Iron and Steel, Art and Craft, and Learning by Doing

April 20, 2018
New book explores the science and art of blacksmithing, as well as the methods for executing the craftsman’s vision

Modern tastes may run closer to the wisecrackers on TV’s Forged in Fire than to Longfellow’s The Village Blacksmith, but the idea that there is knowledge and understanding to be gained by watching a craftsman at work is apparently timeless.
Thus at the flaming forge of life
Our fortunes must be wrought;
Thus on its sounding anvil shaped
Each burning deed and thought.

“The Art & Craft of the Blacksmith,” a handsome new volume by Robert Thomas, will appeal to both sensibilities, as well as to anyone working in industrial forging who may be similarly allured by the transformation of a cold metal form into something elegant and functional; or, drawn to the mystery that unfolds as the artisan’s vision and strength convert a lifeless shape into something vital and enduring. We learn from Thomas’ insights as well as his example, because to understand the craft, watching is not enough. One has to take up the work.

“I always loved working with my hands, and loved metal since I learned to weld in high school, but just didn’t see metalwork as a viable career path, so I went to college for business,” he recalled. Thomas had little enthusiasm for his work in the financial sector. 

“It was after I began tinkering in the garage on the weekends for a while that I made the solid decision to move forward with serious training and schooling to see if I could make a career of it.”

Most readers will realize we are living in a high-tech, immediate-results age — which has only magnified the accomplishments of true craftsmen. Robert Thomas pursued his interest to The National School of Blacksmithing in Hereford, England, where he studied traditional forging techniques. Now he oversees a custom ironworking shop and studio in Charleston, SC, where a team of blacksmiths take on complex projects and create work of exceptional artistry. 

“We are currently working on several projects,” he reported: “A really unique, sculptural table base, a forged railing, a lighted chandelier and matching set of door handles, and a range hood.” The shop also has steady work producing forged products, like shelf brackets.

Readers will see the results of Thomas’ training, and his vision — and may learn some techniques in pursuit of their own visions. But the work continues. This craft is not a calling that can be answered quickly. 

“Lately I’ve been very interested in using industrial forging techniques to make architectural forged elements,” Thomas explained. “We have four power hammers in the shop, and look to the forging industry for ideas to develop tooling and techniques to streamline our small, architectural forging processes.”

Industrial forging may rely more on science and engineering than on skill or artistry, but there is a link between the two that this blacksmith would like to strengthen. “What they do is awesome,” Thomas confirmed. “Our forging process is essentially the same, only on a smaller scale. I would love to try out industrial forging one day.”

While his book is presented as a guide for “craftspeople making the transition from interest to hobby”, Thomas also aims to influence anyone seeking to go further, as in vocational training.

“A huge driving force in writing this was taking the opportunity to create a true reference book for someone serious about learning the craft,” he acknowledged. “I also love finding new, good reference books for blacksmithing. I wanted to add to that library.”

The Art & Craft of the Blacksmith by Robert Thomas, 160 pp., is available from Quarry Books. 
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