Metal mania: The not-so-lost art of blacksmithing

Mike Carson hammers life into metal

Mike Carson, a Woodland-based blacksmith, regularly teaches visitors at Sutter’s Fort about the art of hammering, forging and otherwise reconfiguring metal and other mediums.

Mike Carson, a Woodland-based blacksmith, regularly teaches visitors at Sutter’s Fort about the art of hammering, forging and otherwise reconfiguring metal and other mediums.

photos by darin smith

Blacksmithing isn’t a lost art.

No matter what mainstream media says, no matter how many “lost art of blacksmithing” articles there are or how the craft is depicted in pop culture, the art of blacksmithing, is in fact, not lost at all.

It’s not even a dying trade.

That’s just one misconception Mike Carson, a blacksmith based out of Woodland, wants to set straight.

“It seems lost to everybody because you don’t see it every day,” Carson said.

Carson should know. He’s worked as a blacksmith since 1985, giving him a lot of experience with an anvil. That timeline is crucial, he adds.

“I like to tell people it took 30 years to learn what I do now,” Carson said.

And it isn’t like he’s the only person still interested, either. The last few years have seen an upswing in people interested in blacksmithing as the appreciation for handmade artisanal goods grows.

It wasn’t always that way. There was a period, Carson says, where enthusiasm waned.

“I think the low point was generally about the 1960s” Carson said. “But like a lot of other crafts … [blacksmithing was] saved by the hippies.”

Carson got his start as a farrier—someone who makes horseshoes—and went to school for it in Oklahoma City, more out of necessity than anything else. At the time he was employed as a goat milker, and wanted to learn how to make horseshoes because he couldn’t find somebody to shoe his own horses. From there, he began to pick up blacksmithing work, and kept doing both until a few years ago, when he started focusing mostly on the latter.

For those unfamiliar with the trade’s finer points, blacksmithing involves the forging of metals. Steel is often used—that’s Carson’s preferred metal—but aluminum, bronze, copper, iron and other materials are also used.

And then there are the tools.

Carson starts with a heat source, either a coal forge or a propane furnace, the anvil (“Something to hit upon”), and then whatever material will be shaped.

That’s when things get hot. Hot, hot and hot. The temperature needs to reach at least 1,800 to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit in order shape the metal, and then it’s a race against the clock to work with the material while it stays hot.

“It’s losing heat the minute you take it out of the fire and put it on the anvil,” Carson says. “Sometimes if you’re hammering hard enough and quick enough there, the friction from it, just moving, will keep it heated.”

As a point of comparison, Hawaiian volcanic lava is around 2,210 degrees Fahrenheit.

Items such as nails can be finished in minutes, with more complicated stuff—like gates or other larger pieces of metalwork—taking much longer, sometimes even days.

As well as working the forge, Carson also teaches on it. He’s been running the blacksmith booth at the California State Fair for the past 24 years, and gives regular presentations to school groups.

Nancy Koch, a grants analyst with the State Fair who has watched Carson at work, calls the blacksmith a fair “staple” for the way he’s used “his talent and trade to bring history to life.”

“He really captures your attention and teaches you things … [when you watch] you’re like, ’Oh, that’s why they do that, I didn’t know,’” she said.

Carson also works regularly with the California State Parks Association, giving presentations at and doing work on Sutter’s Fort, where everything is fixed “pretty much the way they would have done it” back in the day.

He does most of his work that way. The only power tool he uses is an electric sander—everything else is done true to the history of the craft, with physical, not electrical, effort being used.

And being that hands-on isn’t easy work. Carson looks the part—his hands are big, and well-worn—from all the years working with metal and fire. Swinging a hammer against an anvil all day is a hard—and physical—effort.

That labor is something not everybody understands at first, either. Carson used to take apprentices; he once had a young man show up for his first day of training. He got the novice started. Then the kid left for lunch and never came back.

“[People] don’t realize how much work goes into something,” Carson said.

Blacksmithing apprenticeships, however, are more common in Europe than America, and are much more regulated, with specific lengths of time and required tests.

In the United States it’s a little different. There are tests and certifications in the states for farriers, but it’s mostly a voluntary process. California also has a blacksmith association that handles events, workshops and certifications.

But whereas blacksmiths still find regular employment in other countries, good ol’ fashioned U.S. consumerism has made a dent in the trade—Americans are more likely to just buy new products instead of trying to repair something first.

“When was the last time you actually went to get something that wasn’t an electronic repaired?” Carson said. “You just throw it away and get another one.”

Blacksmithing today also tends to be more specialized, with people picking certain niches such as knife-making, sculpture, fencing, housewares and architectural ironwork.

But some do pursue a more generalized trade—Carson falls into this category, making such diverse items as balls and chains for weddings and chastity belts.

One such belt was for a college human sexuality course Carson was taking. Instead of handing in a paper for the final, he made a version of the medieval body-wear.

He got an A.

As with any trade, that educational component is important. Carson’s favorite part is giving educational talks and answering people’s questions, correcting many misconceptions about blacksmithing, often set by people’s perceptions of the trade as depicted on TV and in pop culture.

To that end, Carson says that in the last 15 years he’s found that the most accurate portrayal has been in a fantasy film: The Lord of the Rings.

“The techniques they were using [were] all good—because they did actually have a blacksmith on for technical stuff,” Carson said. “Usually you’ll see some guy standing over an anvil with a horseshoe sideways with a flatter instead of a hammer, making noise. That’s it.”

And at least it was better than the portrayal of blacksmithing in another popular movie. The Pirates of the Caribbean.

“Orlando Bloom, yeah he’s got a lot to answer for on that,” Carson said. “Those were a couple bad years, over blacksmithing. [with people asking] ’Oh, like Orlando Bloom?’ No, we’re real.”

Indeed he is. Carson—just like the trade—is a living, swift rebuttal to the idea that blacksmithing is dead. It’s far from it, if you know where to look. But, correcting people’s notions about blacksmithing isn’t the only part Carson enjoys.

“Also, being able to make some pretty cool stuff,” Carson said.