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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.

Ham­mer­ing away

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.

Var­ied role

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

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