apprentice or assistant – that sent oxygen through the fuel, while the large chimney ensured a good draught. Part of the blacksmith’s skill lies in being able to judge when the iron can be worked by the colour it has taken on after being thrust into the fire and left to heat up.
The other basic piece of equipment found in all forges is the anvil. This is a heavy piece of iron, with a flat top and one or two holes, and a conical horn protruding at one side. Metal can be flattened by hammering it against the flat top, or bent into a curve by either beating it against the horn or using a forked piece set in one of the holes. The sparks that fly as the metal is hammered are tiny fragments of ‘scale’ – oxidised metal formed during heating.
You might think that there is nothing complex about hammering a piece of iron, but it is actually a difficult skill to master. The metal has to be worked quickly before it cools, and the blacksmith alternates hitting the iron he’s working and hitting the anvil: the ‘ bounce’ from the latter helps him maintain a continuous, steady rhythm.
Larger pieces would require both the blacksmith and his apprentice to forge. The former would normally hold the metal firmly in tongs above the anvil, and indicate to his assistant, the striker, exactly where it should be hit. It was during times like this that the apprentice would master the art of smithing.
Forging a particular piece could involve a variety of different processes: the iron bar could be drawn out, lengthened by hammering, bent to different shapes and ‘upset’, a process by which one part of the bar can be left thicker than the other. Holes can be punched into the hot metal and it can also be split along part of its length to form a basic fork shape.
Blacksmiths who also traded as farriers would have spent a regular part of their lives making and applying horseshoes. This typically involved many different processes, from flattening and bending the bar, to using a punch to make the holes for the nails.
During the working, the iron would have to be returned to the hearth a number of times, and the scale regularly removed with an iron brush. The farrier would then have to fix the horseshoes in place. While still hot, the shoe would be applied to the horse’s hoof, leaving a burned impression that would show exactly how well it fitted before any necessary adjustments were subsequently made. Sharp edges would be filed away and only then would it be nailed into place. A good farrier could shoe half a dozen or more horses a day.
A blacksmith’s life was almost infinitely varied, as he was called on to make a huge variety of objects. I recently visited a blacksmith and found him at work making a complex ram’s head poker and an ornate gazebo. This is one occupation for which the words ‘typical day’ have simply never applied.
Pieces of iron can also be joined together by welding, a process that calls for as much
A blacksmith stands next to his anvil, forge and array of tools, 1905