With my coracle and wooden spoon in pride of place, it’s time to try my next heritage craft from the Radcliffe Red List! This month I’ve been having a go at blacksmithing, the ancient art of forging iron and steel.
The ‘black’ in blacksmith comes from the black fire scale that builds on the surface of metal during heating, formed by a layer of oxides. In Britain, it wasn’t until the Iron Age that people started smelting and melting iron from ore stones. According to legend, the Saxon blacksmith Wayland Smith, known in Old Norse as Völundr, was known for forging beautiful gold rings and gems, but was captured by a cruel king who hamstringed and imprisoned him on an island. Wayland took revenge on the king by killing his sons and forging objects from their skulls, teeth and eyes, before seducing the king’s daughter and escaping with metal wings he had forged in secret.
I wasn’t too bothered about wings or skulls, but I did want to forge myself a few nice items… My tutor was Joe Tyler, a professional blacksmith who runs the course at Chichester College. Biscuits opened and goggles donned, off we went!
Although ancient people would have used foot-powered bellows to heat their fire, we made use of modern technology and electricity, although the ‘electric bellows’ were actually just a bouncy castle machine! When the fire glowed orange, it had reached around 800°C and was ready for action.
We started with a spiral candle holder. An iron bar is placed into the fire until it glows orange, and basically blends into the background of the fire. If it turns cherry red it’s too cool, but if it’s white it can get too hot. Unfortunately we both got distracted at one point and left the iron in the fire too long, so the holder handle melted off… But it still looked lovely – I’m now using it as a tealight holder!
Next, we made a serpent pendant for my inner Viking. This involved lots of tapering and twisting until the serpent had coiled in on itself to make an awesome pendant shape. We even dented the head so I can tie leather around the neck to hang it correctly. It looks wicked!
Any finished objects are brushed to remove slag and other bits, and then covered in beeswax to stop the natural oils from human paws corroding the metal. This is done while it’s still piping hot, so it can easily melt across the entire surface. Joe dunked the whole serpent in the beeswax block so it made this cool mould.
Lastly, I wanted to forge a butter knife to go with my goat’s cheese and butter paddles (I’m basically creating a mini-dairy industry for fun). The funky handle design enables the knife to hang from a Viking or Saxon belt, and the blade is nice and long to ensure large amounts of bread and butter can be consumed at all times (essential).
I had an AWESOME time learning how to forge iron, and I can’t wait to make more! Joe is teaching blacksmithing workshops at Butser Ancient Farm next year, and I highly recommend booking on.