The Role of the Smith

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A smith was a highly respected trade, often the most educated in their communities and more likely to be literate than their neighbors.
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“The Art and Craft of the Blacksmith” by Robert Thomas is perfect for those aspiring to try blacksmithing as a hobby. All skill levels will learn the tools and techniques needed to get started, as well as a look at iron and historical forging traditions.

InThe Art and Craft of the Blacksmith: Techniques and Inspiration for the Modern Smith, Robert Thomas provides readers everything they need to know to take on blacksmithing as a hobby. The book introduces readers with the fundamental tools and techniques to modern blacksmithing and provides how-to projects for every level. The following excerpt is from Chapter 1, “Iron.”

For much of history, the most educated person you were likely to meet was a smith. He or she was more likely than their neighbors to be literate, and their trade was the end product of a lengthy and formal training period.

A smith’s forge was the center of many small communities. Smiths could travel, own property, perform marriages, and amass fortunes. They had economic and class mobility of a kind that would not be widely available until the modern era. And most crucially, they were innovative. Smiths could recycle metal, refine designs, change chemical compositions, and invent wholly new devices.

The technological age we inhabit today seems very far from our metalworking heritage — we have a Silicon Valley, our cars are made of fiberglass, and we use so much plastic we now have a plastic island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. But the chips and batteries in the phone in your pocket are made with so-called rare earths — metals, like neodymium and gadolinium, whose secrets are still being unlocked and whose extraction and processing are extremely controversial. Similar chips could one day control nanobots that will revolutionize medicine. And the physical sciences originally developed to understand the properties of metal are today used in the field of astrophysics, as scientists analyze heavenly bodies to answer the most fundamental questions of the universe.

The study of metal is still crucial for our future, even if it now takes place largely in labs and not the smithy in the center of town. But there have been tradeoffs. We no longer see the effort that goes into our possessions and are too cavalier with the responsibility to maintain them. Purchase decisions are design and cost driven with little regard for durability or longevity. The modern blacksmith is competing with sweatshop laborers half a world away. Educating the consumer on the differences between the hand-forging and mass-production is an essential part of the sales process.

It is too much to say that returning to artisan metalwork is enough to cure all society’s ills. But recognizing the centrality of metal to the human experience means recognizing fundamental truths about ourselves — our innovation, creativity, resourcefulness, artistry, and power. Live too long away from those attributes and the result is stagnation and pessimism.

We live in the early years of a century which could see an end to cancer and hunger, which could put people on Mars, and develop sources of unlimited clean energy. But many Americans believe our best days are behind us — perhaps because they have never had the opportunity of staring at a piece of cold iron and knowing that with the right application of heat and ingenuity it could become a unique railing element or beautiful screen for the front of a fireplace. In looking forward at the challenges of the coming century, the forge — and the blacksmith — still have much to teach.

More from The Art and Craft of the Blacksmith:

Excerpted fromThe Art and Craft of the Blacksmith, by Robert Thomas. Published by Quarto Publishing, © 2018. Used with permission from Quarto Publishing.