How to Become 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.

WHAT THE EXPERTS ARE SAYING

David MacDonald

MacDonald Metalsmith – Owner

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  • David MacDonald
  • Las Lunas, NM
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  • MacDonald Metalsmith
We are a blacksmith and knife making company that also does a fair amount of architectural blacksmithing. My grandfather MacDonald built the biggest power shovels in the world until he retired. I started working with him when I was ten years old. My parents taught me from a young age the ins and outs of the business.After graduating from Gilmour Academy in Cleveland, I attended the University of Cincinnati for two years and eventually transferred to the University of Findlay Equestrian School. While learning to train horses I took an apprenticeship with Jean Gaudette, a farrier, which is someone responsible for equine foot care. I really learned to appreciate and enjoy the work, and so from there I sought out every blacksmith available. I have been fortunate to be able to train under many masters in the United States, France, England, Germany and Switzerland.

Advice

Make sure to learn the marketing side
When I was learning the business, I really focused on learning the technical skills that are important for becoming a blacksmith, but since I am self-employed, I now find that I wish I would have known more about marketing metalwork to the general public. Marketing is important for every small business, and even if you are an incredibly skilled blacksmith, it still takes a fair amount of marketing skill and ability to help the general public understand and appreciate that skill.

Make sure to take business and writing classes as well as the art classes
It is similar to learning the marketing side, but running your own business requires you to be a jack-of-all-trades and perform a variety of jobs that you may or may not be trained for. I was lucky to take some business classes and writing classes in college, and I think it has helped me become successful in my business. The easy part of becoming a self-employed blacksmith is learning the blacksmith techniques, the actual running of the business is the hard part.

Find experts and use them as mentors
Blacksmithing is a niche profession, and so it is important to learn from experts and find mentors. When I was looking for work, I sought out every blacksmith I could find and tried to learn as much as I could about the job, the skills and the business strategies. It is important to find mentors in any job, but if you hunt down experts in your field of interest and really want to learn about the field, they will be the best resource to helping you get your foot in the door.

David Osmundsen

Arrowhead Forge – Owner

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My formal schooling is in gunsmithing, which gives me an eye and skill for detail and precision. I also have worked as a carpenter which helps in designing structural ironwork and working with building codes. Some of the same rules for building wood railings and other architectural work apply to the blacksmithing trade.Since high school and gunsmithing school, I spent over a year with a blacksmith that was willing to teach me the basic skills of the blacksmithing trade. That was about 1976. My focus then was on classic ironwork pertaining to the fur trade of the 18th and 19th century. In the 1980s, I worked for almost 10 years as an industrial blacksmith forging tools for a manufacturing company in Maine. Since then, I have branched out into more contemporary gates, railings, and building hardware.

Now my focus is on teaching and making smaller ironwork and tools for the blacksmith trade. If I am teaching a class, I am working nonstop for more than nine hours each day with the teaching and prep work alone. If not teaching, I pick up where I left off with the last day. Sometimes I have a great productive day, other times it is a constant interruption of visitors to the shop and phone calls. At times I have to go out and look at potential commissioned work, then come back and design and bid that job.

Advice

Get experience in other shops before starting your own
I think it would have been a big boost to my career if I had gone to work in several other shops before working on my own because I would have known more about to what expect, and I would have been better prepared for potential issues and problems that arose. I also think I would have liked to spend some time in Europe learning about the trade and how it works in other countries before I settled down. I think it would have given me some perspective and a better understand of the practice.

Take a variety of classes and get involved
If you are still in school, take all the math, art, shop, business and design classes you can. Join the Artist Blacksmithing Association of North America and a regional affiliate in your area. Take a good beginning class like I offer here and any other classes that you can. Set up a small shop in your garage and practice, practice, practice. Find someone that will let you work with them in their shop.

Study hard and enroll in a formal education program
Well, of course I should say that you should attend the Arrowhead Forge School of Blacksmithing because it will take you a long way. In all seriousness, whether it is my school or another training program, we offer four weeks of hands-on training here and you cannot beat the experience of hands-on training if you aspire to become a blacksmith. There are other good places around the country as well. On your own, study the works of other well-known smiths. Of course, this is easier to do once you understand the skills of a blacksmith.

Rory May

Dragon Forge, LTD – Owner

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Dragon Forge LTD is a company my father started 35 years ago. Most of the clientele we work with are in high end, ski area homes in Colorado; and the past few years, we have expanded on a national level with work in California, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Florida, etc.I grew up working in the studio with my father. My mother had an office job, and I didn’t take to babysitters well. So from a young age I grew up around fire, tools, noise and dirt. I really started to get involved with the studio when I was 15.

Upon graduating high school, I thought it would be best to try something else and attended the Art Institute of Colorado with a major in media arts (aka commercial arts) and animation. Most of my projects in the beginning of college were done out of metal. They had not seen anyone like me before and my critiques were sub-par for the money and complimented with a constant melody of “well, that’s different…” Realizing that I needed to create in a form that they wanted to see, I started to follow the program. I graduated 2nd in my class and really decided that I did not enjoy this direction of the career. I was 24 and came full-time on board with Dragon Forge LTD.

Using what I went to college for at the height of the recession, I implemented a new brand, look and feel for the business. During the day I was forging alongside my father, and in the evenings I was working on the advertising, photos, website, etc. I have taken various classes hosted by other smiths throughout the years and even hosted and assisted ones that we put on at Dragon Forge LTD. My father and I will be featured on CNN’s new show called Somebody’s Gotta Do It that will air in the spring.

Advice

Get to know the trade schools
There are colleges and trade schools that I wish I would have known about prior to my media arts degree. One of which is the School of Art and Design in Carbondale, Illinois. These schools would have been useful to me now, so I would encourage anyone interested in the profession to get familiar with those schools so they can make the right choice.

Get involved, and practice makes perfect
Join your local organization; surround yourself in the craft; practice whenever you can; and take classes if possible. Try to get a job working with an established smith, and put your heart and soul into it. Always be open to new ideas, new ways of doing something and problem solving. Experience is key in this craft. The classes and people you meet will only propel you forward that much more quickly.

What Kind of Education Do I Need to Become a Blacksmith?


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.