How to Become a Blacksmith

01

Learn the Basics of Blacksmithing

When most people think of blacksmiths, they picture a man dressed in a dirty black leather apron leaning over an old anvil pounding out a sword or hammering horseshoes for the likes of Buffalo Bill and Wyatt Earp.  However, making and properly fitting horseshoes is actually only one branch of blacksmithing, known as farriery. 

Today, the field of blacksmithing has seen a resurgence, mainly because of the ‘do-it-yourself’ trend that began in the 1970’s.  There are now dozens of organizations, clubs, and books available to educate the budding blacksmith, architects, interior designers, and the public about this art form. In fact, modern blacksmiths often refer to themselves as ‘artist-blacksmiths’.  Back in 1973, the Artists Blacksmiths’ Association of North American had 27 members; in 2013 it had nearly 4,000. 

A blacksmith or metalsmith is a professional who creates and repairs objects from steel or wrought iron by forging or shaping the metal using hammers, tongs, chisels, etc. “Black” in the term blacksmith refers to the metals that develop a layer of black oxide as they are forged. ‘Smith’ is from ‘smite’ or to hit, which means a blacksmith is literally someone who hits black metal. Blacksmithing is a highly-skilled trade where artisans create fine art and custom metal pieces for clients, galleries, museums, businesses, etc.

Some blacksmiths specialize in industrial work, making items like security grills for windows and doors and fire escapes.  Or, they may concentrate on architectural or artistic work like furniture and iron railings and gates. Individuals who are self-employed usually specialize in artistic work and sell their wares to galleries, or show their pieces at fairs and craft shows. 

On any given day, a blacksmith will work with a furnace or forge to heat metal. They will shape and bend the metal using hand tools or power tools, like grinders, drills, and hydraulic presses, and work with different kinds of metal, like wrought iron, steel, bronze, brass, and copper. They will join metal together using welding methods and apply finishes to metal or other mediums. The tools all blacksmiths use typically include a furnace or forge where smelted iron is heated to be easily formed and worked, an anvil, tongs, hammers chisels, and other tools to shape, flatten, cut, or weld iron into the desired object.

 

02

Learn Essential Skills & Techniques

Master the Tools of the Trade

Most of the tools blacksmiths use are simple; consisting of hammers, chisels, and power tools. Whereas, the true expertise lies in the skills and techniques used by the blacksmith.  Beside technical ability and practical skills, blacksmith’s need good hand-to-eye coordination, problem-solving skills, math skills for measuring and making precise cuts and calculations, and creative and design skills.  Blacksmiths and artist-blacksmiths must have a thorough knowledge of metals and other materials, outstanding creativity, customer service, and interpersonal skills. Manual dexterity, attention to detail, the ability to work alone or with minimal supervision, physical strength, and motor coordination are also key skills and abilities needed while on the job.

It is possible to become a successful blacksmith without a formal education, but make no mistake, honing the trade takes years of education and study.  Although blacksmiths are in less demand than in ancient times, mainly because of assembly lines and industrial machinery, blacksmiths still create durable and beautiful metalwork as artists. Few colleges offer a bachelor’s or master’s degree in blacksmithing or metalsmithing, but there are a number of trade or vocational schools that offer courses which can help an aspiring blacksmith with training and provide basic introductory information like the history of the trade, basic terminology, and introduction to tools, etc.  Coursework typically includes a combination of both traditional and modern practices, which upon graduation, students will have a full range of knowledge and skills. 

If you choose to enter a postsecondary degree program as an artist-blacksmith, you will learn both traditional and contemporary blacksmithing practices, but also experiment with materials, learn how to manipulate metal, think creatively, and explore new ways to combine metal and other materials to make art.  Studio time is supported by lectures and seminars that tie together both professional and creative practices. If offered, ‘Master’ classes focus on the refinement of skills. Students are expected to work independently and will usually have the opportunity to produce a body of work for exhibition at a school-sponsored gallery showing. Coursework may also include writing a business plan and marketing strategy, as well as a dissertation. 

Students in most every program will find a mix of theory and hands-on courses. They will learn forge welding, hot carving, tool making, cutting and much more. They will also gain the experience to create a variety of metal products, including custom railings, hardware, furniture, garden décor, and home decoration/art.  Commonly, coursework also includes drafting, studio operations, self-promotion, and entrepreneurial skills, like portfolio design and marketing. 

During college or while attending vocational or trade school, students should take advantage of all internship opportunities, if they exist within the program. Internships are a good way to gain experience, establish mentorships and contacts within the industry, and learn new hands-on techniques not taught in the classroom. Following an education, many blacksmiths will enter into an apprenticeship under the guidance of a professional blacksmith/mentor.  It usually takes years to fully understand the business of blacksmithing, as well as add additional skills to your resume, but like internships, apprenticeships are great ways to gain experience, and unlike internships (although not always), apprenticeships are often paid-to-work.  During this time, you might do ‘grunt work,’ such as sweeping floors, cleaning equipment, running errands, and sorting metals into bins. But, no matter how menial the work, you will be gaining invaluable experience that will help later when applying for a full-time position. 

To further gain exposure and experience in blacksmithing or metalsmithing, taking classes at community centers, local art workshops, and historical centers can broaden your knowledge and help you find a niche in the field, such as industrial metalsmithing or making decorative artwork like door ornaments or furniture. Most often, classes with be offered at all levels; beginning, intermediate and advanced. Read magazines about blacksmithing or artist-blacksmithing and browse the Internet to keep on top of what’s going on in the blacksmithing world. After accumulating years of experience and knowledge on the job or through continuing education, a blacksmith might even become an instructor at a school that teaches the various niches within the field of blacksmithing.

03

Typical Duties and Tasks, Working Conditions

A blacksmith completes many duties while on the job, including:

  • Choosing which type of metal is appropriate for the product or device
  • Reading and interpreting drawings, plans, and sketches
  • Prepares a work sequence
  • Works with a team on large products/projects
  • Identifies and selects machines and equipment and tools
  • Operates equipment, such as reciprocating, band, and circular saws, welders, etc.
  • Cuts templates and traces features on workpiece material
  • Rough-sizes preliminary cuts so that the layout conforms to the specifications of the job
  • Uses layout tools, including protractors, dividers, and rules
  • Performs heat treating procedures using coal, electrical and gas forges or furnaces
  • Forges metal, brass, copper, and other metals using a variety of hand tools
  • Inspects final products
  • Uses welding equipment and finishes

    Most blacksmiths who work for a company or corporation work full-time. If you are a self-employed artist-blacksmith, your hours will vary depending on if you are commissioned to complete artwork or furniture for a client, or are busy in your studio.  Blacksmiths might also specialize in making and repairing horseshoes as a farrier, or work in a museum. Industrial blacksmiths typically work in engineering or mining sites. The work is physically demanding no matter where you work, and involves heavy lifting, working next to hot furnaces or forges, swinging hammers, or operating power tools.  There are also a number of other careers requiring similar skills and interests, like a welder, ironworker, industrial maintenance mechanic, sheet metal worker, boilermaker, and tool and die maker.

    There are also many organizations for aspiring blacksmiths and artist-blacksmiths to check out, including: Blacksmith Depot; Blacksmiths Journal; Artist Blacksmith Association of North America; and National Ornamental and Miscellaneous Metals Association.

     

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