by Jerry Hoffmann
|Published in the June 2000 Issue of Anvil Magazine
Reprinted with permission from The Blacksmith's Journal
It's remarkable that blacksmiths still have a role to play in the year 2000. What they do is more connected to a slower-paced progress once necessary to achieve a given goal when the year rolled around to 1900. Today the phrase "time is money" has new meaning; technology has helped us do more in less time than a blacksmith working a decade ago could ever imagine.
Hand forging once made possible the ability to make any custom item a customer might desire at a fair price. It took time, but so did everything else, and there was no faster method to compare it to like there is now. One thing that kept blacksmiths busy producing custom work for so long is the simplicity of the technique. Francis Whitaker, when asked how one begins to be a blacksmith, used to say, "Just get it hot and hit it." It's literally that simple, but with skill and experience, it makes possible the creation of any tool, hardware item or ornament, and in 1900, it seemed fast. In 2000 it's not so fast, and if you want to make a profit, a fair price is a high price.
Last November we received a letter outlining an estimate of how much it would cost to make the candlestick by Tom Latane', featured in the October `98 Blacksmith's Journal. The cost, even without making the special tooling required, came to $352. Obviously the 2000 market for such an item is very limited because of the time required to make it. Most professional blacksmiths wouldn't bother to make one, and then try to sell it, without first being commissioned to do it. There are, however, a great many blacksmiths who don't rely on blacksmithing for their income who would accept it as a creative challenge: art for art's sake. The effect of taking affordability away from the process of hand-wrought work has changed what blacksmiths do and created greater diversity in their work.
Today a blacksmith's work can be broken info four basic categories: horseshoeing, traditional ironwork, architectural ironwork, and sculpture. Horseshoers are the only blacksmiths who can still charge a "fair price" in today's economy. Although there are ready-made keg shoes, plastic shoes and high-tech materials being used today, hand- forged shoes are still in demand by many horse owners and veterinarians. Traditional ironwork is being produced mostly by amateur blacksmiths and those who already have a primary income.
Professional, traditional blacksmiths often have a following of clients in the fine crafts market who are able and willing to spend the money for hand-forged work. Architectural blacksmiths have a limited but strong market in the custom housing industry where they can offer hand-forged work or a hybrid, containing hand-forged elements in a fabricated piece. Many fab shops that once only imitated hand-forged work are now influencing the market by competing with other shops for a newly emerging appreciation for forged work. Although some of the great work done by blacksmiths in the past has been dubbed as fine art, it wasn't until this century that forged work was accepted as a legitimate medium for creating fine art. Albert Paley stands out as the first sculptor to push the limits of forged work until it became pure sculpture. The economic shift in the demand for forged work paved the way for artists like Paley to take it beyond its traditional place in history.
Blacksmithing is--and isn't--what it used to be. The process is still the same and the possibilities are still endless. What has changed is what patrons expect from blacksmiths and what blacksmiths expect of themselves. However, they still have a role to play in an economy that doesn't always reward them for their efforts.