Blake Smith wakes up a bit after 9 a.m. Owning your own business allows you to set your own hours, and he doesn’t really care to catch the worm. He’s got just enough time to grab a cup of coffee before meeting a client at his studio. He takes a second to admire his kitchen table. It is one of the first pieces he created after leaving art school. At the time, he was specializing in historical blacksmith wrought iron work from the colonial period. Since then he has started focusing his efforts on modern ironwork pieces for interior design furniture stores. He doesn’t make ‘em like he used to.
Once in his studio, Blake jumps on his laptop (not literally… those things are delicate) to access some new designs for several light fixtures for a client. His client wanted a chandelier with a mix of design elements from the medieval period as well as modern features for screwing in light bulbs. Using a 3D modeling software program, Blake was able to come up with a couple of designs that he thinks will please his client.
He hears a knock at his door. “Gosh, they’re early,” he mutters.
Luckily, the knocker is the UPS deliveryman with the blacksmith coal that Blake had ordered from Pennsylvania. Blacksmith coal is different than the kind people use for grilling out in their backyard. This type of coal burns hotter and is made of clean burning bituminous and anthracite.
For when you don’t feel like walking your ancient West African mask all the way out to the dumpster.
“You got anyone to help us?,” the driver asks. “These are 50-pound boxes.”
“Yeah, I know they are heavy,” Blake says. “I have a wheelbarrow in the back.”
“Are you working for Santa Claus? Is this for his naughty list?”
“No, it’s all for my forge,” Blake replies, laughing.
Blake built his first forge with bricks, a two-basin stainless-steel sink, a shop vacuum, black furnace cement, riveted sheet-metal and a whole host of other materials he purchased online and through local hardware stores. You know – the same way most of us built our first forge.
It amazed Blake that he could build a forge adequate enough to fuel his new business. Later, he had enough money to have an antique forge built inside of his studio. Though Blake loves modern designs, he is still romantic about the colonial style forges he saw as a kid.
Davis, his apprentice, shows up. Blacksmiths often have assistants called strikers. Strikers pound objects with sledgehammers as directed by the blacksmith. As you might imagine, a blacksmith doesn’t usually want to walk around their studio barefoot.
“Hey, Davis. Ready to fire it up for today? We have several things on the books. That owner of the hotel in Miami wants to order another art deco railing.”
Davis fires up the forge by wadding up sheets of newspaper into tight balls. (Who knows what they’ll do when the last newspaper closes its doors. Got leaves?) He lowers the paper into the firepot and slowly adds coke (fuel made from coal) or diet coke if the firepot is on a diet. When the coke starts burning, the blacksmith starts adding coal on top of the fire. He first adds dry coal and then starts spreading wet coal. Maintaining a specific temperature is essential for blacksmithing. Most of the time, Blake has to employ some of the math and science knowledge he learned from high school. And you thought that stuff was just for Chemical Engineers.
Abdiesus Zoroastrian walks in for his appointment with Blake. Abdiesus is opening a nightclub and wants to purchase some light fixtures, railings and balusters from Blake that incorporate an Arabesque look. He has brought with him a tribal rug for Blake to use when he creates his designs. Immediately, Abdiesus is enthralled watching Davis pounding hot metal over the anvil’s face.
A real fan of heavy metal.
The bright red metal is an impressive sight. In fact, Blake had to build an addition to the studio to meet with clients because it was hard getting their attention when Davis was forging projects.
“Where can I learn how to do this?” Abdiesus asks.
“Well, I have classes here twice a month. Would you like me to enroll you?” Blake asks.
“Very good,” Abdiesus says, following Blake to his office.
Blake started teaching people and taking on apprentices a couple of years ago. He was surprised to find out that so many people were interested in blacksmithing. In the last 30+ years, the Artist-Blacksmith’s Association of North America has grown from 20 members to over 4,000. And it’s not just because blacksmiths have been having a lot of little blacksmith babies. People are flocking to the industry, and this unexpected surge is saving it from extinction. You will no longer find it on the “World’s Most Endangered Careers” list.
After his appointment, Blake picks ups some Wolf-Jaw tongs and heats a bar so that it becomes pliable. Using a vise, he twists the metal. An hour later, he stares at his new project. His daughter is going to love her new horse candleholder.
Designing, teaching, working with clients and forging make this job his dream career. However, it is the ability to craft items that make people happy that fuels Blake’s fire.