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November 08, 2020 8 min read

History of the Blacksmith

The art of blacksmithing has been a part of the human experience since ancient times. Throughout history, the role that ironwork has played in society has gone through many transitions and changes, to say the least. In each of the eras that metalwork existed, blacksmiths were highly sought-after individuals and they played a vital role in society. Today, that story is no different, although there are a few differences in how blacksmiths enrich our lives today.

Going from sweeping technological advancements in ancient times to providing the backbone to security, prosperity, and change across several pivotal periods throughout history to helping fuel the industrial revolution, you could say that forging iron has helped humanity reach the limits it now enjoys.

One fascinating aspect of the history of blacksmithing is how the art changed over time as a result of scientific knowledge related to the metalwork itself, as well as how creative people were in their use of the technology. You could easily track many unique attributes and qualities of the people from each era by how they were able to utilize iron and the forging process.

Blacksmiths of Ancient Times

In ancient times, for instance, the Hittites used iron for weaponry, tools, and other useful items. The earliest evidence of forging iron is from 1500 BC. As they had yet to master the metal they worked with, the weapons and tools were fragile and needed replacement on a regular basis. Over time, knowledge of the metals they worked with, and how to forge it, expanded, and steel was introduced. This advancement created new possibilities all the time.

Medieval Blacksmiths

By the time the Medieval Period got its start, ironwork was fairly well developed, and techniques were quite advanced, comparatively. It was not until the tail end of the Medieval Period, however, that the most advanced techniques, methods, and metals came into existence. A major contributor to the art and practice of blacksmithing reaching such high limits was most likely due to the role that blacksmiths played in society at that time.

Every town had a blacksmith, and it was largely him who enabled the town to thrive. Blacksmiths supplied the town with the tools necessary to build and operate, the nails and hardware that were needed to create structures, and shoes for the horses. They also helped keep armories supplied with swords, arrows, and more. It would be fair to say that blacksmiths were among the most important members of society, although not many truly understood their craft.

In fact, blacksmiths were often said to possess power over the metals that they worked with. So much so that Smiths were considered to have magical powers at times. In those days, only someone with an intimate knowledge of how metal behaves when heated, and how the composition of the iron can change when mixed with other elements - such as what happens when mixing carbon with iron - would understand the ‘magic’ of forging.

It is that deeper understanding that allowed blacksmiths of the Medieval Period to create steel weapons and tools that far surpassed anything that had been produced from metal beforehand. An obvious example is how blacksmiths were able to adjust the carbon content in the molten iron to achieve varying degrees of hardness. This allowed for tools, hardware, and weaponry to be tailored to very specific uses, further encouraging more development over time.

Blacksmiths Exploring New Lands

Blacksmiths were so central to the Medieval way of life that they were included in every major colonial expedition. At the end of the Medieval Period, the desire to push further out of Europe and explore the world also meant that blacksmiths began traversing the world as well. With them, of course, came their expertise, their technology and tools, and their ability to give the European explorers the ‘edge’ that tipped many a scale in their favor.

Of all the colonial blacksmiths, the Spanish probably produced some of the most beautiful and intricate works throughout the 14th-17th Centuries. While all of the colonial powers utilized ironwork in their societies, the Spanish produced remarkable work intended for both form and function.

How blacksmithing was brought into the Southwest

In a similar fashion to many other colonial forces, the Spanish brought their technological prowess to each new land that they ventured to. It goes without saying that blacksmiths were included in each endeavor. As Spanish blacksmiths were incredible metal workers, capable of forging many different types of tools, weapons, hardware, and more, they offered great value to the missions, and expeditions. As the Spanish moved into what is now the Southwest from Mexico to form missions and expand the power of the Spanish Crown, blacksmiths became a mainstay in the region.

Spanish Colonial Influence

From the 14th-17th Century, the Spanish held control of the region now known as Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and California. During that time, Spanish blacksmiths were charged with producing gear such as horseshoes, armor, tools, swords and guns, and much more. Over time, they also began to create ironworks for other areas of their lives.

Towards the end of the Spanish colonial period in the Southwest, the role of the blacksmith was diminished due to the incoming products from East. The combination of the trains making it easier for people to access new and interesting items from faraway places, as well as the introduction of other methods to work iron and steel, ​created less need for blacksmiths.

Today, we can see beautiful ironwork left over from the colonial period in the Southwest and each piece tells a different part of the rich, colorful history of the region.  Spanish colonial blacksmiths created grates for cooking, kitchen utensils, hinges, latches, and much more. Ornamental ironwork was also common during the colonial period. Hand forged nails. Many other types of ironwork also existed. Ornate crosses, gates, stirrups for riding, and fixtures for the home were just some of the various works of art produced by Spanish colonial blacksmiths.

Another feature that we can see in traditional metalwork from the Southwest and Mexico is the influence that the local native groups of the time had on the blacksmiths and the products they created. For example, we can see samples of historical metalwork that has distinct Spanish features, but we can also see symbolism and style choices that would have come from the cultures thriving in local Pueblos of the time.

Today, for the blacksmiths of the Southwest who carry on the art and practice of forging metal in a traditional style, you’ll find strong influences from both Spanish and Native cultures.  

 Modern-day Blacksmiths: Masters of Their Craft

When comparing blacksmiths from different eras there are quite a few things that set them apart. The details differ, of course, depending on which eras you compare. One of the easiest and clearest comparisons to make is with the blacksmithing craft of the 17 and 1800’s with that of the modern-day blacksmith.  

The differences between old-school blacksmiths and their modern-day counterparts can be seen most easily in the quality of workmanship, metals used, and the ‘fit and finish’ of the completed piece.

Methods

One of the benefits to having more advanced tools at their disposal, modern-day blacksmiths are able to create pieces of work that are far more intricate and ‘finished’ looking than anything that you would have seen in the 19th Century or earlier.

The new tools have helped metalworkers create methods that are more efficient, and which help the blacksmith work on finer details. This means that it is now possible to achieve more perfection in the design choices that the blacksmith makes.

Beyond the tools that blacksmiths use, there are also more modern approaches to the craft that wouldn’t have been popular or available in the past. Modern furnaces, for example, are far better at maintaining optimal heat without using excess energy.

Today’s technology has made the work of being a blacksmith easier in ways that allow the artisans additional time and energy to focus on what really matters – forging beautiful works of art.  

Metal Quality and Consistency

Another major difference between the blacksmiths of the past and those supplying today’s metal work is the type and quality of the metals that are available.

In times past, metals that were available to blacksmiths were limited, and of much lower quality than metals we have today. While blacksmiths of the past were able to create amazing work with what they had, modern-day blacksmiths have more freedom to select metals that are well-suited to whatever purpose they are intended for.

For example, most of the metal used for blacksmithing today is steel with a low or medium carbon content. The higher the carbon level, the more brittle the steel becomes, so for decorative purposes, as well as for greater durability, the lower carbon levels are preferred.

However, when a blacksmith would like to create a tool for his forge, the latter would be the better choice as harder steels are more resistant to high heat.

Purpose

Finally, it could easily be argued that one of the most important differences between blacksmiths of the past and those of today is the reason that they produce their work.

In the past, blacksmithing was as much a part of the mainstream as today’s electricians and computer programmers are. For that reason, they worked to supply the world with much-needed tools, nails, horseshoes, and more.

Today, much of the work that blacksmiths produce is custom work that is intended to be decorative while also serving a purpose.

Custom Ironwork: A Superior Choice

Modern-day blacksmiths produce works of iron that are superior to many of the mass-produced options available today.

From a stylistic point of view, each piece of hand-forged metal is unique and bears the ‘signature’ of its maker. Artisans who have mastered their craft can create a diverse range of surface textures, colors, and more. The one-of-a-kind look of each piece of forged wrought iron gives the hardware or decorative work a personality that could never be matched by their mass-produced counterparts.

Other reasons that hand forged ironwork is more preferable are the durability and versatility of the pieces that are created. Going far beyond appearance, handmade metalworks are created with the needs of the buyer in mind. Instead of choosing from a wall of generic-looking metal hardware, those who choose hand forged metalworks can make decisions about the hardware they require that would not be possible from any other source. Measurements, gauge, weight, and many other features can be tailored to the customer.  

The quality of the metal used in modern forges is yet another reason to prefer handmade iron metalwork. Thanks to the lessons handed down through hundreds of years of development, coupled with technological advancements, updated tools, and a greater understanding of the physics involved, blacksmiths are able to create works that are far stronger, more intricate, and beautiful than any other time in history.

Forged Wrought Iron Hardware Today

Thanks to the long, rich history of ironwork, today’s blacksmiths are better than ever. While you won’t see hand forged iron gates and window dressings adorning every other house on the street as was the case 150 years ago, it is always easy to spot when a home or business owner chooses iron hardware to bring an old world look and feel to their property. Forged wrought iron hardware is distinct in many ways and can add a lot of style to any structure.

Whether you are looking for decorative nails, also known as clavos, hinges, handles, brackets, corner protectors, custom numbers, or any of the other common types of custom ironwork, you can certainly find the hardware that best suits your personality and style.

In addition to the many benefits already listed here, modern-day ironworks come with another positive attribute as well. There is a feeling of timelessness and of permanence that comes from high quality, custom forged steel or iron. Not only will the hardware that you choose create the rugged appearance that you are looking for, but also each unique piece that you bring into your life will last a lifetime. 

 

John Hannan
John Hannan

Borderland Rustic Hardware



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