Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry

Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry
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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Of Swages, Fullers, and Peens


FRED HOLDER (http://www.fholder.com/Blacksmithing/article4.htm): "All work that a blacksmith does consists of a number of basic processes, which when taken together allow him or her to produce very complex forgings. In this article, we begin to explore these processes. Once each of them is mastered, the beginning smith is ready to begin applying them in more complex situations. The processes that I am talking about are:

  • Squaring
  • Rounding
  • Pointing
  • Drawing
  • Bending
  • Joining
I consider these to be the basis of virtually all blacksmithing tasks. Once a smith has mastered these, only the imagination is the limit of what he or she can do."

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: So much of creativity is putting the same basic elements into new patterns. The trick is in finding the combinations that make the whole so much greater than the sum of its parts. Whether forging a hinge, programming a computer, painting the Sistine ceiling, or discovering the trick to make red earth into iron, it's rarely conscious logic that makes the essential leap, more often it's some secret syzygy deep in the inner cosmos of the mind, an alignment of orbs. How does one populate this creative space with the right raw material to feed creativity? What calisthenic limbers its muscles? When the leap is made, how does one spot it as genuine? From whence comes this voice of the mind?

The sun's late day beam continued to point my way. One by one it crept across a row of hammer-like tools carefully stored near the forge. Blacksmiths are tool makers, and their shops are often filled with unique hammers, tongs, swages, fullers, peens and widgets. The blacksmith crafts the tools he needs to carry out the six processes of his art. Can one find in those tools the kind of work he did? The special projects he undertook? Anything of the shape of his life? Something of his attitudes, temperament, thought processes even? Might it go deeper still?

I recently visited a working blacksmith, a young man with a growing business. I had lots of questions and when I asked how I might spot a handmade tool, he showed me forge marks and signatures, and how cast tools might have a casting ridge and how a set of handmade tongs was slightly irregular or the look of a handmade rivet. Finally, he reached in a different spot and brought down a handmade hammer. It was tucked away apart from other hammers at the bench. He said it was the first tool he had made. He spoke with an authority that came from knowing its curves by heart.