The Resurgence of Blacksmithing in the 21st Century
Under a spreading chestnut tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.
The above text is an excerpt from a poem written by Henry W. Longfellow titled, The Village Blacksmith. It goes on to paint a picture of what we’d probably all expect to see when we hear the word, blacksmith. The poem was written during the mid-nineteenth century, right around the time the industrial revolution was making its way through Britain, rendering these brawny craftsmen and their years spent mastering the skill obsolete. Any craftsman or textile worker of the time was, naturally, strongly opposed to the idea of hiring unskilled workers to mass-produce and distribute low-quality goods for the sake of efficiency. However, their protests wound up useless in the long-run. Without a need for blacksmiths, they were seen as an obsolete trade throughout much of the 20th century. Due to the lack of opportunity, most of them found their place in automobile mechanics or farrier work. This was until a more recent resurgence of blacksmithing occurred in the late 1970s and has been growing ever since.
A group of blacksmiths working in a forge shortly before the Industrial Revolution occurred.
"People want to touch, they want to make, they want to build.”
- Craig Campbell, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
What brings people to it today
Young blacksmiths today will find themselves forging iron for the same reasons everyone was baking bread at the start of the pandemic. It provides one with a sense of pride to be able to create something with their hands. "People want to touch, they want to make, they want to build. So much of that is taken away with our disposable, big box stores, so people are interested in hands on again,” says Craig Campbell, a Saskatoon based blacksmith and sculptor. This ancient trade, and many like it, requires one’s full, undivided attention to detail and a high level of precision in order to be worth the time and energy. Jesse Porter, a 14-year old blacksmith from Saskatchewan states, “I have ADHD and sometimes I can't concentrate. I kinda like this, because I can concentrate on it… and it teaches you how you can make your own things.”
This sense of pride is also felt amongst people who purchase handmade pieces from artists like Jesse and Craig. It is unsurprising to hear that adding natural elements to a home’s design has been an uprising trend. Chris Shea, a metalsmith based in Maryland, USA says that commissioning a blacksmith for a custom home design offers “the chance to be involved in the creation of something special, a unique object created for a very specific setting.”
“People spend so much time in front of computer screens. They are eager for something handmade, the richness of form and detail of forged ironwork,”
- Maryland metalsmith, Chris Shea.
A piece done by Barcelona based sculptor, Jordi Díez Fernandez.
Becoming a blacksmith today
There are many programs and guilds located all over North America and the UK to take classes or study blacksmithing. These include college or high school level classes and local guilds which offer classes and mentorships regularly. The Ontario Artist Blacksmith Association even offers a yearly scholarship of up to $1000 to one of their members to pursue a high level of education in the craft. As well, Britain is set to launch their first blacksmithing apprenticeship program in 2022, in which students attend class for 8 weeks out of the year and spend the rest of their time as working blacksmiths.
In-person classes are obviously ideal, however, with the new option for virtual classes, building an at-home forge is also a feasible route. Setting up an at-home forge can cost up to a few hundred dollars if you are willing to buy previously-owned equipment and dedicate a weekend to the set-up.
Andy Scott, Scottish sculptor and steelworker, showing off one of his many "big beasts".
Social media’s role in fostering the community
Social media has undoubtedly been one of the largest and most effective tools in bringing together people with similar interests from all over the world. The same holds true for the blacksmithing community. Most beginner blacksmiths find blacksmithing through the internet and are then able to connect and market themselves once they become more established at the craft. Blacksmithing has its origins in practicality and as a necessity for tools and daily life. There are iron-forging practices originating back to 1500 BC and techniques dating back to the medieval period that are still used today. Now that we have access to the tools we need for daily life, blacksmithing can be practiced for the sake of good design and good art. Because of this, young blacksmiths and hobbyists in the 21st century can approach their work with new intentions and to reach new audiences and potential collaborators.