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The Lost and Re-Found Art of Blacksmithing

Doug Wittnebel recently experienced his first foray into blacksmithing and learned a few things along the way. Image © Douglas Wittnebel

The first time I put on the heavy leather apron and thick, fireproof insulated gloves worn as protection by all blacksmiths, I felt invincible from heat. The sheer amount of wide, cushiony layers these items contain made me feel like I could walk through fire and not feel a thing. It was like becoming a puffy but updated version of a Ghostbuster. I felt more than ready to partake in my very first blacksmithing class.

Much to my surprise all the protective gear I was wearing was not enough to guard against burns. I learned this the hard way when I let one of my glove encased forearms linger near the heat. In a matter of nanoseconds, the heat singed my forearm hair, and the smell of burnt hair hung in the air.

A blacksmith's tools. Image © Douglas Wittnebel

The sheer amount of heat it takes to mold and shape metal is one of the most incredible things about blacksmithing. I recently took my first blacksmithing class with the Crucible team in West Oakland, Calif. As someone who paints, builds furniture, and even tinkers with robots, I consider myself to have a strong understanding of both the challenges and wonders intrinsic to DIY activities. But blacksmithing left me with a more profound appreciation of the sheer amount of energy it takes to transform raw steel into something useable. The intense heat and look of the massive and heavy gas powered forge, that glowing reddish orange light reminiscent of the sun, imbues a sense of respect into the novice student. Part of this respect stems from fear of getting burned, while the rest arises from the awe you feel standing so close to the source of energy that makes working with steel possible.

Blacksmithing challenged me by forcing me to think and design what it is I wanted to make while I was simultaneously heating the metal and hammering into shape. It’s akin to drawing or sculpting in space, except rather than working with relatively benign brushes and pencils you’re relying on the heat from a 2,000F + degree forge to turn one of the hardest substances on earth into a malleable, shapeable material.

The finished products. Image © Douglas Wittnebel

There’s a distinctly visceral pleasure that comes from locking a piece of hot metal in a vice and transforming it from a simple, square tube into a bracelet or gate handle, two of the objects I was able to make during the three hour class. It’s a deliberate process that requires great patience. The gradual buildup of heat and pressure of the hammer blows allow the forger to form and deform the steel until it turns into the desired object. And the completion sequence process, which requires the filing away of sharp edges and extra bits, is like finishing a painting or a drawing.

The entire blacksmith experience not only gave me a whole new respect for the work blacksmiths do, it made me feel as if I was communing with one of the key aspects of human civilizations. For thousands of years, artisan blacksmiths supplied the tools that made pursuits from advanced agriculture to the beginnings of industry possible. Today, steel is forged on scales too massive to comprehend, so that we can build the skyscrapers that dot our skylines and rail systems that connect our cities. It’s an inspiring activity and one that you truly have to try in order to fully appreciate.

During my three-hour blacksmithing class I labored, I perspired, and I hammered until my arm felt like it might fall off. But when it was all over I not only had several custom made steel bracelets, clips and hooks to take home, but a new recognition of the amount of energy, skill and effort it takes to work with a substance so fundamental to human civilization. When it was all said and done we took gulps of cold water followed by some deep swigs of ice-cold beer. It felt great.

Image © Douglas Wittnebel

Virginia Pettit
Douglas Wittnebel is a Principal and Design Director for Gensler's Oakland office. With over 29 years of design and management experience, his work is characterized by his creativity, expressive sketches and ability to translate ideas into functional design. Contact him at douglas_wittnebel@gensler.com.

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