Blacksmiths spark interest in old skills: A Hammer In at Clifton Forge attracted some 100 people interested in the almost-forgotten vocation of shaping hot iron into tools or art.
By Laurence Hammack
Photos by Eric Brady | The Roanoke Times http://www.roanoke.com/
Blacksmith Alex O'Dell keeps an eye on his gun barrel as he holds it in a forge during a demonstration Saturday at the Clifton Forge School of the Arts in an event called Hammer In, A Gathering of Blacksmiths. Bottom: Alex O'Dell hammers on a hot gun barrel Saturday at the Clifton Forge School of the Arts.
"There’s an innate desire in a lot of men to make things, and there’s always been an allure to watching something being made from a hot piece of iron," blacksmith Alex O'Dell said.
Greg Martin (left) holds a bore rod Saturday as blacksmith Alex O'Dell hammers his hot steel, making the beginning shape of a gun barrel during a blacksmith demonstration at an event called Hammer In at the Clifton Forge School of the Arts. Practitioners of the traditional profession say increasing interest hints at a possible renaissance.
Glen Bryant is an organizer with Hammer In, a gathering of blacksmiths at the Clifton Forge School of the Arts on Saturday.
CLIFTON FORGE — From a bed of coal burning at 3,000 degrees, Alex O'Dell pulls out a cylinder of iron, its end glowing orange, and places it on an anvil.
With repeated blows from a 4-pound hammer, he slowly shapes the iron into a rifle barrel. The banging creates a shower of sparks, some of which arc into a crowd that has gathered to watch.
"Whoa," says one spark-struck spectator, more out of awe than alarm.
If blacksmithing is a lost art, as some say, it was being rediscovered Saturday at the Clifton Forge School of the Arts, where nearly 100 blacksmiths and those interested in the craft assembled for what's called a Hammer In.
For O'Dell, an elementary school principal who spends his spare time making hand-crafted guns and tools, the attraction is part primal, part creative.
"There's an innate desire in a lot of men to make things, and there's always been an allure to watching something being made from a hot piece of iron," O'Dell said.
After falling victim first to the Industrial Age, then to the mass production of knock-off wrought iron items sold at big-box stores, blacksmithing was all but dead by the 1970s.
There's been a resurgence since then, if attendance at Hammer Ins like the one held Saturday and membership in clubs are any indication.
"I think there's going to come a point where there's going to be a renaissance for us," said Peyton Anderson, president of the Artist-Blacksmith's Association of North America, which has seen its membership grow from 27 when it was created four decades ago to nearly 5,000 today.
At the Clifton Forge School of the Arts, which opened in January 2011, there has been steady interest in a blacksmithing class taught by Glen Bryant, co-owner of the nearby Fire and Light Gallery.
"It's a buzz," said Helen Kostel, a volunteer director at the art school. "People want to make things with their hands, they don't want things manufactured and brought to them."
A mother and daughter recently signed up for the class, debunking any thoughts that swinging a heavy hammer to hot iron is the sole province of men.
And contrary to another stereotype, most blacksmiths today do not shoe horses. That's the work of farriers, who do not always forge the horseshoes from hot iron.
Two centuries ago, when the American pioneers were first forming towns, the blacksmith made all the tools needed to build houses and tend crops, and was sometimes seen as a more important figure than the town doctor.
"The blacksmith was sort of the central part of the community," said Bryant, a hobbyist blacksmith who organized the Hammer In in Clifton Forge.
Today, the blacksmith is more likely to be a part-time artisan.
Bobby Floyd, president of the Old Dominion Blacksmith Association, estimates there are probably no more than 15 full-time blacksmiths in Virginia.
To make a living, a blacksmith needs to find high-end customers who are looking for custom-made things such as balconies and stairwells to go in their expensive homes, Floyd said.
But that doesn't mean there isn't a market for the fireplace tools, candle holders, door hinges, hooks, tools and iron artwork produced by hundreds of part-timers.
"It's a hobby that has paid for itself," Bryant said of the income produced from his gallery, which he runs on the side along with his welding and farm work.
To promote his craft, Bryant puts on the annual Hammer In, which offers demonstrations on four forges, hands-on experience for volunteer helpers, and iron goods for sale.
Saturday's event drew people from across the state; O'Dell drove from his home in Fauquier County to be one of the demonstrators.
O'Dell, who traces his interest in blacksmithing to when as a boy he watched actor Fess Parker play Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone on television, tries to keep his work as historically accurate as possible.
While some might rely on electric blowers to fan the flames on a forge, O'Dell used a hand-cranked bellows during his demonstration.
The hobby offers more than just a chance to relive history and produce hand-crafted tools and art. It can also be a great stress reliever.
"You can beat your frustrations out on the anvil," O'Dell said.
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