How I became a blacksmith: Part 1, Part 2

I think the first time I actually felt I was a blacksmith was when I bought my own anvil, Bubba (presented above with a small selection of tools I was using).

Or perhaps it was when Casper the Master Smith said he thought of me as “a blacksmith with less experience”, and I kinda died and went to heaven.

It might also have been when I started noticing I can work without thinking at all. It was a meditative sort of experience. Hands did the work, my mind floated peacefully. It was the first time I understood why people meditate. I felt serene, happy, watched my hands do what they were supposed to, cursed when I got a burn (which happens often), and enjoyed the fact I was doing one of the most butch things one can do while listening to Kylie Minogue and Janet Jackson.

(As an aside, there are amazing female blacksmiths, which is a factoid known to even less people than the fact blacksmiths do more than make horseshoes.)

With Casper. (Those are not his real ears.)

It was thanks to Casper that I got to start practising forging. He told me he had space for someone to work, but wouldn’t be able to serve as a teacher. Since I felt I learned a lot in Poland, this was an arrangement that worked for me. Afterwards Casper helped me quite a bit, actually, and when I say quite a bit I mean a lot. At the beginning I was capable of making a mistake even when choosing stock, because my M.Sc. in maths made me forget that materials had thickness. I would be measuring something, then turn it into a metal ring, and to my surprise discover it was smaller than I expected it to be. But I think I only made that mistake 100 times before I finally learned. Although, come to think of it, there’s a chance I had to stop before I learned.

One of my favourite things to do was acquiring new skills. Among them were two sorts of welding: electrical and forge welding. The first one is kind of self-explanatory. But it felt like magic, because at the beginning of the day I was still terrified of the electrodes and I just waited to die, and at the end of the day I was making welds like the big boy I was. They were awful welds, but I was fucking them up all by myself! I couldn’t sleep that night, excited by the possibilities, by the fact I was doing it at all. When I was a good boy growing up in front of his computer I didn’t expect to one day find myself welding pieces of metal, and loving every moment. Why would I? It wasn’t even a dream, it was way beyond that.

Forge welding is what happens when you heat the metal right to the temperature where it begins to melt. One needs a really hot fire for this, really good eyesight, really good coordination, and a much lighter hammer than you would expect. The metal is essentially very thick liquid at this point, and if you hit it hard you’ll have drops flying around, wasting material. When you see photos of blacksmiths with sparks flying around, that means they were just posing for a picture, as the metal is then ruined. If a blacksmith isn’t posing for pictures and has all those sparks flying around, it means they aren’t good enough at their job. Not that it happened to me or anything.

That’s the healthy amount of sparks. This forge weld worked, and I was super proud even though the effect wasn’t actually usable for anything but practice. I still have that piece.

One of my favourite memories from those years is making an alien plant. For fun, I took the picture below. The plant sold within 40 minutes from me placing this photo on Facebook. The buyer said she wasn’t sure whether it would be worth the price and she expected to haggle a bit, but when she saw it she decided it was worth every cent. I later made a double plant, Patsy and Eddie, which you can get from Etsy. I don’t think I had the first plant long enough to decide on the name. I utilised a LOT of techniques I learned to make those plants. And from all I know, its owner was happy.

One of the things that made me happy was the fact that my works will be around a long time after I die. I used to walk by gates that I knew got forged 200 years ago, they were still very much in use, looked gorgeous, and made me happy. I’d just touch the metal, and feel a spark of connection between me and that long dead blacksmith who made the gate. I loved being dirty, sweaty, experiencing that lovely muscle ache that tells you you’ve worked hard. I put as many of those experiences in the novel I’m writing, and it felt great to revisit them. In fact, I put too many of them in, and the editor I am working with asked me politely to remove 50 pages some of them. I’ve made those connected hearts, and told people nobody will be able to split them… except, of course, for a blacksmith. Those hearts also proved popular, and made lovely gifts for people.

(They are golden, not green. Blame the phone camera.)

I have so many amazing memories from that time. Asking to use the 18 kg (40 pound) big grinder, being told time will come for that and the small one will do for now, then the time actually coming and me being like o-o-h-h-m-m-y-y-th-is-ma-ke-s-my-han-ds-vib-ra-te. (I had muscle pain IN MY FINGERS.) Doing the forge welding on my own, and actually succeeding. (The technique was employed in both the alien plants.) Making my own tools – how many jobs allow you to start with literally two tools, a hammer and one pair of tongs, and use those to produce everything else you need? One of the things Casper and me did was turning a shop-bought boring hammer into a proper forging one, and that was HARD – but extremely rewarding. This hammer served me until the last time I visited the forge, and I still have it. In all probability I will use that hammer forever.

His name is Johnno.

Now, in 2018, my wrists and hands are covered in scars, and I am proud of those. I earned them. Pro-tip: if you have low pain tolerance, do something else. But if you like playing with fire, getting legit dirty, if the thought of turning square metal stock into a rose excites you, if you want to create work that will still be useful decades from now, I can’t think of anything better to do. I don’t actually have many of my works around, as a large part of them was either sold or given away. I’ve made sculptures in 2D and 3D, a wizard staff that sold before I had a chance to finish it, tools that remain usable today, a shoerack we’re using, ashtrays, bowls, more and different alien and non-alien plants…

In part four I will explain why I no longer work as a blacksmith, which is not to say I don’t intend to ever try again. It’s the best job on Earth as far as I am concerned, even though you’re very unlikely to make money from it. How do I know that? The picture below (by Dorota Kozerska) shows exactly how I felt most of the time.

Part I

At this point in my life I was still used to always getting what I wanted. Although “getting” is not the right word. Perhaps “acquiring”? The way I went about things was to identify what I needed to learn, buy, understand, practice, then do it. More often than not I discovered that I got bored five minutes after paying for the expensive course, or buying that electric guitar. But I kept trying new things, often failing at them, despite having been burned (hoho) before. I was still young enough to believe I had no limitations, physical or mental, that could stop me. And I felt strangely secure in my knowledge that I wouldn’t be giving up or getting bored with forging.

I looked at available options. There weren’t many. The last Dutch blacksmithing school shut down twenty years later, replaced by a restaurant. There was a short course in the Netherlands, group classes stretched over two weekends. It cost approx. 1.5 kidneys – if I got a good price on eBay. A course in Poland, where I was born, was available to join every year. In July. It was December. I did not feel like waiting seven months, but I also couldn’t afford to – I would run out of money before then. So I did the only sensible thing – found out who the head of Polish Blacksmithing Guild was, called him, and convinced him over the phone that he should give me a private course. He named what he imagined was very high price. He had no clue what the prices in the Netherlands were. I accepted, and never regretted.

My private course lasted eight days, with a weekend inbetween. I mostly worked with his apprentice, who was a very cool bloke, and had enough time and patience to explain things to me – I was one of his assigned jobs. It couldn’t have been better. I was allowed to continue working when the forge was already officially closed. Nothing could stop me, including the weather. Before travelling I looked at the forecasts, and Accuweather (it’s never been particularly Accu, to be honest) told me to expect a low of -6 Celsius (21 Fahrenheit). The temperature duly dropped to -6, then continued until reaching -24 Celsius (-11 Fahrenheit). I worked wrapped in literally all clothes I brought… okay, not literally, as I couldn’t quite bring myself to put on all underwear I brought. Thermal longjohns, winter boots, sweater, multiple t-shirts, thick gloves, jacket, winter hat, scarf… I found that after a few hours of work I felt warm enough to take off the hat and scarf, and if I really put all my energy into it I sometimes managed without the jacket, too!

An illustration for a clichè that makes me grind my teeth: “gleaming horseshoe”. Horseshoes gleam in two situations. 1) When they’ve been used long enough (by a horse) for sand and rocks to “polish” the horseshoe. 2) When you used a grinder or a metal brush to polish them all purdy, then painted with special oil or lacquer to ensure no oxygen and humidity could reach the metal, as it would then rust. On this picture, I am painting the horseshoe with matte black paint.

Forges are, generally, not heated. Instead, they are very well ventilated. The fire requires lots of oxygen, but also produces toxic gases, not all of which are kind enough to escape through the air vent. As much as I love the smell of very hot iron, the forging process itself produces toxic fumes as well. Therefore no matter how low the temperature gets, as many windows as possible must be kept open. Most people think that a smithy must be a very hot place, and it often is – in the summer. On a cold day the fire heats up your hands really well, it’s also pretty good at making your face warm, but doesn’t warm up anything else. Especially feet…

Mmm, warm face. The water bowl on the right was frozen every morning, and remained frozen until we put hot iron in it. 

Mmm, warm… uh, nothing really, except the iron. (By the way, blademaking is mind-numbingly boring.)

The small water tank by the fire remained frozen until hot iron was placed on top. The water in the toilet bowl froze as well. And in the sewage pipes. In order to do a number two I had to return to the master smith’s house (TMI? sorry) where I was renting a room. It was all a bit scary, somewhat strange, very alien, absolutely amazing. It was heaven. (No, not the number two. All the rest.)

I hope you don’t mind me not putting up a photo of the toilet for historical accuracy.

Blacksmithing is a very easy job. You start by learning all the basic techniques (that’s what I did within those eight days). Then you practice them for a decade or two, and you’re ready to conquer the world. I found out how to shape the metal, cut it, decorate, upset, taper, split, twist (this was weirdly disappointing, because it felt too easy), add variously shaped rivets, sharpen, soften, bend, round… Armed with those abilities I now only needed to find a place to practice upon my return to Amsterdam, as I had a feeling that the neighbours wouldn’t be pleased if I built a forge on my patio. I loved making nails and horseshoes – the first year of forging was largely me being super excited about the fact I’m doing anything – but the most exciting part for me was making roses.

Started on a rose.

One of the first things I knew about blacksmithing was that it was possible to make iron plants. I didn’t care about swords (good – few things are more boring than that), or horseshoes. I wanted to make roses. Both the master smith and his apprentice were helpful and encouraging – the only part I didn’t get to do myself was electric welding. I told them what my real motive was, other than just wanting to create magic – a flower made of iron, and they were both glad to help me fulfil that wish.

My mom, upon finding out I now wanted to be a blacksmith, cried a bit. Then she said two things. “You had such a great job with a computer!” (which almost killed me) and “But you are way too gentle to do something like that!”. When I returned from the course I handed her the rose you see below. The foot has the words “For mom” and the date stamped on. “If there is something I want to do,” I said, “nothing is going to stop me”. I still firmly believed it was true, and mom believed me too. I thought – if you ever tell me there’s something I can’t do, I’ll tell you to look at the rose. But she never tried to undermine me again, nor did she ever attempt to tell me I was making a wrong choice. Since the day I gave it to her, the rose remained the centerpiece of her small collection of photos and family knick-knacks, proudly displayed in the living room, eternal. This was one of the reasons I wanted to work with metal: there is a good chance my entire family will die, and this rose will still look the same as it did the day I made it.

Mom’s rose.

I’ve made horseshoes, nails, hinges, two roses, iron hearts, fireplace tools… and I’ve made my first sale. A family came by to visit – among other things, this forge was a tourist attraction – and wanted to buy something small as a little keepsake. The picked one of my nails, and asked about the price. The apprentice said nothing, pointing towards me. I had no clue how much a forged nail should cost. I named my price – around $1.50 – and got paid. I later framed those coins together with the diploma I received. The top photo plus the one below are selections from those eight days. (I have no clue what those sharpened chunks were for…)

I ruined my iPhone camera by leaving the phone uncovered at the forge.
I learned my lesson, and never bought a non-dustproof phone since.

A few of my Polish friends came over to visit me, and stayed overnight. While at one point it did get somewhat warmer outside, our last morning was hell frozen over. We waited for a bus to town, then we waited some more, and then another hour… We ended up looking like this:

Artur, Cristi, yours truly. As you can easily tell, I’m the one on the right.

Now I just had to find a place to practice forging in Amsterdam, a small, densely populated, definitely non-industrial town. I knew it wouldn’t be a piece of cake. But I had unshakeable faith in what I was doing, and the Gods were on my side. I knew I would, again, get what I wanted, and I was right. I mean – I was an arrogant prick, of course. But I was right. There was no limit to the amount of time and work I was willing to put into it, or to the amount of burns I was willing to sustain. This was something I learned from mom, too. When working on something I either put 100% of my energy and resources into it, or stop. There was no way I would stop forging. It was just a matter of finding out how to continue. When I handed her that rose, she must have seen her own determination in my eyes. She might not have said it, but she, too, knew I would fight as long as necessary. I had a confirmation: this was it. There was no way I would have given up a dream I didn’t even know I had.

To be continued…

Two of the biggest changes in my life took place within two days from each other. In fact – within less than 40 hours from each other. On December 8, 2011 I met my future husband. It took me an hour to fall in love (he was faster). On December 10, 2011 I met my first forge that I got to work at.

This is, or was back then, the inside of Sven de Lang Smederij.

The events that led to me hitting hot iron with a hammer for the first time were not pleasant. I suffered a burnout. At that time I was working as a graphic designer…except I actually wasn’t, because just looking at Photoshop made me nauseous. I was attending both regular therapy and seeing a work psychologist, who worked with me on figuring what else I can do. It was both terrifying – I have never had a job that wasn’t graphic design, from assistant to art director – and liberating. Because when you don’t know anything, that means you can pick whatever comes to mind, and you’ll suck at it. Whether it’s a sensible job or following a dream, you’re going to be equally terrible. In this frame of mind I bumped into another graphic designer with a burnout, and while browsing his portfolio I saw a fence he designed for, if I recall correctly, Westin or Sheraton hotel. (Coincidentally I used to work for both as a designer.)

“How interesting,” I said. “So you designed this and a blacksmith made it? I didn’t know blacksmiths existed outside of open air museums.”

“Oh yes,” said the other designer. “He gives short courses, why not try it?”

This was how I found myself on a train to Kampen, over two hours away from where I lived, shaking in excitement and anxiety, on my way to meet a Real Blacksmith.

We worked for six hours, with a lunch break. I was worried whether I would prove to be physically strong enough. That was not a problem. My pink, gentle hands were. First I got blisters. Then the blisters burst. Then the skin came off, replaced by coal dust. To finish things off, I hit my right hand with a hammer I was holding in the aforementioned right hand. I have no clue how exactly I managed that, but it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. I fell in love for the second time in three days. My hands hurt as hell, even though I didn’t get a single burn (that would change many times in the years to come), I was dirty as hell, my – ahem – work wasn’t top notch. I almost died when Sven handed me a gas torch as if it couldn’t explode any second. But I also knew this was it. Same as with my future husband. It wasn’t me wondering whether the choice would be right. I had firm, unshakeable knowledge that it was. I was right in both instances.

This is not the most brutal photo of my pain and suffering. I’m proud of it.

When I returned home, I was nearly unconscious from excitement. I placed my three works on the sofa next to me, stared at them longingly, then fired up YouTube to look at forging videos. Sound carried in the building where I lived, and my upstairs neighbour was home. I could only imagine what he thought about the bang-bang-bang-clang-clang sounds penetrating through his floor. But I had no time for imagining that, because I was watching the process of forging a rose.

I only wanted one thing: to go back. Immediately. The tiredness, the blisters didn’t count. One of the reasons for my burnout was producing materials that would stop being useless a few days later, or simply files. My computer looked the same before and after. When talking to the work psychologist I said that I loved working on my own, I loved fire, I loved working with my hands, I wanted to produce tangible objects, ones that would last, I wanted to use my muscles. We considered cage fighting, architecture, painting, but it just wasn’t it. Blacksmithing wasn’t even a dream. I seriously had no idea it was possible to do it in the 21st century, and similarly to every other guest at Sven’s forge I asked about shoeing horses. (Answer: very few blacksmiths shoe horses at all. In rare cases when it’s necessary a farrier takes care of that. And indeed, in the 4.5 years that I spent learning, then working I have only seen a horse being shod once. At a blacksmithing convention. All of us crowded around the master smith to see such curiosity. The horse was not happy.)

This proved to be very difficult to reproduce on my own later. So I tried until I made it.

There were two problems on my way to working with Sven. 1) He lived two hours away. Which would be quite a lot of commute. 2) He already had an apprentice. I begged anyway until he got a restraining order against me. Kidding! He just bought a taser. But even as I pleaded to be allowed to ruin my pretty hands and set myself on fire at his forge I knew that there had to be an easier way to do it. I just had to find that way. Every (half-burnt) cell of my body wanted to do this. The work psychologist was delighted – I made her job so much easier when we simply skipped the last four appointments. I found out what I wanted to do. I still received unemployment benefits. It was the perfect time to start learning my future job – in my head there was no way around it, this was it and there was no option I wouldn’t be pursuing that track.

Some of my ex-colleagues met me for drinks, and they confessed they were quite envious, because they had no idea what their dream job would have been. They just did their job because, well, money is nice, mortgages don’t pay themselves, plus it was the time of crisis, when jobs were scarce. This worked both for me (not a lot of people competed to become professional blacksmiths) and against me (not a lot of people had money to spend on handmade ironwork). But both the work psychologist and me agreed there was no point in me trying to do Reasonable Things – too many people were busy trying and failing to do the same Reasonable Things, but they had experience and knowledge I didn’t have. And forging was something I wanted to pursue so much that it seemed very unlikely I’d lose motivation.

There was just one problem. In the course of my life until then I already decided to become a guitarist (when I discovered I had to practice a lot I gave up), photographer (I discovered that I liked snapping a pic or two, but having to actually work on assignments bored me off my tits), painter, writer (I have quite a lot of first halves of first drafts, let me tell you), love and sex coach, and most probably things that I got over so fast I forgot I even tried them in the first place. But none of those things came with a warning I might stop enjoying them two days later. There was a non-zero chance I would get over forging, the same as I got over the idea of being a guitarist and a painter…and there was only one way to find out.

Power hammers are awesome.

To be continued…