This trade is no dodo - Alec Steele and the Blacksmith's Toolbox
The steel scale has piled up around the anvils and hammers and drifts are scattered down the central aisle. Our forearms ache from swinging sledgehammers and the pong of a hard day’s work hangs in the air. It’s the end of the 3rd day of Alec’s Steele’s masterclass – the Blacksmith’s Toolbox, and we’re tired but cheerful. For the uninitiated, Alec Steele is the boy wonder of the blacksmithing world – an 18 year old who’s built an impressive name for himself with a back to basics approach, preferring human power to machine. Alec is probably the most well known personality of blacksmithing today – a reputation solidified through the millions of viewers of his youtube how-to videos which rack up over 3 million hours of viewing time per month.
Our communities don’t depend on smith’s like they used to. Mechanisation and mass production have made the town blacksmith redundant but, surprisingly, the craft still draws a curious crowd. Blacksmithing today has morphed into something else – a challenging and consuming past-time. People around the world are attracted to the blend of athleticism (striking), metallurgy (heat treating to change strength or hardness), technique and resourcefulness (making a tool, to make a something else). Vocational training institutions have stopped running blacksmithing programs and employers of apprentice smith’s are evaporating, but enthusiasts eager to learn the craft are looking to the internet as their training ground. And this is where Alec Steele comes in – a young lad from a sleepy town in the UK, whose earnest enthusiasm for back to basics blacksmithing made our Aussie cynicism look pretty drab and boring – we needed to pep up if we’re to keep up with this whippersnapper!
Guys and gals have come far and wide to learn these somewhat peculiar human powered tool-making techniques and will dedicate 4 days to learning these skills. For a blacksmith the challenge is not only to manipulate steel, but to be able to create the tool for the job; to make your own tools means you can be much more proactive in what you produce. And this is why the class kicks off with the forging of hammer tongs, designed to grasp and pivot a steel billet - these tongs will be indispensable in creating the tools that follow. Alec demonstrates some aggressive forging techniques, holding the steel with bare hands and furiously hammering the taper. You can see the casual aptitude for what he does – he’s like a figure skater, it looks so easy! As with all things, a degree of ease when observed, does not translate to an ease when practiced. It’s hard yakker working the taper on the tongs but we get there, and by the end of the day everyone is sporting their own pair of beautifully tapered tongs. The benefits of hand forging can be seen in the subtle, undulating patina on the surface, a nuance that cannot be created with a power hammer.
Day 2 is all about striking and teamwork, a strong tradition that blacksmiths hold as a cornerstone of the craft. To make the top and bottom fullers, our blacksmiths were shown ways to draw down heavy bars of steel with a partner or striker. The true measure of a good striking partner is learning to anticipate what they’ll do next, a memorable quote of Bryan Brazeal’s springs up, “Don’t do as I say, do what I think!” After building confidence using a 12 pound sledge hammer, the gang worked in 4 person striking teams to rapidly move hot metal. One thing we had to look out for was to expect the hammer, if you don’t, it can bounce off and smash your job. With that in mind, and led by the head blacksmith who sets the pace, the team bring the hammers up above theirs heads and start, slowly, building momentum as the group finds the rhythm, moving to a crescendo of speed, power and noise - it’s a pretty glorious thing to be a part of! At the end of the day you could see the exhilaration on our faces at lunch time, with blacksmith Ewan beaming “everyone will remember that – it was really fun.”
Proliferating the methods of blacksmithing has been essential in the revival of this endangered trade; many of the methods Alec has transferred to us have been passed to him by Bryan Brazeal. By the end of 4 days, these 24 blacksmiths have made their own hammers and tongs, flatters, drifts, punches and cupping tools and learned a repertoire of spirited techniques that we’ll be able to pass on. We leave with a loot of tools heaped into into hessian sacks and cardboard boxes, and aches in muscles we didn’t even know we had – school is over, but now we’ve got to get to work!