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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.

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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.

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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.

    Get to Know Our Experts

    David MacDonald

  • Title:
    Owner
  • Company:
    MacDonald Metalsmith
  • Where:
    Las Lunas, NM
  • Experience:
    34 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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

  • Title:
    Owner
  • Company:
    Arrowhead Forge
  • Where:
    Buffalo, WY
  • Experience:
    40 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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

  • Title:
    Owner
  • Company:
    Dragon Forge, LTD
  • Where:
    Pine, Colorado
  • Experience:
    17 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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.

    Blacksmith Infographic