The blacksmith is a craftsman who fabricates objects out of iron by hot and cold forging on an anvil. The blacksmith’s essential equipment consists of a forge, an open furnace for heating metal ore and metal for working and forming. in which smelted iron is heated so that it can be worked easily; an anvil, a heavy, firmly secured, steel-surfaced block upon which the piece of iron is worked; tongs to hold the iron on the anvil; and hammers, chisels, and other implements to cut, shape, flatten, or weld the iron into the desired object. Blacksmiths made an immense variety of common objects used in everyday life: nails, screws, bolts, and other fasteners; sickles, plowshares, axes, and other agricultural implements; hammers and other tools used by artisans; candlesticks and other household objects; wheel rims and other metal parts in wagons and carriages; fireplace fittings and implements; spikes, chains, and cables used on ships; and the ironwork, both functional and decorative, used in furniture and in the building trades.
The blacksmith’s most frequent occupation, however, was as a farrier producing horseshoes, and then fitting those shoes, using rasps and knives, to the hoofs of horses so that those hoofs are protected from the rough surfaces a horse encounters while working. Like humans, horses’ hoofs come in a variety of sizes and these horses encounter a variety of work conditions so the farrier made custom U-shaped iron shoes of appropriate size and thicknesses then modified those horseshoes to fit the hoof of the animal.
Blacksmiths also came to be general-purpose repairers of farm equipment and other machinery well into the 20th century. By then, however, blacksmithing was already on the decline, as more and more metal articles formerly made by hand were shaped in factories by machines or made by inexpensive casting processes. In the industrialized world, even the blacksmith’s mainstay, farriery, has greatly declined with the disappearance of horses from use in agriculture and transport.
The earliest evidence of extracting iron from iron ore and then forging it dates back to 1500 B.C. with the Hittites in Asia Minor. Blacksmiths were thought to have the same magical powers as alchemists. As they were able to transform rigid and unyielding iron into complex and useful shapes. It took three thousand years for man to learn the science of metallurgy. Early on, people searched for small meteorites that contain iron then it was discovered that iron is also present in nodules of bog ore, small lumps of iron created by bacterial life in swampy areas. Iron ore is also present in rock strata that have a red color, and the deeper the red hue, the higher the iron content.
It became a quest to find the rock strata that gave up its iron with the least amount of work. Given the weight of the ore and the large amounts of fuel needed to smelt the ore, the earliest ironworks were located in areas where iron, flux, and fuel were ample and in proximity to each other. The ironworks also had to be in an area where transporting the finished iron ingots was practical. In early times, that often meant being near a navigable waterway.
Early iron smelters, called “bloomeries,” were small furnaces built from rocks that could withstand repeated heating. These furnaces looked like beehives with a vent in the top and an entry portal on the side. To create the high heat needed to smelt iron, smiths pumped air from a bellows through the tuyere (nozzle). The furnace was filled with charcoal and iron ore and the charcoal was then set afire. When the temperature rises above 2,800 deg.F, the iron flows from the ore and forms blooms. Charcoal was the primary fuel for an iron furnace. Beginning in the 18th century, ironworks began converting coal to coke. In addition to charcoal and iron ore, a flux agent (limestone or dolomite) is also needed to smelt iron ore.
Using large tongs, the blooms of iron were pulled from the oven and placed on an anvil. A striker would then hammer the lumpy piece of raw iron into a flat, rectangular bar. The bar would be folded over and hammered again. This process would continue several more times until most impurities had been driven from the ingot. The finished ingot, bearing the layers of the folding process, was called “wrought iron”.
Wrought Iron had a very low carbon content making it much weaker than steel. But wrought iron was very malleable, a property that lends itself to forging and forge welding. Constantly folding the iron onto itself creates layers, or laminations, which provide more strength than if it were only a single layer. These qualities of wrought iron gave blacksmiths a perfect metal for making all sorts of tools.
By contrast, the other form of iron commonly available is cast iron. Cast iron is iron ore that is heated to a liquid state and then poured into a mold. Casting allows the iron to be made into large and intricate shapes and cast iron tends to have a higher carbon content making it harder but more brittle. Bells and cannon barrels are frequently cast in molds is lined with sand mixed with clay to hold the sand in shape. A finished casting has a rough surface because of the sand texture it was poured against. Cast iron is poured at a foundry, not a blacksmith shop. Cast iron cannot be heated and re-shaped, or welded whereas wrought iron can be reworked forever.
To fuel the smelter or the forge, wood is converted to charcoal, or coal is converted to coke. As the charcoal (or even bituminous coal) is heated in the fire, the impurities are burned off leaving nearly pure carbon which is what you know as charcoal or coke. To get the charcoal or coke to burn even hotter, air is forced to the fire using a bellows pumping air through a pipe into the hearth or forge. The result is a very hot, sustained fire.
As this whole iron industry evolved over time, blacksmithing became an umbrella for several specialties. The blacksmith who made weapons was an Armorer. The blacksmith who made locks was a Locksmith. The blacksmith who made gun barrels and triggers was a Gunsmith. The blacksmith who shod horses was a Farrier. Then there was the “village smithy” who was sort of jack of all trades.
In colonial America, the village blacksmith was called upon to do many things such as making tools, or a fireplace cranes, door hinges, nails and all sorts of hardware, horseshoes, wheel rims (tyres), plowshares, and all sorts of iron work needed to build and maintain the various buildings and trades in the community. People would come to the “Village Smithy” in much the same way we go to the local hardware store. Without the blacksmith, the village could not survive.
Over the centuries, blacksmiths experimented with iron and other metals in their search for a more durable metal. The hardening and tempering processes were invented. They also learned different ways to modify the carbon content of the iron to create steel which was much stronger allowing iron to be used for even more purposes.
Blacksmithing in America prospered until the late 19th Century when factory production made these shops all but obsolete. By the late 1800’s, the railroads had linked the country and hardware was manufactured at plants and sold in hardware stores. Even the Studebaker family, blacksmiths first known for their Conestoga wagons, stopped producing wagon tyres and horseshoes they focused more on automobiles.
Today, blacksmithing survives primarily as an art form. For example, there is ithe Samuel Yellin Ironworks in Philadelphia which provides the iron grills for the windows of the Federal Reserve banks. Other blacksmiths make intricate ironwork for railings, staircases and fireplaces. Blacksmiths still ply their trade at historic parks, restoration villages, craft fairs and craft shops, and artist studios. but today’s blacksmith is more of an interpreter of the past. Blacksmiths built America but the machines they forged eventually made their craft obsolete.