Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

In 2015 I decided to sell my apartment, and move in with husby (we were not married yet, so with my fiancè) (that word will never not be hilarious). With help of some lovely, lovely people we got it renovated, sold most of the things I didn’t need, and the only thing remaining was an IKEA kitchen block. I wanted to add a photo of it, but I seem to have deleted all of them. This is probably a good thing, as they were somewhat triggering for my PTSD. So here’s a different pic.

(Photo: Kjell Leknes)

The guys who bought the kitchen block – four cupboards put together, with a countertop on, er, top – asked us not to take the thing apart, as they would come over and just carry it to their truck. I became somewhat worried, because that countertop was so heavy husby and me couldn’t move it at all without a third person, so I asked a friend of mine – big boy – to come over and help. Husby was at work. The buyers came over, and they were three rather small guys. I mentally congratulated myself for thinking of getting another pair of hands, and then we started getting the thing out. It was easier than I expected. We lifted it, maneuvered to get it out of the door, and when we were outside together with this huge, heavy thing, we relaxed, thinking the worst was behind us.

This was a mistake.

The guy next to me must have relaxed a bit too much, because he suddenly dropped his corner. I was the nearest person, and the entire weight went down for just a moment. After that we loaded the thing onto the truck, I briefly wondered how the three of them are going to get it out seeing as five of us barely managed to put it in, but it wasn’t my problem anymore. I got my 100 euros, the space in the apartment was now free and open, and my lower back felt warm.

I knew that warmth. I had two back injuries before, both sustained at the gym, both due to my stupidity. So I shrugged, thinking “well, that’s a week off the forge and gym”. But the day after the pain was horrible. And the next day it became worse, then worse again. I white-knuckled it for a while before going to a doctor. I was sent to do an xray (which showed nothing), then to an orthopedist (who did nothing), then to various physiotherapists, exercise therapists, sports rehabilitants, and a pain specialist. In total I have seen either eight or nine people about my back. After a while it became somewhat blurry. My life consisted largely of sitting in one precisely chosen position on a very specifically angled pile of pillows. Dry needling made the pain worse. One sports rehabilitant in Poland caused me the worst pain of my life – I cried while in bed, but couldn’t find any position in which it would hurt less. There was no gym, no forge, until the second or third physio found out a part of my spine slipped sideways (please don’t ask me for Latin names for that), and blocked the left part of my pelvis. This was eight months after the accident.

It took another half a year (I believe) to figure out that there was another injury. I had a cracked joint in my spine, the joint kept triggering a nerve, and that nerve gave me tons of pain. It was unnecessary – often pain carries information, “this is wrong, fix it”. This particular pain only hurt endlessly, and when triggered by any sort of wrong movement it hurt worse. I became dependent on painkillers which were literally driving me insane, and in December 2016 I decided I was done with this planet. 2016 was the official worst year of my life. I found myself crying in the shower, sitting on the floor, unable to lift myself up anymore, the opiates taking the pain down all the way from excruciating to plain horrible. I always travelled with a cushion to put under my back, and with a supply of painkillers. Yet every time the pain became less unbearable, I tried to go back to the forge. I worked for 30 minutes, then 40, then back to physio and painkillers, then 15 minutes and I was already in pain… But I wasn’t ready to give up.

Post-accident photo – one of the rare times I managed to actually get some work done. And then, of course, paid for it.

Both injuries eventually got “fixed”. One by what I call “cracking” my spine, a white flash of pain, certainty I will never move again, then realisation I could not just walk, but also bend again without lifting my leg involuntarily. The other, that pesky nerve, by simply burning through it. I took a month of a break, then tried forging again. Then two months, and tried again. I kept on trying the forge, but I noticed I was becoming weary. Every time I got on the tram, the main thought in my head was “I’m going to work for half an hour, then be in pain for a week”. I moved from heavy work to less heavy work to making tiny things from thin stock. It didn’t improve things pain-wise. And eventually I fell out of love – not with the fire, the iron, the hammer, but with the fact I was doing something that ultimately caused me way more harm than good. I do wonder sometimes how much better my back would have been had I given up forging for a year or two, or if the injuries were detected faster. But there really is no point thinking about it. What happened, happened.

This weathervane (made before the injury) is now proudly displayed on a roof of friends’ house in Germany, and it works!

I have a large tattoo saying “BLACKSMITH”, colours of the iron being heated up, flames around the letters. For a long time every time I saw it, it hurt – mentally and emotionally. It felt like a cruel reminder. It took me at least two years to arrive at the conclusion that I earned this tattoo, same as I earned each of my burns and scars. I never stopped being a designer just because I no longer work in that job. My M.Sc. in maths hadn’t been taken away from me despite the fact I never worked in any field even barely related to mathematics. (Pro-tip: at job interviews having a degree in maths is going to get you everywhere.)

Today I am largely pain free, as long as I observe certain precautions. I can’t lift a shopping bag, but a backpack is fine, even a full one. Just not for too long. I have to be careful when I take the trash out. Reading a thick hardback book is going to be a challenge – I will never not be grateful to the inventor of e-readers. I don’t get to play with power tools anymore. Or to hammer hot iron. Asymmetrical movements are dangerous for me – I can bench press and do back pulls, but a while ago I gave myself a few days of sharp pain by pulling a curtain that got stuck. It was a sideways movement. I only rarely need a cushion when I travel, and most of the time when I go somewhere I manage to find a chair I can sit on at least for a longer while. At home I have a profiled armchair with lower back support, cushions on the sofa for lower back support, a desk chair with – guess what? – lower back support! I also have a home gym, which was one of our best purchases ever, despite costing way too much money. This gym allowed me to strengthen my core, my back muscles, and – well – all other muscles as well. All I have to remember is that there are exercises I can’t do, and at the merest hint of pain I stop.

(Photo: Dorota Kozerska)

Am I done with the forge? Hell no. I will never stop loving the smells; the dry heat of the coal fire; the wizardry of shaping thick iron; the superpower feeling I had when I did my first forge weld. I like to think a day will come when I will be able to go back to forging – even if only at limited capacity. But there was a sort of silver lining – this injury forced me to think of a plan C. When I had a burnout and had to stop working as a graphic designer, blacksmithing became my plan B. I didn’t have any other. If back then I didn’t manage to find my place by the fire… I don’t know what would have happened. But in 2015, when the injury struck, I already had other plans, and once I stopped being in so much pain I began to pursue them…

To be continued, of course.

Main photo: Casper Prager.

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…