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It is morning in Jessamine County. Late summer green clings to the fields, while the air hints at a chill to come. It’s the kind of day when folks begin to realize harvest is nearing an end, and the sun slants at a different angle that seems cold, even distant. Down a one-lane road that stretches between Wilmore and Versailles, a large, mixed-breed dog named Sadie suns herself in a driveway. In the distance, a rooster crows.
It’s the perfect day to hammer out a few details at Pod’s Forge, a blacksmith shop owned by David Shadwick.
Inside a simple metal building set back off the road, Shadwick dons a thick leather apron that wraps around his torso and stretches down to the cuff of his jeans. He fishes out his phone and flips through the pictures there. He points to one that shows a blue plaid jacket with a large hole burned into the sleeve. “That’s what happens when cloth meets 2,000-degree heat,” he says, then laughs. Shadwick laughs with his whole body, head thrown back, mouth wide open. He laughs like he hammers on steel. He’s all in, no hesitation, nothing held back.
Fluorescent lights combine with morning sun and give him enough light to bend down and take a mental inventory of a stack of steel. He has squares and flats, cover rail and angle iron—differing widths of each, cut into 20-foot lengths. Shadwick explains he buys his steel in Lexington and hauls it home in an old boat trailer he converted to suit his needs.
He flips open a black-and-white marble composition book and fans through the pages, sending tiny particles of black dust into the air. “This is because I can’t remember everything,” he says and laughs again. He runs his finger across a page, dog-eared with scale-smudged fingerprints, then looks up over his glasses and nods to a finished pair of bookends with a branching scroll design. “These are crude drawings, crude sketches. But for the bookends, I know that this piece right here, from the weld to that joint, is 8 inches. This is 4, and that is 3. I forge it into the shape I want, then arc weld it, then forge it down so that the weld doesn’t show.”
He bends down again and selects small square rods and one flat piece. He measures and marks, then moves to a heavy machine that cuts the steel with one blow. The sound fills the shop, again and again, until he has staged the 14 pieces that will be transformed into a set of bookends.
Shadwick moves to the forge. It is basically a fire pit on legs. He shovels coal into a small square area in the center and reaches for the arc welder to light the small pieces of coal. The coal, he explains, will “coke up” after being heated.
“You can take wood and make charcoal. You can take coal and make coke,” he says, and moves the black pieces with a poker. “Coke is lighter, more like lava rocks. Once flame is introduced to coke, it will burn at a higher temperature than just plain coal, and it keeps impurities away from the steel.”
He reaches up and flips a switch on an electric blower. Residual smoke rises with the heat, is captured by a hood, and then is carried up a pipe and out of the building. Shadwick reaches for a pair of tongs, grabs a cut rod of steel, and places it directly into the coked-up flame. He moves the steel back and forth, tucking it into the hottest part of the forge, then waits. The smell of sulfur and hot metal fills the air.
“Something you should probably know: If it’s glowing, don’t pick it up.” He throws back his head and laughs again. He shrugs his shoulders. “You learn as you are doing things. The next biggest danger after picking up something hot is being hit by forge scale.” He points to the leather apron and then to his glasses, rimmed by thick safety shields.
Forge scale is the coating of oxide that forms when steel is heated to high temperatures. When a hammer meets the scale, it often cracks and flies in different directions. Hot forge scale against exposed skin will burn quickly and is likely to leave scars. Hot forge scale in the eyes … well, that’s something he never wants to experience.
Shadwick checks the color of the steel. It glows. He holds the piece of steel with tongs and places it against his favorite anvil, an ancient piece that weighs in excess of 100 pounds and is more than a century old. He strikes the steel, drawing down the near-molten piece into a thin line. He controls the flattening by turning the piece and striking it on all sides. Long and thin is the goal. Wide is not. The steel cools quickly from white-orange to red; then Shadwick places the piece back into the hot bowels of the forge.
This time, when he pulls it out, he makes a curl over the edge of the anvil. He then places the curled part at the edge of a scroll form and bends the steel around it. The pieces are homemade, but they need to be somewhat uniform. He has made the form to be able to maintain the pattern. After the lengths of steel are curled, Shadwick welds them and places them back into the forge to heat the welds to glowing. He hammers the welds so they don’t show.
His hands are coated in black scale. His grandkids ask him, “Papaw, don’t you ever wash your hands?” Later, his wife, Norma, will ask him to take a brush to his hands before they eat. But for now, he is in the forge, he is shaping steel, and he is happy.
Learning by Hammer
An hour’s drive south and east from Wilmore, in Berea, blacksmith Jeff Farmer reflects on the path that led him to his forge. Smithing isn’t learned by osmosis, by reading a book, or by simply watching. Smithing is learned by doing.
Farmer was born and raised in Berea. While in high school, he was enrolled in an independent study through Berea College. “I had taken every art and every industrial arts course available while I was in high school. I did clay, ceramic, on-wheel techniques for two years, and did woodworking for another year. I exhausted all the other areas,” he says.
His humor is as dry as the late summer air. He speaks in a matter-of-fact way, but the tone of his voice holds mirth. “I was walking back to school from the old Cardinal grocery that used to be on Berea Square. As I cut through the campus, I peeked into a door and saw them beating on a piece of metal. That’s when I knew what I wanted to do.”
At Berea College, students work on campus to defray tuition costs. Farmer accepted a labor assignment in the blacksmith shop, learning techniques and the feel of the hammer against heated metal. His labor assignment required at least 10 hours in the shop during the week, but he routinely gave twice that much time.
“At 17, I built a five-wide chandelier that was three layers tall and about 45 inches in diameter,” he says without a hint of boasting. “I developed tool making, improving the quality of the pieces they were producing at the college. At one time, we made close to a hundred different items.”
He gets quiet for a moment, then tells how the college blacksmith shop produced 500 seven-candle candelabras to fill an order for QVC, the home shopping network. He nods and says that was a lot of hours. Farmer was the smith who designed them.
After graduating from Berea in 1983 with a degree in industrial arts education, Farmer formed a partnership with the blacksmith shop that had an independent contract with the college, and then later bought the shop himself. For 28 years, Farmer ran the college shop, teaching students how to seek out the sweet spots of molten metal, how to be safe and creative, how to make every blow count.
Shadwick didn’t get such an early start. Originally from Soddy-Daisy, Tennessee, Shadwick received his first forge from an agriculture teacher in 1960. It is a metal monster with a hand-crank blower. “I was interested in blacksmithing at a time when blacksmithing was almost dead,” he says.
After he graduated from “the college with the orange tint,” in 1973, Shadwick and his wife moved to Kentucky, where he had secured a position as a design engineer at IBM. He hauled the old forge with him, but blacksmithing was put on the proverbial back burner while he raised two children and had a career.
In 2000, retirement loomed on the horizon, and he realized he had to find something to do. “I couldn’t stay in the house and follow Norma around and ask her, ‘Well, what is that? What are you doing that for?’ all the time. I knew I would be in trouble if I did that,” he says.
To save his marriage and to fulfill the dormant desire to learn the art of blacksmithing, Shadwick dug around on the Internet. He found the John C. Campbell Folk School in Murphy, North Carolina. He figured if he was going to drive five hours to a school, he was going to stay a week. It was one week that lit a fire in his heart and changed his outlook on his future.
“The first time I went to the school, in 2000, I came back and pulled my forge out because, wow, wow, this was so exciting,” he says, talking faster and cupping the air in his hands, as if he is holding the memory right in front of him. “I was among people with the same interest. I could feel the creativity. We stayed in the shop until 10 or 11 at night. Once I found there is a place to learn more, then I decided I would go down this path.”
In 2009, Shadwick learned how beneficial the walk down this new path could be. “When [IBM] told me they would give me a sack full of money if I didn’t come back anymore, I told them to sign me up.” He claps his hands together and a small cloud of fine black dust puffs out. After 36½ years of working for a company that had, indeed, been good to him, Shadwick was going to follow his steel dream. He remembers he received his retirement package on a Tuesday or a Wednesday, went home, changed his clothes, and went out to his shop.
“I felt more creative. I had the time to do what I loved,” he says, spreading his arms out to indicate every tool, every scrap of steel in his shop. “If I am working full-time somewhere else, I am limited to the time after work to make what I need. Now, if I need to make a test piece and it isn’t quite right, it is no big deal. I have the time to make it be what I need it to be.”
Doing by Hand
Both Shadwick and Farmer speak of the days when there was one blacksmith per town. Even though it was before their time, they know that blacksmiths used to work on anything and everything metal. A smith could make needles, horseshoes, tools, hinges, utensils and pans. If there was something broken, the blacksmith could fix it. They were the ultimate problem solvers, a trait Farmer says is critical today.
“More and more schools are doing away with the more direct method of working with tools,” he says. “We are raising a generation that has no idea of how anything is made, how anything is prepared, and how anything is fixed. When it breaks, we just throw it away.”
In Shadwick’s workshop, he has old coffee cans full of pieces of rebar that he has heated, then hammered, then quenched in water to harden the steel. These are his tools—punches to hammer into softened steel for decorations, forms to produce uniform shapes, dies for cutting and bending metal.
Shadwick has four different anvils: a small anvil that holds a tool with different dies; a high anvil that allows him to do detailed work; an anvil that is made of cast iron so he can cut metal on it; and an anvil that is just right for the majority of his hammering.
“A lot of traditional blacksmiths will put their anvils on stumps. An anvil will ring if it’s not clamped down good. Some people wrap chains around them or put magnets on them,” Shadwick says. For effect, he raises a ball-peen hammer and strikes his “just right” anvil. The sound pierces the air but doesn’t linger. “I made this wooden base, filled it with concrete, bolted it to the floor, then clamped the anvil on here. It’s a thud instead of a ring.”
Most smiths make their own tools. Farmer has made tools from a scrapped engine coil before. “As a blacksmith, I can’t have just one tool. That is the beauty of this craft, and with a lot of other crafts. You can make any tool you need,” he says. “I use a traditional forge and a propane gas forge. I do traditional forge welding, and I do MIG welding, using mechanical inert gas.”
He knows that when he heats a piece of copper, then puts it in water, it softens. When he heats a piece of steel and puts it in water, it hardens. He knows how to move metal. He constantly pushes the boundaries. “I’ve learned a lot from conferences and trial and error. I’ve sat on a lot of different tailgates and talked about different things,” he says.
Farmer has learned the color of steel. When it is red hot, it is about 1,000 degrees. The red heats into medium red, then light red, then dark orange, then white orange, then up to white. White is 2,300 to 2,400 degrees—the perfect temperature to make metal go where you want it to go, he says.
Farmer says the most important tool in his shop is irreplaceable. It is his mind. And it is the mind that Farmer wants to help shape when he teaches his classes at Berea. His career with the college ended about a year ago, but Farmer didn’t stop teaching. He passes on his trade through a series of workshops in a partnership with the city of Berea. The Festival of Learnshops is held for two weeks during the summer. In November and December, there are three-hour workshops called “Make It, Take It, Give It!” where students of all ages can learn the art and craft of blacksmithing.
“People are used to black-and-white answers, but everything is changing and transitioning. Add heat, and that changes things,” he says. “Having the right heat, putting it on the anvil at the right angle, and then striking it with the hammer at the right angle. As long as you get those three aspects right, the piece is going to come out somewhat like what you want.”
In Berea, a dog barks, tourists travel in and out of stores and the welcome center. College students learn to work and work to learn. Farmer nods his head at the rhythm of it all. “People and metal are kinda the same. You don’t know what you’ve got until you hit on them with a hammer.” There is a twinkle in his eye when he says this, and then he gets a more serious look.
He tells about a week he spent in Indiana with a blacksmithing friend just this past summer. He and his friend worked on finishing a wrought-iron dogwood tree. The tree has 16 dogwood blossoms on it, and is 6½ feet tall and 4 feet wide. It was put together by mostly traditional techniques. The two men worked side by side, imagining and shaping and forging. They arched the tree to bend, just right, over a headstone in a northern cemetery. Farmer’s friend has lost a grandson. The dogwood tree is the boy’s memorial.
“I hope that I can continue to do this for the rest of my life,” Farmer says. “After a while, it becomes much more than your occupation. It becomes a part of your soul.”