An Exercise in Pure Intellect:
Traditional Metalworkers in 21st Century Vermont
He worked with a material quite unlike the wood, bone, horn, stone, and copper wrought by man before the prehistoric discovery of iron. Yet once he applied his vision and imagination to the new substance, he learned to provide himself with the intense heat needed to use it; he developed techniques needed to work it into valuable articles; he invented the tools required to bend it to his will. Many, if not most, of the blacksmith’s techniques are notable for their ingenious concept more than their effect. Each, as it was developed, was an exercise in pure intellect brought forth from a vacuum of ignorance to fill a practical need. No wonder a blacksmith was granted divinity by the ancient greeks.”
— from The Art of Blacksmithing by Alex W. Bealer
A couple days ago I was eating breakfast at home when my father walked into the room and announced, with the sort of laconic smirk that suggests he’s about to pull a fast one on me, that he had recently purchased a new bench vise at a garage sale, or, more specifically, that I had recently purchased a new bench vise at a garage sale. “How do you figure that?” I asked. “Well it’s exactly the same as the one I’ve got out in the shop,” he replied. It took me a few minutes to figure out where he was going with this line of thought. “You mean the one I broke 10 years ago?” “Yup,” says he. “You pay me $20, I keep this new one, and you get the old one.”
The vise in question is an ancient resident of my father’s woodworking shop, where it has been in continual use for the past 35 years. It is bolted to the end of a sturdy wooden workbench behind a row of tall windows, below the file rack and above the drawer full of sharpening stones. Its metallic gray surfaces are dented from thousands of misplaced hammer blows, and a noticeable crack runs through the casting, the appearance of which happened to coincide with the start of my blacksmithing career.
My fascination for working with metal can be traced back to that vice, and a cold Maine winter, when I was 11 or 12, spent evading my parents’ best attempts at providing me with a formal education. I recall squatting in front of a massive old wood furnace that heats the shop, and feeding 16 penny nails through the front grate with a pair of needle-nosed pliers. When the nails turned orange, I brought them over to the bench vise and wailed on each one with a ball peen hammer until it resembled something like a tiny knife blade. The resulting blanks were then finished off with a file and crudely tempered with a blow torch.
I also remember, quite vividly, my father’s reaction to finding my collection of red-hot nails dangerously close to a pile of sawdust, and later, his disappointment upon discovering the crack in the bench vise, a product of my exuberant hammering. Blacksmithing was banned from the shop, but the damage was done, and I was itching for more.
What appealed to me about blacksmithing then, as now, was the level of self-sufficiency inherent to the craft. Think of this: It is the only art form in which one can make all of their own tools (have you ever tried carving a knife blade? Cooking a spatula? Painting a brush?). The first book I read on the subject was a slim volume from the local library entitled “Basic Blacksmithing: An Introduction to Toolmaking with Locally Available Materials” by David Harries and Bernard Heer. Opening the book at random, one might find a hand-drawn depiction of a goat dangling limply from a rope around its neck. The terse caption states, “After slaughtering the goat, hang it from a tree and cut the skin as shown by the dotted lines in the illustration.” On the next page, further instructions detail proper treatment of the hide (“After oiling, the skin can be beaten with sticks which will help to soften the leather”) and the process of fashioning it into an essential part of the forge: the bellows. The rest of the book explains how to forge a complete complement of blacksmithing tools, in an order so that simpler devices, such as punches and hot chisels, are made first and used later in the fabrication of more complex implements, such as tongs and shears.
While intended as a reference manual for rural areas and developing countries, this approach to blacksmithing, as it turns out, is also appropriate for boys with large reserves of enthusiasm and access to a decent scrap metal heap. Fortunately a friend happened to have an old farmer’s forge in his dooryard complete with rusty, hand driven bellows, so the local goat population was safe for the time being. My father and I built a small shop in the front yard, and moved it to a stone foundation at the edge of the woods on a series of planks and rollers. The first anvil was a short length of railroad track spiked to a stump. The second was a venerable Peter Wright of unknown vintage.
I worked in that shop throughout my teenage years, making knives, hooks, gardening implements, log dogs and the like, and attempting to master the art of forge welding. Unfortunately for my metalworking skills, I had developed an even greater interest in traditional wooden boats, and the majority of my time was devoted to building, repairing and sailing a growing armada. At 17, I abandoned my schooling altogether and left home to seek employment in the maritime trades. The forge grew cold, and the shop found new purpose as a storage shed, used occasionally by my parents for oxy-acetylene welding. Yet throughout my travels and experiences in the intervening years, my interest in blacksmithing never quite died. Every so often, I’d encounter some beautiful piece of ironwork, or find myself pruning olive trees in Tuscany with a really nicely-made roncola, and those moments pumped the bellows of my imagination just enough to get me thinking about my forge. There was something about the material, or the process, or the history of the trade that held sway over me, and it was only a matter of time before I’d need to scratch that itch again.
At one point in the not-so-distant past, the blacksmith’s shop was a fixture of every town and hamlet throughout the state of Vermont. A few of these shops still remain– small, one story buildings with peeling paint and leaning walls, symbols of pre-industrial community and economy. One such structure is visible not far from Middlebury, on the side of Rte. 30 several miles south of town, with a small wooden signboard above the door denoting its former purpose.
The modern blacksmith’s shop remains relatively unchanged from its 19th century counterpart, designed and arranged to facilitate the same processes, with the notable addition of electricity and power tools. The shop is a sensory wonder, a space of creativity, intrigue and tradition. It has an allure that no curious youngster and few jaded adults are able to resist. Walking into a blacksmith’s shop, you immediately notice the smell, dominated by the subtle yet distinct scent of hot steel and the sulphurous fumes of a burning coal. It is dark inside– the structure has few windows and thus little natural light, which would hinder the smith’s ability to judge the temperature of steel based on its color. Your ears are filled with the steady roar of the forge punctuated by the ring of steel on steel (sharper or duller depending on the heat and softness of the piece being worked, though plenty loud enough to cause tinnitus) and an occasional grunt from the smith.
The forge is the heart of the shop, and the bellows its lungs, organs with which the smith pumps life into raw material. An older, more venerable establishment might have a large brick forge growing from the floor and continuing up into the chimney, with an arched opening below the firepot where ashes and clinkers (hard metallic impurities that form through the combustion of bituminous coal) can be removed. More common is the cast iron or pressed steel table forge, with a metal smoke hood above the fire and a pile of ashes on the floor below. Mounted on the side of the forge is a rack that holds an impressive variety of tongs, designed to grip hot steel of any imaginable shape and size. Most, if not all, are made by the smith, and more are forged and added the collection as particular jobs demand them. Those most often in use sit closest to the smith, who can instinctively grab the right implement and identify it by feel without looking away from the work.
The forge forms one point of an invisible triangle that is completed by the anvil and post vise, arranged to the preference of the smith so that little time (and thus heat) is wasted in bringing the piece from the forge to the working surface. It is essential that the smith has a precise plan of action in mind each time the metal leaves the fire, in order to accomplish as much as possible before the material grows cold. Tools are placed at the ready, or adjusted in preparation as the work is heated. The smith never rushes a job, but works with purpose and swift precision. Movements seemed choreographed, sometimes graceful, sometimes violent, all performed with a singular purpose and drawing on years of experience.
The town blacksmith was once the cornerstone of community, and an enabler of civilization. To understand the extent to which this was true, place yourself temporarily in the kitchen of a farmhouse in Cornwall, Vermont, sometime during the early 1800s. It’s late January, snow is piled up to the window sills, a pot of soup is boiling away on the cast iron cookstove, and you happen to be chopping up potatoes with a knife… forged by the local blacksmith. Look around and you might notice that every piece of hardware in the room– hinges, door latches, drawer pulls, pot racks, the fireplace shovel– have similar elements of beautiful imperfection and artistic touch suggesting that they were made by the same hands. For that matter, this entire house is held together with nails that were individually forged (and thus remarkably precious at the time). The nails were driven with hammers, and the boards and beams they hold were shaped with plane irons, adzes, broad axes and handsaws. The wood was likely cut in a forest not far from here, using a double bit axe and crosscut saw, and hauled out on the iron runners of a log sled that was attached to a team of horses by means of whiffletrees, eveners, heel chains, hames and other associated hardware. The horses, of course, were shod by the same fellow who made the rest of the ironware mentioned above.
This is but a small selection of the tools and objects that the village smith might fabricate and repair for a community. The account book of an unknown Massachusetts blacksmith provides a well-ordered glimpse of daily work. On January 1st, 1842, three separate projects passed through the shop:
To repair sleigh $ .13 Samuel Wells
To repair caps pins .06 Jonth. Graves
To toed & sett shoe & mend sleigh .34 Leonard Graves
During the same month, the smith was engaged at various points “to clasp & staple & mend cutter,” “to make & cut 27 bolts,” “to mend tongs,” “to mend chain,” “to mend waggon,” and “to repair whifeltree,” this last item being undertaken for one Spencer Root at a cost of ten cents.
The village blacksmith was a maker and fixer by profession, and an inventor and problem solver by necessity. Some jobs demanded attention to aesthetics, most required long-lasting utility, and the best smiths combined these two qualities in their work. The village smith was capable of woodworking and leatherworking as well, when the repair of a harness or tool might involve these skills. John Deere, inventor of the steel plow and founder of the multinational machinery corporation that still bears his name, started his career as the Middlebury blacksmith. Not far to the south, a Brandon smith by the name of Thomas Davenport constructed the first direct current electric motor in North America. As the role of the village smith was rapidly phased out in response to technological advances of the 20th century, adaptability was essential to finding work amidst the change. Raymond Whitney, a blacksmith from Hartsville, Massachusetts, was one of those who followed the natural progression from shoeing horses and fixing wagons to repairing automobiles:
We ran another shop at the same time in Marlboro, which we worked on Tuesdays and Fridays. The going wage then was twenty cents an hour. That was about the time [approx. 1912] I got interested in automobiles. An old Zeitz truck going through town broke down and was towed into the yard by the blacksmith shop. I would go and look at it, and one day my father asked me if I was going to fix it. I said I thought I could do the job. I had looked it over quite a few times. He said that if I thought I could repair it, he would speak to the man that owned it and he believed he could get me the job.
I don’t know how many hours I spent on that old truck. I tore the engine apart and worked for weeks and weeks, and when it was done I got paid $480. The truck ran for several years after that without a breakdown.
Brian Anderson is 79 years old. One frigid, January morning, I sit by a large potbelly stove in his timber frame shop, perched on a wrinkle in the geologic skin of Vermont. Feathery flakes of snow drift past a window overlooking a bare hardwood forest, completing the silences between our words. The man on the stool across from me is white-haired, clean-shaven, and still powerfully built, as you might expect of someone who has spent more than 50 years of their life between the forge and anvil. He speaks slowly at first, his voice warming as heat spreads across the room.
“How old are you?” Brian asks.
I tell him twenty-two.
“So you really didn’t see much of the twentieth century.”
I concede that I missed nearly all of it.
“Well, you didn’t miss much.”
The shop is somewhat of an armory. A selection of beautifully and precisely detailed muzzleloaders lie on the bench near my stool in various stages of completion. Brian picks up one to demonstrate its action, an intricate arrangement of levers and curved springs that send a chip of flint crashing into a steel frizzen with an explosion of sparks. Behind the stove is a wooden chest containing a variety of pipe tomahawks replicated from historic models, ones that he has kept from a lifetime of making and selling them. Hanging on the opposite wall is a hefty steel crossbow, and hand-forged cocking mechanism. Brian shows me photographs of two mirrored gates that he designed and constructed to guard the remains of James Smithson, at his tomb within the Smithsonian museum. They are simple yet visually striking, and astonishing in their detail. Slender, black vines flow around eight bunches of steel grapes, each one containing 36 individual hand-forged balls. Naturally, no two are identical.
When Brian was growing up in Minnesota, on the tail end of the Great Depression, his mother was still sewing his clothes. After the war, ‘store-bought’ was suddenly vogue (as well as being more accessible), and “‘homemade’ was a dirty word.” This quick transition was a nail in the coffin of the village smith, and a time of national loss, though few gave much thought to it then, and even fewer do now. The disappearance of trades such as blacksmithing was the disappearance of knowledge upon which we had built our society; upon which we had once survived. No single factor could be held responsible for the loss of village smith, but rather a combination of technological, economic and societal changes– whatever the reason, the end result was that we were suddenly content to eat our spinach out of tin cans, and buy stamped sheet-metal hinges from the hardware store.
It wasn’t until the 60s and 70s that some members of a well-known generation started to question the trajectory of our society. A good line of thought, though “they came up with a lot of wrong answers,” according to Brian. Nevertheless, it was around this time that interest in handwork and craftsmanship began to blossom. WoodenBoat Magazine and Fine Woodworking Magazine were founded in 1974 and 1975 respectively, each devoted to preserving traditional skill sets, and catering to a rapidly expanding audience of amateur and professional craftspeople. In 1973, twenty-seven blacksmiths (including Alex Bealer, author of an authoritative and widely-known text on the subject) gathered to form the Artist-Blacksmiths’ Association of North America (ABANA). The mission statement of this organization, which now boasts an enrollment of 4000 members, reads:
We understand that a blacksmith is one who shapes and forges iron with hammer and anvil. The artist-blacksmith does this so as to unite the functional with the aesthetic, realizing that the two are inseparable. We, the members of the Artist-Blacksmiths’ Association of North America, do join in our resolve to perpetuate the noble art of blacksmithing. With hammer and anvil, we will forge for mankind a richer life. We will preserve a meaningful bond with the past. We will serve the needs of the present, and we will forge a bridge to the future. Function and creativity is our purpose. Our task is great and so is our joy.
And so blacksmithing made its entrance into the 21st century, surprisingly healthier than anyone might have predicted fifty years ago. Brian Anderson’s outlook on the future of the trade is positive: “The generation below me already has thirty years of experience… they haven’t got all the old skills, but they’re getting most of them.”
Jim Fecteau is making careful passes along his driveway with an enormous blue Ford tractor. I stop just before the entrance and wait, engine running, as he backs up to the road, gently lowers the bucket to the ground, then pulls ahead, scraping four inches of fresh powder off of the gravel. After parking the machine, he descends from the cab and greets me with an easy grin and firm handshake. “I was hoping you’d have four-wheel drive,” he says with a nod towards my truck.
To the observant eye, a pair of hands can reveal much about the body and mind attached to them, this being especially true when the person in question makes a living with those hands. The fingers of a musician, a pianist for instance, are lithe and flexible, intertwining and stretching with casual grace to reach the invisible octave. The fisherman’s hands are raw from saltwater exposure and accidental knife cuts, scored where sharp filaments of the mesh have slashed gloves and worn into fingers. Carpenter’s hands are work-hardened yet sensitive, lightly brushing the surface of the wood between plane strokes to detect ridges and contours hidden to the eye. More than half of the carpenters I know lack ten full-length digits; the middle finger of my own right hand is slightly shortened and angled from an encounter with a table saw. Farmers have dirt under their fingernails.
Jim’s hands, like those of many blacksmiths I have met, are accustomed to hard work, and scarred from years of tiny burns where hot scale and sparks once embedded themselves in the skin after being violently freed from their parent metal. Unlike “goldsmith,” “silversmith” and “tinsmith,” the initial morpheme in “blacksmith” refers not to the metal being manipulated but the surface it acquires as it is heated. Iron has a well-known tendency to share its electrons with oxygen, forming the crusty brown substance we know as rust, or Fe2O3. When iron is introduced to a forge and brought to 1400°F, this process is greatly accelerated, forming a black oxide, Fe3O4, known among metalworkers as scale. This close relative of rust flakes and crumbles easily, coloring everything it touches, working into the creases and lines of the blacksmith’s hands along with coal dust and soot. It is a patina of the trade that is not easily removed with soap and water.
It is quite warm inside the shop, thanks to a large, cast iron woodstove tucked into the corner by the stairs, and Jim shuffles out of his coveralls. Underneath, he is dressed in leather boots, canvas jeans and a red, plaid flannel of the sort favored by loggers, or people who drink six dollar cups of coffee and wear snoods. With a vertical clearance of well over six feet, he sometimes seems to blend in with the collection of giant power hammers planted around the concrete floor of his shop. His narrow face is centered on a wide, bushy mustache that tilts slightly when he grins, an expression he assumes often.
Evidence of countless projects from the past 18 years lies scattered all around us: custom-made hardies for the Beaudry power hammer hanging from metal racks. A pile of sheet metal discs decorating the floor in front of the woodstove. Samples of extruded stainless steel track, bizarre-looking jigs, hook prototypes. Jim points them out in passing, recalling the customers and jobs attached to these fragments of his work. What sorts of projects does he typically work on? “Gates railings, stair treads, stairs, ladders, lighting, tables, chandeliers, all sorts of stuff.” There’s repair work, too. “Folks will come in with bent bird feeders, from bears, and I’ll fix that. I’ve done rust repair on vehicles– for relatives. I only do it for relatives. I don’t like that work,” he says with a short laugh. Jim goes on to explain the workings of fireplace door he’ll be constructing for an upcoming job. It’s a steel door for an open fireplace that slides up and down on tracks, balanced by hidden counterweights. He describes with his hands, conjuring the shape and function of the object out of thin air. When my imagination fails to keep pace with the gestures, he turns to paper, sketching the tracks and rollers upon which the door will ride with a well-used carpenter’s pencil. Later, Jim says, “A piece of paper on the table doesn’t translate well sometimes, and so you gotta sorta have that vision… I kind of tease it out and refine it, and we come up with a good end result.”
What’s the most interesting project he’s done? An iron device, replicated from photographs, for roasting an entire pig. “It looked a like a cross… I mean it was the most bizarre thing, it had hooks on it and sharp edges and just all sorts of crazy stuff on it…. It worked great. Kinda weird. I thought it was anyway.”
Huntington, like many other small Vermont towns, is quiet and quaint in a way that belies its proximity to bourgeoisie of Stowe (a municipality that, at last count, is home to 4,314 residents, three jewelry stores, and a $41 million dollar mountain). The center of town, if it may be described as such, consists of the Union Meeting House, built in 1870 and now serving as the public library, and Beaudry’s Store, where gas is still metered by mechanical reels. In its current form, Huntington has existed since 1795, at which point it was likely home to one, if not more, smithies. Brandon, Vermont, chartered in 1761, had a town smith by no later than 1772, and voted in 1787 to set aside five acres “to build iron works on, if there be found iron ore sufficient to supply same.” Peacham, Vermont (current pop. 732) had no fewer than three smiths by 1872.
In one sense, Jim Fecteau is carrying on a tradition that has existed since Europeans settled the foothills of the Green Mountains, the most recent in a long line of smiths to have hung out his shingle in Huntington. In another sense, he represents a new era of tradesman. The necessity for a village smith has passed along with the days of horses and log sleds, yet there is a new appreciation, and thus market, for his work.
The desire for handmade objects is self-evident to those of us lucky enough to live our lives surrounded by them, and a nicely carved bowl, well-built stone wall or freshly-baked loaf of bread can still elicit a small sigh of pleasure from even the most hardened screen jockey. Perhaps it is rooted in our innate desire for human interaction, or it tickles our insular cortex in just the right spot. Or else it is part of a subconscious quest for authenticity at a time when reality is being replaced with 1s and 0s. At any rate, this desire exists, and those with the money to decorate their homes with custom ironwork are indulging it, and thereby supporting local blacksmiths.
Even still, the smith must still rely on hard work and efficiency in order to make a living at the forge. This often means breaking with traditional methods, though, as Jim explains, the development and use of labor-saving technology is, in and of itself, a blacksmithing tradition:
Y’know, everything I got in here makes my life easier, and in the old days that technology was different, but every smith that ever was, was always looking for an easier way to do something, and that’s just the way it is. Because it’s hard work and, y’know, there’s a lot of value in doing something by hand… but man, I’ll tell you, if you’re going to make money at this, or if you’re going to make a living at this you… you can’t be busting your behind. So I have all sorts of equipment that helps me do that, and I’d just soon go to the power hammer than go to the anvil from the forge, and I’d rather heat the metal with propane instead of coal… simply because it’s cleaner and easier.
Besides the use of power hammers and propane, Jim also employs jigs wherever possible, particularly on larger, repetitive jobs. Before I leave, he shows me one such simple device he built to fabricate hundreds of hinges for a local cabinetmaker. He keeps it stored above his workbench, waiting for the day when the cabinetmaker runs out of his initial supply.
Jim Fecteau is, of course, but one example of many folks currently making their living by forging steel. These individuals are variously pragmatic and romantic, artistic and practical, but what they have in common is a passion for the craft. Like many other skilled trades in the 21st, blacksmithing is neither an easy nor profitable job, and one devotes their life to it only for the joy of working with metal. It is the same joy that drew me to the craft in the first place, and has perpetuated my fascination with it to this day.
The next time I’m home, I’ll go out to my shop and clear out the detritus that accumulates there in times of disuse: snow tires, acetylene tanks and tandem bicycles. I’ll light the forge, probably on the second or third attempt, inhaling a good amount of coal smoke in the process, and encourage the fire with gentle rotations of the bellows handle. And when the bar stock I’ve pulled from the scrap pile reaches a yellow heat, I’ll take it to the anvil, and, with steady, precise blows, hammer life into the metal.