion of the stock by shortening it along another dimension. An easy example would be upsetting a short cylinder rod by placing one end down, and striking the opposite end. Upsetting can be tricky, and takes practice to get it right. It’s very easy to warp the stock by accidentally applying force at a wrong angle.

4. Punching

Simply put, punching is creating holes, slits, drifts, and indentations with a tool such as a punch,slit, drift, stamp, or chisel. Punching is a common operation, and is used for a variety of tasks such as:

    • Creating the eye in an axe or hammer
    • Stamping your brand or logo on your work
    • Punching holes for rivets or other fasteners

There are of course many other techniques, but these are some of the most common ones in use.

Learn More

If you are a beginner and are looking for a guide on all the different tools shown in these pictures, check out my guide on blacksmith tools.

If you are interested in picking out your first pair of blacksmith tongs (it’s harder than you think), check out my guide on blacksmith tongs.

If you just want to get started quickly, check out my guide on building your own blacksmith kit.

If you are looking for more in depth information, check out these blacksmith books.

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