Forging magic from metal in Baddeck
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.