When I decided I wanted to become a blacksmith, I began with cycling around town and asking actual blacksmiths questions that I thought would give me a hint about what life at the forge feels like. It was a very good idea, and I am glad I did it. But of course with actual experience of 6 hours I had no chance of asking ALL the right questions. Here are some of the answers I didn’t receive.
Blacksmithing is not a job for people who value their skin too much. Unless you intend to constantly work in gloves, which will be uncomfortable, make you less precise and give you that special feeling of swimming in your own sweat, you will be exposed to scale falling off the metal, bits of burning coal flying around and occasional “oh fuck I thought this was cold” moments when you grab something that’s no longer red hot but quite hot enough to give you a nasty burn. Having said that, it’s better to grab something red hot than black hot, because at temperature of 600 Celsius the wound will immediately clean and cauterise itself, and at 200 it won’t.
Good advice I read on Facebook recently: when you get a burn, immediately stick the body part affected (unless it’s your nose, then maybe not) into your water tank and proceed to hold it in there for 10 minutes. The heat has to go. If it doesn’t, it stays in your body and continues to do harm. This is not medical advice, this is advice coming from a blacksmith with years of experience (not me obviously) and I am willing to follow it next time I get a bad burn. Small burns — you grunt, growl, mutter “fuck” under your breath, then go on. If you find the idea of heat and pain terrifying, avoid blacksmithing.
Do not stare into the fire. I love fire, and I find it hypnotic and beautiful. After a while of staring at it — especially at forge welding temperatures, when heat gets white — I started noticing an odd problem with my eyesight. A bit as if I had a small object constantly in front of my left eye, obscuring part of the vision. I had tests done which showed nothing. The doctors were of the opinion my eyesight is perfect (well, other than wearing lenses). Well, seeing through my own eyes I could confirm exclusively that it wasn’t. It took me a bit longer to understand that fire was the problem. Don’t stare at it, same as you don’t stare into the sun or at the hands of a welder. Fortunately after a few months my eyesight is ALMOST back to normal.
You learn very gradually. In my head somehow I had this vision that I study for, say, 3 years, then one day I wake up and I am a blacksmith ready to begin professional work. Er, no. After a month I knew much more than before that. After three months I knew more than two months earlier. After a year things that used to perplex me became easy enough that I could discover a whole new range of things to perplex me. I am nearing three years, and things that used to confuse the hell out of me two years ago couldn’t possibly be easier, yet there are still things I just don’t get. I bought myself a book about making animal heads, which is invaluable, fantastic, crap and terribly made, by which I mean photographs have the amazing quality of third xerox copy and descriptions assume you’re a professional that doesn’t need any more advice than “with the small half round chisel, form the lower lip”. I am proud to say I understand that sentence and know what to do with it. But if you are a beginner, you don’t know what a chisel is, what does small mean and how does half round apply to whatever a chisel is. You probably know what a lower lip is. And this is okay. It honestly took me months to remember the difference between a punch and a drift and even longer to be able to identify tool steel from mild steel — maybe I’m a slow thinker. But once you learn those things, you don’t unlearn them, you discover new ones that you need to learn. Like with any art, you improve with each completed (or not) piece of work.
Blacksmithing is hard work. By now I am over the “OMG FORGE” period, over the “this is so hard I will never learn” period and I entered the loving relationship where we order Indian food over and watch TV together period. Sex isn’t as good as it was in the first weeks when I couldn’t keep my hands off that hammer (do you still follow my metaphor?) but we’ve learned what the other one likes best and know how to drive each other crazy — even if breakfast comes above sex on the list of priorities. By all this sex talk I mean I now know for sure I am not quitting this job. It doesn’t bore me; it doesn’t matter that occasionally I get burns; it doesn’t matter that occasionally I just get bloody frustrated, drown in my own sweat, break a thing that required just that one last heat (and that actually didn’t really require it, I was just being a bloody perfectionist). Once you stop the romantic bullshit of a medieval blacksmith in a leather apron (I hardly ever wear that bloody apron) you find out that it’s a job like any other — except, if you are like me, it isn’t a job like any other, it is THE ONE. And again, like with the person you get married to, it will piss you off sometimes, you’ll have good days and bad days, you’ll want to throw it all away and leave, but you never do because it’s THE ONE. But, like with the person you get married to, you never know if it’s THE ONE unless you try.