Once thought of as a lost ancient art, blacksmithing is enjoying a renaissance, partly influenced by period films, TV shows of a historical genre, and video games. Today’s blacksmiths use the same tools, techniques, and processes their medieval counterparts did. Does this mean it’s difficult to break into the field?
Blacksmithing is easy to learn by acquiring knowledge of metals and techniques, having access to basic tools, interning with experts, and joining appropriate organizations. To succeed in this field, however, you need deft hand-eye coordination, perseverance, and lots of elbow grease.
To acquire this creative yet pragmatic skillset, you need to know where to study, which group to join, what to read, and what to watch. With this article, we hope the information and resources I present will make your blacksmithing dreams come true. But first, the basics.
What Is a Blacksmith?
Forging magazine defines a blacksmith as a professional who shapes metals, such as iron and steel, into useful or decorative shapes.
Blacksmithing is different from welding and machining. Some blacksmiths practice old traditions. Others break from the mold and extend artistic expression by exploring or creating new techniques and applications.
Kinds of Blacksmiths
There are two types: artistic and industrial. The former includes decorative blacksmiths, architectural blacksmiths, custom bladesmiths, and crafts folk—the latter practices blacksmithing as a career or business.
Hobby smiths don’t make a living off the trade and engage in it purely for pleasure. Professional smiths often start as hobbyists.
What It Takes to Be a Successful Blacksmith
Artist blacksmiths should be able to express ideas visually, so they should know how to draw. Industrial blacksmiths must be able to both draw and read technical drawings.
If you can’t draw a leaf with a pencil, mouse, or stylus, for instance, how can you recreate it in smoldering steel using a hammer and tongs? Learn how to draw from Jon Gnagy, America’s original TV art teacher.
Blacksmith and machine designer Jock Dempsey, the creator of blacksmithing blog, Anvil Fire, likens “delicate forging to tying shoelaces with hammers.” All blacksmiths should be able to use both light (drawing) and heavy (shop) tools.
Freshen up on elementary school math and physics because this is needed in mechanics. You need to apply fractions, for example, to operate gears, pulleys, and levers.
Blacksmithing is a mechanical skill. You need the ability to apply a controlled force to use blacksmithing tools.
This calls for superior hand-eye coordination. Hobbyists don’t need advanced mechanical knowledge, but professionals and those who operate machinery do.
Scott Wadsworth, aka the Essential Craftsman, quashes myths on blacksmithing that imply it’s difficult to get into.
One myth stereotyped blacksmiths as manual laborers. Wadsworth says his students come from different backgrounds: blue- and white-collar workers, a retired attorney, a 63-year-old woman for whom blacksmithing was on her bucket list, and teenagers.
Wadsworth also said it isn’t necessary to own a spacious workshop or acres of land or live in the countryside to practice blacksmithing.
A student of his forges in his backyard then stashes all his equipment in the basement afterward.
Aussie mixed media artist Roger Paine says you don’t need a smithy if you enjoy working with others.
Many associations allow members to use their shops and forges. Just bring your own tongs, hammers, and raw materials.
Wadsworth also dispels the notion that blacksmiths have to be Hulk-strong. More important than strength is persistence and tolerance for smoke, heat, noise, dirt, and doing repetitive movements—the primary activity being hammering.
Of course, if you spend most of your time in the office and live a sedentary lifestyle, it may be a good idea to build up your upper-body strength first with exercise or weightlifting.
How to Learn Blacksmithing
According to the Art Career Project, a career resource for artists, many modern blacksmiths start as hobbyists and are self-taught.
Formal education isn’t necessary to practice the trade. Blacksmiths with formal education, however, are more likely to have successful careers and are usually paid more.
So choose your path: consult experts or DIY. Either way, here’s how to do it.
Many organizations have lending libraries. Most carry print publications, including independent magazines like Blacksmith Journal, Artist Blacksmith Quarterly, and Blacksmith’s Gazette.
These books are recommended by practicing blacksmiths:
- The Complete Modern Blacksmith by Alexander Weygers (Kindle and paperback)
- The Backyard Blacksmith by Lorelei Sims (hardcover)
- A Blacksmithing Primer: A Course in Basic and Intermediate Blacksmithing by Randy McDaniel (paperback)
- The DIY Blacksmithing Book by Terran Marks (paperback)
- Blacksmithing for Beginners by Will Kalif (ebook)
- Alec Steele’s Online School of Blacksmithing—Famous blacksmith YouTuber Joey van der Steeg is one of the instructors.
- Metal fabricator John Switzer, the owner of Black Bear Forge, holds a series of blacksmithing videos for beginners on Youtube.
- Visit iForge for interactive demonstrations of blacksmithing techniques.
- Wadsworth’s self-paced blacksmithing course, The Essential Blacksmith.
- In his blog, Dempsey offers reading material, advice, tutorials, and technical documentation, such as the Glossary of Blacksmithing and Metalworking Terms.
- Makers Legacy, a one-stop blog for blacksmithing enthusiasts, includes guides.
- Udemy is another online platform with great courses. Check out their courses on metals and engineering materials or material science. Use this as an opportunity to brush up on your math and physics.
Heritage Forge offers blacksmithing classes through The Ploughshare Institute for Sustainable Culture.
Canadian blacksmith Paul Krzyszkowski offers on-site classes in his Ontario forge.
Blacksmith Terran Marks offers classes at his Brown County Forge in Indiana.
For on-site blacksmithing classes near you, consult his paperback, US Blacksmith Schools. He also uploaded an online clickable map for the same purpose.
Secure Formal Education
Technical and trade schools offer degree programs in blacksmithing.
The top five US schools that focus on metalwork are:
- Virginia Institute of Blacksmithing
- Cleveland Blacksmithing, Ohio
- New England School of Metalwork, Maine
- Center for Metal Arts, Pennsylvania
- Turley Forge Blacksmithing School—Owner Frank Turley claims this as the “Granddaddy of Blacksmithing Schools.” Courses take place at his forge in New Mexico, but he also travels worldwide to teach. He’s a frequent demonstrator at craft schools, regional workshops, and universities.
In the UK, Herefordshire & Ludlow College is the longest established blacksmithing training college. Its National School of Blacksmithing offers a Bachelor of Arts (with Honors) degree in Artist Blacksmithing.
Students attend specialist workshops in the largest training-based forge in Europe, where they also work with ceramics, wood, plastics, and textiles. Mature students can apply with related experience. The course duration is three years.
One of the best ways to learn about blacksmithing is to join agencies and societies, then attend their meetings and courses.
Blacksmith organizations offer webinars, on-site workshops, and how-to guides. These are some of them:
- Artist-Blacksmith’s Association of North America
- Florida Artist Blacksmith Association
- California Blacksmith Association—They offer members forging workshops. They have a magazine, a forum, artist interviews, a library, and a collection of technical documentation, like the Blacksmith Vocabulary/Terminology Collection. They offer grants and scholarships through the Bedayn-Thomson Grant Fund.
- The Guild of Metalsmiths—Apart from their workshops, they hold a fall conference that brings together artists, metalsmiths, and craftspeople from around the world.
- Connect with blacksmithing enthusiasts in forums like I Forge Iron and Facebook groups like Blacksmithing for Beginners.
- Reddit is another platform where you can find good blacksmithing groups. Subs like r/Blacksmith, r/blacksmithing, r/metalworking and r/Bladesmith (my favorite)
- You can also go and check all my articles about blacksmithing.
Find Your Obi-Wan Kenobi
Ideally, train with a blacksmith Yoda. Search for one at schools, organizations, historical sites, renaissance/medieval festivals, and reenactment groups.
Degree courses in blacksmithing usually include journeyman programs or apprenticeships where students get hands-on experience while working under master blacksmiths.
Most modern blacksmiths flourish in their field for personal fulfillment and love of the craft, not financial reward. Professional blacksmiths, on the other hand, earn income and make a living from their trade. This differentiates them from hobbyists.
It’s up to you if you want to avail of this delightful bonus.
With continued education, accumulated experience, dedication, and sheer grit, it is possible to advance rapidly from an apprentice to a professional. Here’s hoping you get there one day.
Cheers, tools owners!