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I Tried A Blacksmithing Class: Here’s What I Learned

blacksmithing

Did you catch our print article on Women Artisans? I wrote a story featuring three local artists, including female blacksmith Caitlin Morris. I was intrigued by her work and decided to take a blacksmithing class and write about my experience.

Blacksmithing 101

On a nearly 90-degree Saturday in late September, I took an introductory class at Ms. Caitlin’s School of Blacksmithing in downtown Frederick. My mind envisioned cartoon anvils and giant Thor hammers. I nervously wondered if I’d have to shovel coal into the belly of an insatiable forge.

I wasn’t alone in my expectations. “People come here expecting to muscle their way through blacksmithing,” laughed the school’s proprietor, Caitlin Morris. She showed me the hammer, which turned out to be light enough for one hand, and explained that the forge was propane-fueled like my backyard grill. Despite the heat of the day, the workshop was light and airy. A garage door opened out to a gravel driveway, and a giant fan directed the heat of the forge away from us.

Our charge for the day was to make a wall hook with a fishtail accent and grommeted onto a steel plate. Ms. Caitlin commonly uses this project for her intro class because there are only a handful of steps that require learning some basic skills. I had anticipated more of a lecture prior to handling 1,000+ degree metal but, after a brief—though clear—discussion of safety, Ms. Caitlin handed me a pair of tongs and instructed me to place a steel rod about a ½ inch thick and ten inches long in the middle of the forge.

While our metal heated, Ms. Caitlin walked me through the first step, demonstrating with a wad of clay that is, apparently, an excellent prototype for molten steel. Citing physics, she demonstrated that angling the hammer in certain ways shaped the metal accordingly. I practiced, watching the clay spread under hammer and tried to memorize the angle and force. When I pulled the heated rod out of the forge for the first time, I was surprised by how easily it gave way under the hammer’s head, just like the clay, and I successfully flattened the end of the rod which would become part of the fishtail.

When hot metal comes out of the forge, it loses about 50 degrees per second. This means that with a steel rod a half-inch thick there’s 10 to 15 seconds before the metal cools too much to be worked. Planning your next move each time is critical. An over-muscling in one direction can be corrected after the steel is reheated, but it’s easy to pull the metal from the forge, start hammering away, and accidentally slip back into the grooves you’re trying to correct. I did this several times, repeating my same mistake over and over as I followed the trail of blows I’d already made.

Ms. Caitlin had me pause to practice again with the clay. She patiently pointed out how I was incorrectly angling my wrist. The next time the metal came out of the forge, orange-red and ready, I overcompensated the angle and got the hammer to fall correctly, carefully ironing out my previous mistake.

Ms. Caitlin’s pedagogical approach is a blend of yogini and your favorite teacher who made math fun. Throughout the two hour class she used examples from geometry, physics, philosophy, and history to illustrate various fundamentals of blacksmithing. At one point, she even used a baking analogy, likening the steel to pie crust. This intersectionality of learning is part of what she loves about blacksmithing.

Ms. Caitlin came to the craft after years of working a desk job that left her feeling listless. She signed up for a blacksmithing class on a whim. Within a year, was regularly putting in time with any forge she could find. Then, she opened her school in 2015 and began teaching classes full-time to beginners and experts. Ms. Caitlin creates whimsical projects, like her moss boxes, which are used to teach advanced skills for special classes and seminars. Occasionally, she also works on larger or custom pieces mainly to master new techniques. “The functional stuff is so cool,” she says, “because within limits you can be very creative.”

By the end of the introductory class, I had a decent fishtail hook fixed onto a metal plate. Ms. Caitlin sees every blacksmithed piece as a performance, a unique space in time that can never be wholly replicated. The hook is a reminder of the patience I had to summon to deal with my mistakes and the satisfaction that came from correctly hammering an angle. I have a unique souvenir, but it was the trip that mattered.

Blacksmithing is both a mental and physical challenge, but not one that, as Ms. Caitlin points out, requires “muscling your way through.” Rather, it’s learning to work patiently with laws of physics. Or, in my case, to try and overcome a fierce tendency to hammer a little too hard to the left. Spending two hours on a sunny Saturday afternoon trying to coax a piece of molten metal into an adequately pointy point required mental gymnastics, physical stamina, and some newly-discovered patience to pause, learn, practice, and try again. There’s a unique satisfaction in using your body and brain in novel ways and the blacksmithing awards just that.

 

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Interested in trying out a class? All class information can be found on Ms. Caitlin’s website.

Photo of Caitlin Morris by Jess Rothblum

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