So what is it that a blacksmith does exactly?
Well, I make a large range of ornate and functional metal items, like curtain poles, shelf brackets, door handles etc. As well as larger commission work like gates and railings etc. This is fairly standard for modern day blacksmiths, with some having more of a focus on commissions, some focusing on small scale stock work. Either way, the general principal is the same. Handmade, uniquely designed, bespoke ironwork.
But what exactly is ironwork?
Well ironwork, and wrought ironwork are general terms referring to the material we use. In actual fact I exclusively use steel, as do all the smiths I know because it is cheap, versatile, easy to get hold of, and generally consistent in its behaviour when heated. Back in the day iron was almost exclusively used as it was a direct result from working iron ore.
When we, as a society, discovered we could add carbon to iron, we developed steel and realised a much larger set of uses. The terms ironwork and wrought (meaning worked) ironwork still remain and are colloquially used to describe the work that blacksmiths do.
Forging vs welding
A lot of ironwork I see involves a mixture of both forging (making steel hot in a forge and shaping it, usually with a hammer) and welding. Welding is the process of momentarily melting two bits of steel, usually using electricity, adding a small amount more steel, and joining them together.
A few blacksmiths can be a little snobby about welding and see it as a cheat, and much simpler than forging. Blacksmiths who don’t use any electrical welding in their work are called traditional blacksmiths and they usually have a strong focus on traditional methods and processes in their work, usually in relation to joining pieces together. In this aspect there are huge comparisons to be made between forging and joinery, or traditional carpentry, and many joining techniques are the same in both fields.
My own work very much focuses on traditional methods, often using the techniques as a feature of the design. Almost all of my work for sale is traditionally made and I see it as a very important feature of the craft. I also see the need for welding and can completely understand it’s use in blacksmithing.
Often, in commission work, you will be working to a limited budget, or to a design that requires welding of some sort. Whenever I meet with clients I always try to get this across and encourage a focus on traditionally made work.
The other aspect to consider about welding is when it comes to tool and jig making, something almost exclusive to the blacksmithing craft. This is something I will write about in more detail sometime down the line.
Do I cast iron?
The short answer is no.
The long answer is that the casting process involves poring hot metal into a mould and allowing it to cool and harden. It is the process that almost singlehandedly started off the industrial revolution and lends itself perfectly to mass production, another birth child of the Victorians. It is cheap so long as you are producing in large volumes, but highly expensive for one offs or replica castings. In this way it is known to be incredibly inflexible.
Blacksmithing, on the other hand, is normally done by a single person and can therefore be incredibly flexible. However it doesn’t naturally lend itself to high volumes. Ultimately though, they are two completely different processes, using completely different tools and techniques, and achieving completely different results, both in style and finish.
Sometimes a blacksmith can copy a cast iron design, but personally I think, why would you, when you can get a completely unique and beautiful piece designed and made for you by a blacksmith?
Sword making is technically something that is done by a bladesmith, and while it uses the same processes and techniques that I use, it is largely a very different beast. Bladesmiths will have a particular skill set developed in the area of heat-treating, which is a way of making steel hard or flexible or brittle or springy. Skills that a good blacksmith should also have but perhaps to a lesser extent.
That is but a few of the most common misconceptions I come across as a blacksmith. I shall probably be going into more details about some aspects of them further down the line, but for now I shall leave it at that.