How to Become a Blacksmith
Getting Started as a Blacksmith
For most people, blacksmithing conjures up images of men in the Middle Ages hammering away at a piece of metal next to an open fire, and because that image is the first that pops into most people’s minds, many also assume that blacksmiths no longer exist. They couldn’t be more wrong, however. Blacksmithing, by its very definition, is the practice of shaping and forging metals with hammer and anvil. And while design technology has come a long way since the 15th and 16th century, there is still a market for functional and aesthetically pleasing metal objects, and thus blacksmithing is still a flourishing, if under-the-radar, profession and industry.
Although the basics of the profession have remained mostly the same as time has passed, the art form has also come a long way since its origin thanks to deeper and different understandings of design as well as the advent of modern technology and computer aided design. To be a professional blacksmith in the current climate is not easy. The profession is not just about being skilled with a hammer and an anvil, aspiring blacksmiths need to be trained how to use modern blacksmithing tools; they need to understand basic design principles and strategy; and since many blacksmith programs are under the larger umbrella of metal works, they also need to learn design techniques that work for many kinds of metals and jewels.
Blacksmiths deal with occupational hazards that other professionals usually don’t encounter, especially because working with machinery isn’t easy. Professional blacksmiths call it pain management and it is exactly what it sounds like it is: learning to deal and cope with physical injuries that inevitably come with the job. Also, while there are some large shops that employ blacksmiths and metal fabricators, most of the professionals we spoke to said blacksmiths are self-employed, which can be both a blessing and a curse. Despite all of the obstacles and hardships involved with becoming a blacksmith, those actually earning a living as blacksmiths love the work. They love that they get to make a lasting and functional piece of art or tool, and they love that learning to become a blacksmith and learning about the industry is a never-ending process no matter the experience.
The profession is still popular amongst young people looking for careers, but it is also regularly misunderstood or stereotyped. To help readers who want accurate and useful information about the profession and might be looking for advice on the necessary education and skills to get started in the profession, we asked three professional blacksmiths to share their stories. We also created this useful visual to generally spotlight what the industry looks like today.
Although there are some professional blacksmiths who have started their own business without a formal education, the professionals we spoke to all said formal training and education is important. Many of the blacksmiths who carved out a career without formal training were raised around the profession and learned it from members of the family or friends. The rest needed to actually learn the craft and techniques. To be clear, our experts did stress that formal education doesn’t need to be a formal four-year degree program from a college, it can be a more specific degree or certificate program from a trade school, or it can be a program offered by other blacksmiths. It can even be education classes offered by trade associations.
Blacksmithing requires a specific set of skills, so it is important to receive formal training in those skills. This can mean a specific blacksmithing program or a more general metal working program, because both have some overlap and similarities. No matter the path you take to become a blacksmith, you will need to know design concepts, metal characteristics, and the finer points of running a business. Our experts all said it was a good idea to learn some business practices as well because they will come in handy down the road.
WHAT IF I DO WANT A DEGREE TO BECOME A BLACKSMITH?
- Southern Illinois University at Carbondale
The blacksmithing program at SIU Carbondale is one of the oldest and most distinguished programs in the country, and it is also one of the only programs in the country to offer a Master’s Degree of Fine Arts in Blacksmithing. The program offers a hands-on learning experience that teaches both traditional and more innovative design practices. Students have access to a litany of tools and networking opportunities which help the school place students in respected and prestigious jobs across the country.
- Turley Forge Blacksmithing School
Located in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Turley Forge is something of a godfather of blacksmithing schools. More working smiths in the United States have graduated from Turley Forge than any other training session, and teacher Frank Turley has a long and illustrious career in the profession. The classes focus on toolsmithing, hardware, and scrollwork. Students will leave with a raft of different techniques and strategies that will help them make a difference in the field.
- University of Washington
Although not specifically a blacksmithing program, the University of Washington’s metals program not only provides training in all different metal and jewelry design fields, its training facility is second-to-none in terms of resources and modern technology. Students here can find an education in just about any field they want, and the program’s track record of success gives its students a leg up in the job hunt.
- Pratt Institute – School of Art and Design
Pratt Institute is one of the leading art, design and architecture schools in the United States, so it should come as no surprise that its metalworking program is well-respected and regularly churns out professional smiths of any kind. Whether it is continuing education or a formal program, Pratt offers a well-rounded design curriculum and access to some of the best resources and professors of any design school across the country.
GETTING MY FOOT IN THE DOOR
All of our experts offered the same piece of advice when it came to aspiring blacksmiths finding a foothold in the industry. Networking is almost cliché at this point, but because blacksmithing is such a niche industry, it is important for aspiring professionals to find and learn from other professional smiths. Even if those smiths can’t offer you full-time work, they are invaluable resources when it comes to learning what it takes to be a professional blacksmith and the difficulties of starting your own business in the industry.