From medieval weapons to farming tools to hand railings and wall hangings, blacksmithing is actually thought to have started around 1,500 B.C. in the Middle East.
By the middle ages it had grown into a highly respected craft. Then, as the industrial revolution gave way to factories, communities needed blacksmiths only as farriers to shoe horses and repair equipment. After the automobile, society didn’t need them much at all.
Today, there is a small resurgence in the craft.
On a hot late-summer day at the Sugar Grove Nature Center, Bill Kauffman pounds his hammer hard, casting sparks around the circle where wide-eyed students watch a glowing metal block slowly beat over an anvil.
Nearly 50 years ago, Kauffman joined a group of 20 to start a blacksmithing class in Central Illinois.
"When I was just a little kid, my dad used to take plow shears to a guy out on Route 9, and I was standing there watching him work when I was a little bitty guy and making noise and getting dirty and fire, and it always fascinated me,” Kauffman said. “And so a number of years later, I dug out an old forge and stuff and started playing with it.”
Kauffman said his forge only got him so far. At that point, most trade blacksmiths were either dead, unable, or unwilling to take him as an apprentice.
His search for knowledge led him to find others like himself, curious to bring back the craft. That group later formed the Sugar Grove blacksmithing class, which grew into the Illinois Valley Blacksmith Association, or the IVBA.
“And that's why the club got started. So other people could share the knowledge,” Kauffman said. “And we found a guy in Eureka that was very helpful, and he kind of helped get the rudiments of blacksmithing spread around, and it just kind of took off from there.”
Today, that club has around 450 members. Kauffman said that’s a lot, compared to the national club which has 4,000 members.
The IVBA meets in Sugar Grove every third Saturday of the month, and every September they host a class.
IVBA members serve as instructors, showing blacksmithing novices the ropes: how to man the forge and proper techniques for heating and hammering the metal.
When it comes to hammering, precision is important. Hitting too hard, or in the wrong spot, could change the project entirely. But not hitting hard enough won’t give good results either. It’s a balance between getting the metal hot enough to shape it and hitting it accurately and with enough force.
Kauffman said he works a lot with iron, which is typically forged anywhere between 1,200 degrees and 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. If your forge is too hot, you run the risks of cracking your metal. Even hotter, and it might melt.
“It's amazing to see the work that some of these people do. ... The work that I do is more utilitarian,” Kauffman said. “We've got some people here that are real artists. I'm a guy that makes clevises and parts for plows and handrails and that sort of stuff, but we've got some people that can do stuff that is house jewelry.”
One of those more creative artists is Victoria Schertz.
“She does some of the best prettiest work you've ever seen in your life. She got started with a group like this,” Kauffman said.
“He's a flatterer,” Schertz said. “I've been doing this for like 20 years. I make lamps, I make tables, I make railings, I make chandeliers, I've made all kinds of indoor and outdoor furniture, gadgets, brackets.”
Schertz owns a blacksmith shop in Tiskilwa, Illinois, where she gets all kinds of custom orders. She said she likes to combine metals in her work, creating a contrast between opposing colors and shines.
“If you can picture a sun done in a spiral, so you start out with the inside of the spiral done in steel, and it's kind of silver looking and has different shades,” Schertz said. “And then you do another spiral, either on top or underneath it, in the copper, and polish it up so now you have two different metals together that would make a nice wall hanging.”
After 20 years, she can’t pick a favorite piece of work. But she does have a favorite metal: copper.
“It's softer, it moves, it speaks to me,” Schertz laughed. “You can make a really nice copper bowl. And you can turn it all kinds of different colors and sheens and patinas and if you make a really nice iron bowl, it's an iron bowl. I don't know.”
She said, it’s just easier to work with.
“Copper, you heat it up, and then you quench it so it's cold, and then you can hold it with your hands while you're reshaping it. So, it's a little different medium,” Schertz said.
Every time she works with blacksmithing students, Schertz said it reminds her of where she started.
"You just gotta try it. And if you don't like it, and if it's too much for you and you just want to do something else, then move on. But at least you tried it and you know you gave it a shot,” Schertz said. “And that's what I did. I tried it and I hated it, and I kept going, I don't know what made me keep going, but I had to conquer it, I guess. The more I played with it, the more I liked it, and I just have been doing it for a long time now."
Schertz, Kauffman and the rest of the IVBA members at the Sugar Grove Forge are proud of the work they do, and the resurgence of blacksmithing as a craft in the 21st century.
It’s why they love teaching youngsters, like 18-year-old Seth Homan, who began novice blacksmithing when he was 12.
“The first thing I did was blow it up by mistake because I did not learn very quickly that propane doesn't work very well. But, I quickly learned how to assemble old house bricks into a forge,” Homan said. “And then from there, my forge grew hotter, and as it grew hotter, the bricks didn't work so I had to upgrade to better bricks. From there, it was just a learning process until I finally got to a position where now my forge gets so hot I literally have to have it underground in order to keep it in one piece.”
Homan’s initial forge worked for a while, but if the forge gets too hot and the bricks that build it weren’t fired hot enough when they were made, it causes them to crack and crumble.
A coal forge only needs a few things: a solid environment for heat to grow, a bellows to circulate air, a bed of coal to foster the fire, and a tuyere to carry the air to the flame.
Homan’s starter forge wasn’t exactly what one would call “traditional.”
“Having an underground forge made out of house bricks and fire bricks and cinder blocks and a leaf blower, very retro. But it gets the thing done,” Homan said. “I've melted more steel than I think I've crafted properly. So being here allows me to learn the proper techniques that I need that I wasn't able to learn.”
Homan said the materials are one of the most important aspects of safe blacksmithing, such as good grade coal and steel.
“You don't want the stuff that'll blow up. That's a bad idea,” Homan said. “They have good quality tools, hammers, chisels, picks, anvils, for example. Those are hard to find.”
Homan said he is thankful for the opportunity to learn alongside professionals. It gives him the ability to bring those skills home to teach others in his hometown.
“I came here to learn, to make sure that I can do it properly, because if I'm going to have a bunch of people out at my house who want to do this, I need to know what I'm doing first,” Homan said. “And that is one of the more important things, is having the proper education. And this is the place that I know you can get it.”
Back in Waverly, Homan has a group of friends who enjoy using his underground forge.
“We melt aluminum now, we take cookie sheets, or little cupcake pans, and fill them with molten aluminum and make little aluminum cupcakes” Homan said. “We do a whole bunch of random things. But, now I get to come home and boast and be like, 'I've been to a professional grade blacksmithing class, you guys don't know what you're doing.'”
To melt aluminum, Homan’s forge has to reach at least 1,221 degrees Fahrenheit.
Watching a smith in action begs the question, “How’s that arm feel?”
There’s a range of techniques for thinning, bending, widening and puncturing the metal, but one thing remains constant: the blacksmith’s need for a hammer.
Schertz said blacksmithing requires a red-hot fire and a steady hand.
“You heat up steel, and you work it hot. So you have to hold it with tongs and hit it with a hammer while it's hot, and you have to continuously heat it back up,” Schertz said.
It’s no wonder blacksmithing draws a crowd. There’s the clang of metal, the crackling of the forge, and sparks in all directions.
Kauffman holds a demonstration every year at the Pontiac Threshermen's Reunion.
“You stand there and a lady will come and kind of stand off to the side and watch you and after everybody kind of leaves—the people come in waves and they leave—she came up to me and she said, 'I remember turning the crank for my father.' And, you can see the memory floating in front of her eyes,” Kauffman said. “It was kind of a neat moment, and that's what makes it fun.”
When it comes to IVBA’s Sugar Grove classes, the Iron Age craft draws in all ages.
“We have a lot of interest in younger people, a lot of people kind of like to get their hands dirty. Some of them are involved in the arts, some of them are not, they're just curious as to what's going on,” Kauffman said. “And blacksmithing is perfect for young guys. You get dirty, you get to play in the fire, and you get to make a lot of noise, and when you get done you might have something to show for it besides a burn on your finger.”
Working the forge reminds Kauffman of the past, but he said seeing today’s kids interest in the craft shows that blacksmithing has a place in the future.
“Since I'm one of the guys that kind of started some of this monkey business, I think I'm kind of proud of it,” Kauffman said. “We've rescued a craft that was kind of headed downhill. But, it's alive and well in this area.”
IVBA holds its annual class the third week of September, but the forge is open to visitors year round at the Sugar Grove Nature Center.
Find more information on the IVBA and the Sugar Grove Forge on the Sugar Grove Nature Center website.
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