Forg­ing magic from me­tal in Baddeck

Cape Breton Post - - EDITORIAL - Rus­sell Wanger­sky Rus­sell Wanger­sky is TC Media’s At­lantic Re­gional colum­nist. He can be reached at rus­sell.wanger­; his col­umn nor­mally ap­pears on Tues­days, Thurs­days and Satur days in TC Media’s daily pa­pers.

It’s not hard to spot the black­smiths: they have an air about them, some­thing al­most bet­ter de­scribed as a smudge. And once I see one, I just fol­low her down and find a grassy field where the out­door forges are set up.

CANIRON X is a four-day col­lec­tion and con­fer­ence of Cana­dian and other black­smiths and me­tal folk in Baddeck: there’s a Damascus steel knife maker from out­side Saska­toon; a welder and scrap me­tal artist from Bridge­wa­ter; black­smiths from Hous­ton (“I left last Fri­day and got here yesterday”), Char­lotte, Peo­ria, Is­rael and Wales.

There are some 200 black­smiths here — or­ga­niz­ers hope to top 500 by the end of the event — and there’s some se­ri­ous herowor­ship go­ing on here.

Black­smiths work on their own, de­velop on their own paths and cling to the meth­ods that work for them — stand­ing nearby, I lis­ten to a dis­cus­sion on the rel­a­tive mer­its of 41-40 and 41-43. It turns out that it’s dif­fer­ent kinds of steel.

It’s prob­a­bly for the best that there’s a low fog and driz­zle in Baddeck on a July morn­ing — the fog mixes well with the smell of burn­ing coal that’s puff­ing from a se­ries of small forges.

The tech­nol­ogy seems sim­ple enough: there’s a chim­ney for smoke, a basin to hold hot coal, and a blower — ei­ther elec­tric or hand-turned — to get the coal ex­ceed­ingly hot.

But the process is any­thing but sim­ple. It turns out that black­smiths have to be a lit­tle of ev­ery­thing, from met­al­lur­gists to ge­ol­o­gists to artists. Bri­tish black­smith Mark Aspery, one of the event’s stars, an­swers au­di­ence ques­tions on ev­ery­thing from the con­cen­tra­tions of coke in coal to the in­her­ent dan­gers of quench­ing (dip­ping hot steel in wa­ter) tool-grade steel. (It hard­ens and fails.)

Mean­while, another smith is fix­ing the forge’s blower with tape, plas­tic vac­uum cleaner hose and a knife.

Aspery’s morn­ing ses­sion starts with physics and a short dis­cus­sion on me­tal com­po­si­tion. You can fol­low it if you’re a new­bie, but it’s clear from the ques­tions (and the dis­cus­sion) that many aren’t.

“When I draw out, I draw out over the same ful­crum point.” OK, then.

Other ad­vice is plainer, like some­thing Aspery cred­its to another smith: “If you don’t want it to get any thin­ner, don’t hit it there again.”

A lot of it is pre­plan­ning: me­tal, even red hot me­tal, is not so for­giv­ing that you can af­ford wrong turns. And pre­ci­sion counts: mak­ing some­thing round starts with a piece of square me­tal, moved through steps, square to oc­tagon to round: “If you’re lazy with your square, you get a bad oc­tagon. If you get a bad oc­tagon, you’ll get a bad round,” Aspery says.

He left school to ap­pren­tice at 15. Now, in ad­di­tion to physics, he quotes works on es­thet­ics from the 1760s to ex­plain why, once you start to use curved me­tal in a work, you can’t leave per­fectly straight lines in other parts of it.

Even the colours of glow­ing me­tal have a pur­pose. You can, ap­par­ently, shear it if the me­tal’s “a low red into the black.” When Aspery’s fin­ished show­ing the au­di­ence how to make a chisel out of harder tool steel, he ad­vises, “Heat to a low or­ange and cool slowly by the side of the fire.”

It’s like be­ing let into a par­tic­u­lar kind of magic.

The black­smiths have a par­tic­u­lar tang, and of­ten me­tal sticks out of their pock­ets.

They talk about mak­ing their own tools as a rite of pas­sage, of swing­ing ham­mers with the most econ­omy of mo­tion (even bounc­ing the ham­mer on the anvil be­tween strikes on the hot me­tal for the sim­ple pur­pose of keep­ing the ham­mer mov­ing.) They duel: Aspery ex­plains how he plans to put a point on a piece of red-hot me­tal, and ges­ture s to a nearby pair of Is­raeli smiths: “They’d tell you to do it a dif­fer­ent way. But they’re not wrong.”

Black­smithing is in­di­vid­ual work with in­di­vid­ual styles, and event or­ga­nizer Grant Haver­stock of the Cape Bre­ton Black­smith s As­so­ci­a­tion says that style of in­di­vid­u­al­ity and work­ing alone was killing the craft: too few smiths, too far apart.

Then came so­cial media. “It saved black­smithing,” Haver­stock says, be­cause in­di­vid­ual black­smiths, how­ever far-flung, could com­mu­ni­cate about their work with their fel­lows, as well as post­ing video that has brought more peo­ple to the craft.

And that’s the point when I re­al­ize what it is I’m for­get­ting: I’m not part of this fel­low­ship of the forge, as much as I want to be, and I’ll be gone long be­fore it winds up on Sun­day. I know why Mark Aspery

doesn’t want a sharp edge on his anvil — and that in­for­ma­tion will do me ab­so­lutely no good at all.

It makes me wish I’d started with a dif­fer­ent set of tools.

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