Blacksmithing: Hot time at the fairgrounds

By From page A1 | April 10, 2013


FERRIER, BLACKSMITH and toolmaker Erin Simmons from Placerville shapes a piece of glowing metal using a large electric hammer Friday April 5 at the California Blacksmith Conference in Placerville. Democrat photo by Pat Dollins

There was a lot of hammering, fire and smoke in the air last weekend as the California Blacksmith Association (CBA) held its 35th annual spring conference in Placerville.

Almost 400 people from Arizona, Washington state, Nevada, Oregon and California arrived to pound iron and learn more about the art and craft of blacksmithing, according to Dennis Dusek, who is vice president of the CBA and one of the coordinators of the conference.

“Some of the best in the world in metal workers are here,” he said. “People have been coming up to me and saying this is the best conference they’ve ever seen considering the amount of equipment and quality of instruction.”

Both blacksmiths and farriers were represented at the conference, with many filling both shoes. In the past, farriers not only shod horses but also repaired and made tools. Today, farriers primarily work in the area of equine care and blacksmiths are the tool makers and artisans.

In the fairground pavilions themselves, portable forges — some fueled with propane but most with coal or coke — were lined up from end to end as people carried out demonstrations, competed, or pounded away on hot steel to turn out a tool or decorative object.

One of those hammering away was Erin Simmons, who is a local blacksmith and farrier with much of his business devoted to creating tools for other blacksmiths. Considered one of the best in the business, he along with Michelle Russell, a Pilot Hill farrier and Josh Buhlert, one of the coordinators of the conference, formed a threesome as they rhythmically hammered a piece of red-hot metal into shape.

Across the way, Tom Ferry, a master knife maker from Washington, taught classes on how to make Damascus steel. Particularly valued in knives, Damascus steel involves forge welding two or more types of steel together to form a laminate-type material. The process results in knives that are valued for their strength as well as beauty.

Another popular demonstrator was Richard Bent, a self-taught blacksmith from the United Kingdom. Bent holds several titles, including Eminent Master Blacksmith, Freeman of the City of London, Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths of London, and Fellow of the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths. In front of a rapt audience, he demonstrated what earned him all those titles, including a silver medal for workmanship, as he made different tools with just a hammer and his hands.

Other demonstrations included how to make sand castings and patterns to restore antique machinery by mechanical engineer Joe Harralson; a collaborative project building a railing for a small set of stairs led by John Barron of Georgetown; and crafting decorative works of art that might fit on the end of a railing, fence or andiron by artisans Mark Aspery and Darryl Nelson.

While the conference suffered through some rain, it did nothing to dampen people’s spirits, even though many of those attending were camped out at the fairgrounds for the weekend.

Herb Upham, who is the secretary of the CBA wryly explained that, “The rain we had was due to having demonstrators from the U.K. and Washington state. We had to bring some familiar weather for them.”

Competitions and a gallery show

Along with the demonstrations and educationals were individual and team competitions for both youths and adults. In one contest, youths competed to forge one side of a pair of tongs within a certain time period and in another they had to create a design of their own with limited help from a Master blacksmith.

One of the more interesting competitions was called a captured rock contest in which participants had to design and forge a way to suspend a rock that was both functional and artistic. Rocks of different shapes were supplied that weighed from 3 to 30 pounds each.

Showing off the finished products of many of the blacksmiths was a building converted into a gallery. One of those featured was Tony Swatton, who has a company called the Sword and the Stone. Swatton creates handcrafted historically accurate pieces, such as arms, armour and props for television, film and collectors. On display were two of his exquisitely detailed helmets.

Also featured was a display of art gifted to Linda Murphy who previously worked for a magazine put out by the Artist Blacksmiths Association of North America. She said after she suffered a stroke in 2009, blacksmiths from all over the world sent her pieces of their work to wish her well. She showed pictures of how all those pieces of art are displayed in her garden.

Her advice to parents was, “Give a 16-year-old an anvil, not a car, and they will have art and friends for the rest of their lives.”

That same sense of camaraderie and appreciation for their craft pervaded the conference.

Toby Hickman, who has been a blacksmith for over 40 years, summed it up in his conference guide comments when he said, “Artistic development, business understanding — all that stuff has been an adaptation to allow me to continue to hit hot steel. It’s the thing that makes me feel good. It’s the feeling of the impact, swinging something heavy and hitting something that yields to that — and yields to it in a way that you intended it to. Just bashing around on hot steel can get to be too much work, but if you actually see something forming under hand, there is an enormous emotional reward.”

Contact Dawn Hodson at 530-344-5071 or [email protected] Follow @DHodsonMtDemo on Twitter.

Dawn Hodson

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