Wednesday, September 3, 2008


My grandfather was a blacksmith, among many other things. He was a machinist, woodworker, saddle-maker, rancher, shootist, father, husband. He was everything he needed to be, to have the life he wanted to have. A quintessential New Mexico high-desert renaissance man. The kind they don't make anymore.
He died in 1972, of cancer that did what men and cattle and austere living never had been able to, more than a decade before I was born. Growing up was like living in a burned forest of his life. The skeletal remains of his work, his things, decorated the landscape of my childhood home, and my childhood imagination. The lathe he had built from spare parts and hand-made parts, sitting hulking in the corner of the ranch workshop, dusty and partially draped in oily canvas. His forge, a great iron bowl on legs, resting under an elm tree surrounded by scattered scraps of steel and copper. The original homestead house and shed, great tumbled piles of red-rock, partial walls and tin roofs, had become his scrapyard - Home to old cars, motors, bizarre and cryptic innards from locomotives and transistor radios, great piles of scrap iron and spring steel. Rust, and earth, and rotting wood, scraps of oil cloth and canvas, mysterious handmade tools of unknown ends and meaning, bits of silver and leather, the growing green corrosion of old copper - This was how I knew my grandfather. How I felt his presence, so obvious in its absence by what he had left behind. Some of it still in use, some of it languishing, victim to entropy, abandoned by the mind that had conceived of it, and its usefulness. A mans works, like children, orphaned to the timeless hand of oxidization and death.
I grew up knowing men could make things with their hands. My grandfathers bones lying scattered around the house, my mother's art on the walls and pottery on the shelves, my fathers photographs, bridges and buildings he built, surveyors maps. I knew that these were the possibilities of human hands. So when I was fifteen, and found myself cultivating a taste in fine knives to compliment the taste in fine guns I'd been raised with, the natural path seemed to me to be making my own. I couldn't find the perfect knife for sale, or at least couldn't afford it, but I certainly felt it possible to make one.
I acquired a few more tools and set to work, quickly making a savage dent in my fathers collection of files and rasps. I initially approached knife-making via the stock removal process: Taking a raw bar or piece of steel, of roughly the desired length, width and thickness of the finished knife and simply grinding away everything that didn't look like the desired result. Although effective, and fairly common, this is a somewhat wasteful method of making anything as a good portion of the investment in raw materials ends up as dust on the floor of the shop. My learning process eventually lead me towards blacksmithing, as it allowed the best use of materials, with very little waste required. Being able to use an entire piece of steel by heating it and hammer forging it into the desired shape without the need for heavy grinding both provided a better financial return, and allowed a greater artistic range of possibility. Some shapes and angles are simply easier to forge into a piece than grind out of one.
In the late spring of my 16th year, I approached a blacksmith in the nearest town, Magdalena, about apprenticing with him. John was kind enough to allow me into his shop, to help with his projects and learn smithing in the process, while also getting to pursue my own interests at the forge as my skill improved.
John had learned to smith while in the Navy as a SeaBee. Once upon a time, large naval ships had forges inside the ship, attached to their machine shop, to facilitate the ease of repair and fabrication of parts while at sea. John was a product of this environment - It was there that he had made his first knives, and begun hobby smithing as a way to keep himself entertained and explore his creative depths. After the Navy John had continued educating himself at the forge, and refined his craft over the decades. Neither a production, nor a modern, smith John worked at the forge because he enjoyed the work, and the tradition of making much with little. His shop, built of block and wooden framing, was more reminiscent of an early 20th century mountain smithy than anything else. There was no power in the shop, electricity would only let him light the place and stay out there all night long John said. The doorway was usually open, as were windows, the regular draft allowing fresh air to continually circulate, carrying out smoke and fumes from the fire. John's forge itself was built from bricks and stone, by hand as the rest of his shop, and was fed only with coal with fuel. A hand-crank blower provided the necessary airflow to bully the fire into the required heats for smithing. Propane was a foreign idea, relegated to some of the books and issues of Metalsmith that scattered John's workbench. It was, as far as I am concerned, the best way to learn the art of blacksmithing. We used scrap materials, salvaged steel and iron, wood for handles that John had harvested himself, and did all our filing, sanding and polishing by hand. It was hard, dirty, sometimes frustrating work - And at the end of our weekly sessions I left tired, filthy, and sometimes chagrined at my own folly in the shop, which John always corrected sternly, but not wrongly.
I wish, looking back, I had spent more time there. I visited John weekly for several months, on into winter when the cold weather finally drove us out of his open, uninsulated and power-less smithy. When spring began to give way to warm days however, I failed to return. I had become invested in the other pursuits of a teenage boy, and feel victim to my own timidity as well in broaching the subject of returning. But I never forgot.
In general smithing was one of the many things I let fall by the wayside between the tail-end of high-school and beginning college. I had gathered the materials to build a forge, and made some small efforts at restoring my grandfathers forge and blower, but had never actually carried my intentions to completion. I still made knives, and still fully intended to get a forge up and running, but it just didn't happen. I let myself believe I didn't have the time, or resources, to devote to forging. Equipment languished, coal I had bought became dust in the bin, and my regrets at not continuing my smithing piled up deeper and deeper.
Finally, in the fall of '06, something changed. I'd changed schools, to be closer to home and pursuing my degree in an environment I liked better, and was spending quite a bit of time on the ranch. In mid October I went out and started rummaging among the derelict pieces of my grandfathers life, and set about cleaning up his forge. The forge itself, an iron bowl almost three feet long, two across and six inches deep, atop four sturdy legs, was in fairly good condition. The old hand-crank blower however needed more work. After several soakings in penetrating oil, and careful taps with a deadblow to loosen up old rust, I managed to free up the impeller with a final effort of elbow grease. Once free'd the impeller turned like it had never been stuck, and produced great volumes of air with even a moderate turn.
The first firing of the newly restored forge, late one cool October evening, was one of the most satisfying experiences I've had yet - I was thrilled to see my own work restore functionality to something my grandfather had built so much of his life with. Those first flames, dancing up between chunks of pinon charcoal, carried away old ghosts of neglect and regret, both for me and the tools under my hand.
Since then I have expanded my smithing from just blade-smithing into artist blacksmithing in general. Very few things are as satisfying as spending an afternoon working over a hot fire, getting covered in ash and grime, only to produce something fine, and delicate and shining, and above all, functional at the end of it. I can become lost in the work of tending the fire and shaping, directing, and cultivating hot iron into a tool or other thing of beauty - Things fall away from my mind as my hands set into their work, each blow, drop of sweat and burn from hot slag reaffirming a capability essential to every man since sun first rose on a flint knapper on some faraway plain - To be able to make the things you need, create the world you desire in your locale, to provide the life you want for you and yours. There is nothing more complete or satisfying than this.
My large forge is a permanent part of the ranch. It is both too large, and has too many ties to that place to ever be moved to town. I feel strongly about this, although its a source of regret while living in town pursuing my degree. Or, was a source of some regret. A friend's fiance, Pat, himself a blacksmith who had let his hobby lapse in pursuit of his degree, had left a small old coal forge sitting under an elm tree in his future bride's front yard, and was sad to see in languishing unused. A short time after being introduced to him, Pat gifted me with this small forge, so as to see it put to good use. Once again I had in my hands an old, but loved, tool - Once essential, now relegated to artist, hobbyist and anachronist in the majority of the world. It took some time, but I finally have fired it up, and am ready to set about using it in earnest.
Since I first came to New Mexico Tech I've been taking Metal Arts or Armor making classes offered in the fine art department of the community college. The instructor, Theresa, is one of my favorite people, and I feel comfortable calling her a friend. Since I first started learning from her, we've repeatedly discussed the addition of both propane and coal forges to her class-room. Though not one of the Teaching Assistants for her classes in past semesters, my role in the classroom has become increasingly instructive as I've stuck around longer and longer, and the interest in building forges and adding smithing to the regular curriculum has increased. A year ago, at the beginning of the fall semester, I arrived for my first day of class with four bags of quickcrete, as an incentive for Theresa to stop talking and start acting on the forge plans. A year later we still have no forge, but somehow my impulsiveness and dedication finally led me to being the only paid TA for her classes, and we're actually starting to get some work done. I've also taken a select few of the other long-time students on as semi-students of my own, to come to my house and work my forge, and learn what they can from me about smithing. It was to this end that, after I'd returned to town late one recent evening, my friend Nick, his wife Raven and I gathered in my yard under the glow of a worklight. Bags of charcoal, a shovel, a small pile of hammers, a piece of railroad rail and a heavy post were also gathered. We dug a hole, set the post, and mounted the railroad rail to it with some hastily forged clinch-nails, and built a large charcoal fire in the forge. The hand crank blower rattled a steady rhythm as its gears ran along on chipped teeth to turn the fan, driving air into the growing, cracking, sparking fire. We stood gathered around it, faces lit an orange glow, sparks reflecting in our eyes, and shared a collective smile. My neighbors were having a party, and as their house and yard filled with mostly freshmen Tech students, they observed us with confusion, question and stunned silence. No words were said across the fence, they stood back from the rising sparks, spoke in hushed tones to one another, and fell silent as the ring of hammer blows rained out all competing sound in the small space between houses. Eventually my roommate, himself an accomplished knife-maker, joined us and we four stood, working the blower, tending the fire, driving hammers into hot steel, shaping and drawing the tools of our futures, the works of our lives. We stood a separate tribe from those across the fence, speaking our own language of fire, and ash and the timeless ring of hammers.

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