Blacksmithing still exists in the 21st century -- but not the way it did in the 18th and 19th centuries. A modern blacksmith works with fire, steel and big tools to change raw steel stock into useful items. He may combine the jobs of blacksmith and farrier, and make horseshoes and nail them to horses' hooves. He might demonstrate blacksmith techniques to schoolchildren in an educational setting or produce wall hangings or sculptures for display in an art gallery.
Blacksmiths take steel and iron ingots -- sheets or rods -- and heat them in a furnace before pounding them into useful shapes. The furnace, or forge, uses propane, natural gas or fuel oil and supplements the fuel’s heat with air blown in by a fan or bellows. A blacksmith can use a hand-held hammer or a power hammer; however, for the work to be considered blacksmithing, it can't be melted and poured into a mold or welded entirely -- a hammer must pound it.
Blacksmith Training in History
Until the 20th century, blacksmiths were trained by other blacksmiths through a paid apprenticeship program with a master blacksmith. Only young males took part in blacksmith apprenticeships; young women were trained as household servants. The contract required the master blacksmith to feed and house the apprentice for seven years in return for labor. The apprentice's basic duties included cleaning up after a day's work and putting tools away. After a year or more, the apprentice would move on to simple blacksmithing jobs such as deburring iron items the blacksmith made. At some point, the apprentice would learn to make hinges, nails and small chains. The apprentice worked for seven years to earn the title of journeyman blacksmith. Often, the journey to that title wasn't easy. According to anvilfire.org, master blacksmiths sometimes used the apprentice as cheap labor and failed to give him the training required in the contract.
Blacksmith Training Today
The college, art school or trade school has replaced the apprenticeship program with four-year programs in blacksmithing as part of a fine arts degree. Blacksmithing is now open to women as well as men. The student attends classes in art design, art history and sculpture and uses a forge and anvil under a master blacksmith’s direction. Students study practical blacksmithing and learn procedures such as hot cutting, riveting, forge welding, twisting metal accurately and heat-treating. Most art schools with a blacksmithing program offer internships with local artisans. Non-college programs vary widely in the length of study and the quality of instruction. The Mark Aspery School of Blacksmithing in Springville, Calif., offers five-day courses. The Baltimore Corner Forge in Henderson, Md., has weekend classes in bending, twisting and joinery in beginning, intermediate and advanced skill levels that can be taken as long as the student wants.
Current Qualifications for Blacksmiths
Blacksmithing today requires the ability to weld and shape metal with a hammer and heat. The modern blacksmith must be able to work from architectural drawings and create drawings in the field. The traditional areas of blacksmithing such as making horseshoes and decorative iron accents for buildings and mending broken implements are still available; however, the modern blacksmith no longer produces metal tools such as shovels or picks. The modern blacksmith can use her skills to create sculptures out of metal for presentation in galleries. The blacksmith must commit to hours of non-blacksmith work so she can run the shop, do paperwork and find new customers.
Modern blacksmiths have more than just the heavy leather apron that blacksmiths wore in earlier years. They add safety glasses for protection against flying metal shards and respirators with activated charcoal to protect them from gases the welding generates.