There’s something about hitting stuff with a hammer that brings joy to a young man’s heart.
Just ask Shawn Cunningham. The big, burly blacksmith says he’s been hooked on his craft since he was nine years old when he watched a smith forge a nail in front of him.
“There was fire,” he says. “There were hammers.” People see these as crude, destructive forces, yet here was someone who used them to fashion a delicate nail.
He caught the smithing bug on the spot, but he tries not to pass it on to children nowadays.
Today, Cunningham is one of the few artisan blacksmiths in the Edmonton region, banging out everything from nails to codpieces. “One day I’m doing something glorious. The next day I’m doing jackhammer bits.”
His works include the gazebo in St. Albert’s ACT Celebration Garden – a five-metre-wide dome of iron vines and metallic leaves – and the railings in Calgary’s city hall.
One of his works even appeared on the show Fear Itself, he notes – it was a candlesnuffer, and it was stabbed through a man’s chest.
“They came back to me with it [and said] ‘Can you make it look more like a weapon?’ ” he says, with glee. “Yes, yes I can!”
The Iron Age
Cunningham steps into his smithy – a train wreck of steel bars, half-finished pokers, hammers, tongs, drills and debris with an anvil in the middle of it. It’s hot as heck, but that’s due mostly to the weather, not the jet-engine roar of the 1,427 C propane furnace. “I’m used to the heat,” he says.
Cunningham has been a professional blacksmith in Edmonton for about 20 years. “I started with a little fire in a little barbecue on the front step of my house,” he says. Now he has his own shop just off the Sherwood Park Freeway (The Front Step Forge) and teaches blacksmithing courses at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.
Clare Broeksma has a similar setup in his garage in Legal. The forge gets so hot that he can enjoy summertime weather in the middle of winter with the garage door open. “[The neighbours] think I’m half nuts,” he jokes.
Broeksma’s conversion to blacksmithing came during his 40s when he met a hunter with a hand-forged knife. “It was crude,” he recalls – just a blade with a tape-wrapped grip – “but its performance was just phenomenal.” Like Cunningham, he started taking out books and consulting experts to teach himself the trade. Now, the retired cable splicer makes blades as a hobby.
Blacksmithing got its start some 3,000 years ago during the Iron Age, says Mike Wayman, a retired professor of materials engineering at the University of Alberta, which is when people realized iron was cheaper, stronger and lighter than bronze.
Pure iron doesn’t exist in nature other than in meteorites, Wayman says – it’s all tied up in compounds like iron oxide – so the ancients had to smelt it from ore.
Smelted iron was collected in lumps called pigs, giving it the name pig iron. This iron was full of glassy impurities and very weak, so smiths would heat it up and smack it with hammers to squeeze out the liquid glass, creating wrought iron. From there, Wayman says, it wouldn’t have taken much to realize that you could bash that iron into useful shapes.
There were over 50 kinds of blacksmith in the 1770s, Cunningham says, with many specializing in specific items such as anchors or chains. While the trade faded out after the Second World War due to mass production, backyard forges were still commonplace on the farm as late as the 1960s.
Tools of the trade
Blacksmithing itself still uses the same basic tools as the old days, Cunningham says: fire, anvil, and hammer.
Modern smiths take chunks of steel and heat them in a forge until they glow like the sun.
Cunningham uses a propane forge for coarse work and a coal one for detail. Propane gives an even fire, great for heating lots of metal at once. Coal allows for precision, as you can shift the fuel around to create different temperature zones. “If I’m doing the fangs in a dragon’s mouth and I don’t want to burn its eyes off, I can do it in the coal fire.”
It only takes about five minutes to get a metal bar glowing orange, he continues – induction ovens can do it in 30 seconds.
Once the iron is hot, the smith takes it out of the forge and puts it on the anvil — the basic shape of which has changed little in the last 500 years. It has a flat face for shaping, a curved beak for elongating, and two holes for the various cones, loops and wedges used to wrangle metal into the right shape.
Cunningham only has a few minutes before the metal is too cool to work, so he gets smacking. Each strike rings like a bell and scatters sparks and large flakes of fiery iron oxide off the metal. The bar, lead-like at this temperature, soon curves under the blows, beginning its transformation into an ornate table leg.
The four-pound hammer he’s using has a number of different surfaces to it that he can use to curl, chop, or flatten the metal, he explains. “It’ll take four to 500 hammer blows just to make a little coat-hanger,” he says, and he’ll usually do about 40,000 swings a day. Each strike is about 85 decibels loud – enough to cause hearing damage – so ear protection is a must.
Knowing when and how to hit the metal all comes down to experience, Cunningham says. “You just hit it until it looks right.”
Blacksmiths can apply specialized techniques at this point to change the strength or appearance of metal.
Unlike most metals, Wayman says, iron actually shifts its atomic structure when you heat it to about 750 C. Plunge it into water at that point, and you can freeze that new structure in place. This is called hardening, and helps the iron hold its shape under pressure.
But it also makes it very brittle, Cunningham says – hit a hardened hammer against an anvil, and you get a broken hammer. Most smiths will temper the metal by heating and cooling it again at a lower temperature, changing that crystal structure to make it tougher and more fracture-resistant.
Sword- and knife-makers may want to combine traits of different metals – say, hardness and flexibility. To do this, Broeksma explains, you weld 11 to 25 sheets together to create a sandwich-like billet. After heating and hammering it flat, you cut it into sections, stack them up and do it again. “It refines the grain every time you re-weld it,” he explains, boosting its strength.
A finished knife might have about 375 layers in it by the time it’s finished, Broeksma says – katanas (Japanese swords) will often have over a thousand.
Layering metal like this also creates the whirling patterns found in Damascus steel – Broeksma’s speciality. Depending on the layers you create, the metal you use and how you smack the billet, you can get everything from wood-like grains to geometric shapes to giggling Haida-esque faces.
It can take days to weld, etch and shape all the parts in a finished piece, according to Cunningham. St. Albert’s gazebo took him about 2,400 hours.
But the end result transforms dull, lifeless metal into a shining, organic piece of art. “That’s what it turns out being,” Broeksma says, “a piece of art, a sculpture in metal.”
Relighting the forge
Blacksmithing is making a comeback, Cunningham says, as people rediscover the joy of handcrafted art. The Boy Scouts even offer a badge for it. “There will be a time again,” he says, with confidence, “where every small and large town will have a blacksmith in it.”
There’s always something new to make, Broeksma says, and he never gets bored of it. “I never ever get tired of the creative process, and of people who buy knives off of me who say, ‘Wow! I’ve never had anything like this.’ ”