Editor’s Note:In the mid-1800s, John E. Phillips’ paternal great-grandfather came from Northumberland, England, to help open and operate the coal mines that supplied coal to the Birmingham, Alabama, steel mills. His paternal great-grandfather went into the coal mines before daylight and came out of the mines after dark, six days per week as a mine foreman. His maternal grandfather worked as a blacksmith on the Panama Canal and then for the Tennessee Coal & Iron Company (TCI). United States Steel later acquired TCI where Phillips’ father worked as a mixer operator at the Fairfield Works. In writing this article, John E. Phillips reconnected with the history of the iron and steel men in his family’s past on both sides.

In the early days, a blacksmith made everything of iron or steel that the home, ranch or military needed.
In the early days, a blacksmith made everything of iron or steel that the home, ranch or military needed.

Throughout time, the blacksmith, as hard as the iron and the steel he hammered, was one of the most essential individuals in history. The blacksmith created every metal implement from iron and steel, transforming raw materials into useful tools with the power of his will and the skill of his hammer. The blacksmith’s hand-eye coordination dazzled and amazed all who watched him transform blocks of iron into useful household products and farming implements. The nails and the hinges made by the blacksmith held together homes and businesses. Even Mother Earth rolled out of her black bed when the plows the blacksmith fashioned broke her crust to create seed beds for people to plant and bring forth new life.

The blacksmith’s dedication to his occupation took humanity from the Stone Age to the world we live in today. His profession began during the Iron and the Bronze Ages, which lasted from 4000 to 1000 BC. Once man learned to use iron, the blacksmith became the focal point of every community.

“Towns often succeeded or failed, depending on their ability to attract a blacksmith,” said James Whatley, a farrier for almost two decades and a blacksmith for almost three. Whatley, who practices his craft at Tannehill State Park in McCalla, Alabama, explained, “Years ago, if the nearest blacksmith lived more than a day’s horseback ride away from a farm or a homestead, most people wouldn’t settle in that area.”

Before the 19th century, the blacksmith made only implements composed of wrought iron, but this practice ended when blacksmiths started working with steel. First used by ironworkers for making cutting tools like swords, knives, scissors and spear points, steel did have a downside. Requiring a much more involved process than the making of iron, steel took longer to produce and cost more than iron to make. The steel-making era started in earnest in the late 1850s, when Henry Bessemer introduced the Bessemer process, which allowed for the cheap production of steel in large quantities. 

Although companies today can cheaply mass-produce the items the smithy once hammered into being, the vocation of blacksmithing has refused to die. Now people view blacksmithing as an art form as well as a skill.

The men who powered the movement for this country from the East to the West were blacksmiths who made many of the implements for hunters, farmers, trappers, traders, etc.

Getting Started

Even today, a blacksmith starts his workday by building a fire. 

“I build my fire like blacksmiths always have,” Whatley explained. “I use a piece of flint and steel. And by striking the flint against the steel, I get a spark. The spark lands in charred cotton cloth, which ignites quickly. The cloth is placed in a small bed of pine straw. On top of the pine straw, I add pine cones once the fire begins, because the pine cones ignite easily and quickly and burn hot. This fire is placed in a bed of coals, created the day before from the burning coal. Then coal is placed around the charcoal, and the fire’s blown with a blower.

“My blower, which was made over 100 years ago, replaces the bellows that the earlier blacksmiths used. The blower raises the temperature of the coal to about 2,300 degrees, hot enough to allow metal to be heated up to a temperature where it can be welded, hammered, twisted and/or bent. Once the metal’s red hot, borax is applied to remove the oxide and to keep oxide from forming on the metal while it’s being worked. You must have two clean surfaces of metal if you’re going to weld them together.”

Smithing Evolves

In the early 1900s, the toolmaker began to slowly replace the blacksmith. Despite this progression away from the trade, my maternal grandfather, John L. Phillips Sr., a blacksmith, helped to build the 51-mile-long Panama Canal. His work on the project included making new parts for the more than 4,000 wagons used by the Americans to move excavated material for the canal’s locks and the dams. He was also tasked with constructing carpenters’ tools and essentials for the workforce of more than 39,000 who set up housekeeping at the canal each day for 10 years, from 1904-1914.

Since that time, the business of blacksmithing has evolved into several different professions. Today’s blacksmith has become a specialist instead of a general practitioner, along with the toolmaker, the machinist, the die maker and the farrier, all spin-offs from the blacksmithing profession. Although the blacksmith made iron and steel horseshoes in the past, today’s farriers fashion most horseshoes.

In spite of these changes, blacksmithing has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years. The blacksmith’s identity has changed from the man who builds useful items for the home and the farm into an artist who creates and fashions artwork and decorative work for homes and businesses. The ratio of men to women in the blacksmith trade has also changed. Once considered only a man’s job, the occupation of blacksmithing has drawn women who are fascinated with the fire and the smoke of the blacksmith shops and want to learn how to work metal.

The Blacksmith

Blacksmith School

“I teach blacksmithing, and the past few years, about 1/3 of my students have been women,” Whatley reports. “There is no doubt that today I’m seeing more individuals who want to learn blacksmithing, and many are beginning to recognize the beauty of the old way as a new art form. When someone asks me if all blacksmiths have a beard like me, which I know is a traditional look for my career, I enjoy answering, ‘Nope, the women don’t.’”

Master craftsmen have passed down the trade to apprentices, journeymen and, finally, to master blacksmiths. When asked how he’s learned the craft, Whatley explained, “I learned how to be a blacksmith here at Tannehill from Bill Shoemaker, who learned the craft from other blacksmiths, and by studying books and, as he put it, ‘by burning up stuff.’”

The transformation of blacksmithing from a necessary trade to an art form allows the blacksmithing artist to use fire, coal, steel, a hammer and an anvil to construct intricate works of art.

Related Stories: Traditional Japanese Knifemaking Meets the 21st Century!

How Now?

Although the blacksmith almost faded into obscurity, the demand for the products made by the blacksmith has increased dramatically in recent years. 

“Many new homeowners ask for the products we build from steel,” Whatley said. “They like the handmade-look of custom-made hinges and latches, fireplace implements and other decorative art pieces. The prices of a handmade hinge or a latch vary widely, depending on how elaborate the piece is, and how much time’s spent hammering the steel to make the exact item the customer wants. Blacksmiths generally charge $50 an hour to build steel items.”

In 2008, Whatley started the Tannehill School of Blacksmithing to not only help preserve and revive this ancient work, but also to ensure the safety of the profession. Through his school, Whatley passes along the essential knowledge required to handle the red-hot steel and hammer it while it’s white-hot.

“The first thing you learn is not to try and catch anything that falls with your hands,” Whatley emphasized. “All metal objects in the blacksmith’s shop should be considered extremely hot.”

Whatley teaches and certifies blacksmiths because the need for craftsmen continues to grow. Whatley only teaches about 100 students a year, and he has three different types of courses. To receive an apprentice card, the student must attend a weekend class and make certain objects during the course. He or she will learn the basics of blacksmithing as a weekend participant. To become a journeyman and learn the more-advanced blacksmithing techniques, a student needs to put in 100 hours working with Whatley in the craft. To become a master blacksmith requires 200 hours of working under a master blacksmith like Whatley.

To learn more about blacksmithing, call Tannehill State Park at 205-477-5711, or visit James Whatley can be reached by email at [email protected]    

This article originally published in AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN®  2014-#158 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN®  magazine are available here    

Up Next

The Best Blankets for the Backwoods

These wool blankets make for the ultimate backwoods companion or family heirloom.