Frequently Asked Questions about Blacksmithing
Our thanks to Proctor Taylor of BABA who wrote this section on FAQs.
What is blacksmithing?
It is the art of manipulating iron or steel by forging it: heating it to incandescence and forming it into different shapes using force supplied by hand hammers, power hammers, fly-presses and hydraulic presses; and often using tools driven by hammer or press. Forging is distinct from casting and from fabrication. The best way of understanding the process is to compare it to pottery: the hot metal has the consistency of very stiff clay and can be shaped accordingly. It does not become liquid during the forging process.
What is blacksmithing good for?
Versatility. Creativity. Utility. No other method of manipulating iron and steel has so many different facets. No other metal is as useful as steel. Forging is the primary method for manufacturing cutlery, tools, engine parts (which are subsequently machined), machinery, hardware, etc. In fact, the final process of steel-making, the rolling process, is a form of forging. IABA is, however, interested in promoting the technique as a means to creative expression. A look at our Gallery will show you why.
What distinguishes forged work from casting and fabrication?
This is the equally challenging art of melting metal and pouring it into a mould. Most of the skill is in the mould-making, though the running of a furnace is not to be taken lightly. Iron for casting has a very high carbon content compared with steels used for forging. It is brittle when not molten; thus heating it to a red heat and hitting it just causes it to shatter.
Iron construction using lengths of steel joined by welding or (rarely nowdays) riveting. Useful but utilitarian. The shape of the individual pieces of metal is not changed except by bending (usually done cold), whereas the primary aim in blacksmithing is to radically alter the cross-section and longitudinal shape of the supplied steel to get imaginative new forms. Bridges, jails, skyscrapers, Eiffel towers, oil-rigs, ships, and many, many railings, gates and other architectural elements are made with the fabrication process.
Both of these processes are used for industrial production and for artistic expression. Though casting is a superbly creative process it does not have the flexibility and immediacy of forging, and an eye trained in the observation of forged work will find fabricated work lifeless.
Is forged work better than cast or fabricated?
Forging is not better for all purposes, but there are applications where forging is far superior – often items that are cast or fabricated would benefit from a rethink in their design which considers the forging process. This is not to say that either process is eschewed by smiths: some use bespoke cast elements where needed, and many innovative fabrication tools and techniques have been gratefully assimilated by smiths for practical reasons.
What is the benefit of buying a hand forged item rather than something fabricated or mass produced?
The same advantage there is in buying an original work of art. The work of art costs more, but you can have it tailor made in style and scale and so that it expresses your taste; it will turn heads and it can survive for hundreds of years as an enrichment to the environment.
blacksmiths primarily join the various pieces of a construction using mortise and tenon joints, fire-welding, rivets, collars, and sometimes entirely new methods invented for the project at hand. Fabricators weld around the surface of abutting pieces. In the words of one of our members, “you wouldn’t buy a piece of wooden furniture with the glue on the outside of the joints would you?”
Why are a fabricator’s bespoke gates cheaper than an artist blacksmith’s?
Artist blacksmiths approach design from the standpoint of artists rather than craftsmen, and this takes more time and effort. Forging is a great deal more labour-intensive and time-consuming than fabrication, but the innovation, attention to quality and to detail show in the finished product. Fabricators do a good job in the utilitarian sense, and the result may even superficially resemble a traditional forged gate, but they are not artists. There is nothing like the real thing for quality, longevity, beauty and design versatility.
“Wrought iron” does not mean ornamental ironwork!
Wrought iron is actually a material, not a descriptive term for items made in iron. Wrought iron is the forgeable ferrous material made until about the mid-twentieth century that has been replaced by modern mild steel. It was originally called “wrought” (“worked”) to distinguish it from cast, or poured iron, because its manufacture required extensive forming under power hammers and through rollers. It is characterised by its composite nature: it is fibrous, like wood, though you cannot tell that by looking at it unless it has been broken or badly corroded. The fibrous material is iron silicate, intimately mingled with the iron, and it gives wrought iron a combination of resistance to corrosion, plasticity when hot and tensile strength when cold that are generally greater than in mild steel. Carbon content is typically very low and the old iron welds beautifully with just incandescent heat and the hammer. It was expensive to make, and variable in quality. It did not lend itself well to high-speed production processes, but some smiths still seek out scrap wrought iron, or buy reprocessed wrought iron, because they prefer it to mild steel.
How can I become a blacksmith?
Though the traditional apprenticeship route is gone, there are many other ways one can become a blacksmith.
Ireland’s premier full time blacksmiths course runs from Limerick College of Further Education (LCFE) Cappamore campus. This is taught by Eric O’Neill and is accredited by City and Guilds. The course runs 3 days a week over the course of a school year and is truly a brilliant course of study for any budding blacksmith. For further information, click on the following link: Limerick School of Blacksmithing.
Other than LCFE, one must travel abroad to study blacksmithing full time. In the UK there are a range of courses available from Hereford and Plumpton colleges, as well as numerous private short courses. More information on those available from British Artist Blacksmith Association: www.baba.org.uk
Full time not for you? Then there are numerous day, evening and weekend courses available throughout Ireland and the UK as well as one to one courses. These are mostly booked through direct contact with the Smith/firm and in some cases can even be tailored depending on your (the student) ability. If you wish to cover a specific task, eg repousse, firewelding, punching, this can also be arranged directly with the Smith.
Having some experience or some form of relevant education will help your employment opportunities exponentially. And of course modern techniques will also make your cv stand out even more! So even though the “traditional” blacksmith apprenticeship is no more, it is still possible to have a prosperous career as a Smith.
Still confused? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll do my best to answer your queries or point you in the right direction.