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Blacksmithing forges ahead

Blacksmithing conjures up images of hot, heavy work carried out by burly bearded Britons ages ago; not much to do with today’s world you might say. But take a closer look around you, and you’ll be amazed at the amount of ironwork you can see – the hinges holding open the door, the hook hanging up your coat, the ornate railings you pass by every day. You may not know it, but blacksmiths created the very nails that hold the modern world together.

In its purest form, the craft consists of shaping metal using heat, a hammer and anvil. “You’re basically mucking around with its atomic structure,” says Aaron Petersen, a blacksmith, sculptor and university lecturer. On a hot Saturday in an even hotter forge in west Wales, he is teaching me the right way to pound the hell out of a piece of steel.

“When the metal is heated, the molecules loosen so it’s easier to bend; a bit like cooking,” says Petersen. But this is no ordinary kitchen: the Petersen family forge is like something from another age, with its intense fire, hundreds of hammers and tongs adorning the walls and weighty anvils which look as though they haven’t moved an inch in centuries. An iron bottom clasped by an iron hand completes the scene.

This morning we are cooking up mild steel to fashion into a decorative candlestick, which will hopefully take pride of place on the family mantelpiece. “The temperature should be from 1,000C-1,300C and a good welding heat is a yellow one,” says Petersen, which means steel-capped boots and goggles are a must for this line of work. And then the clanging begins: we begin by “drawing down” the steel rods, pounding it with a hammer to “upset” or reduce the thickness of the metal, and “drawing it to a point”.

“It’s an antidote to our computer-bound lives,” says Petersen. It’s incredibly hot and dirty work too. “The great thing is that it’s an immediate process,” he says. “The metal shapes quickly in smithing, as opposed to something like pottery which involves several stages of firing and drying before you see the result.”

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Students on his weekend course, which is geared towards mastering basic smithing skills, have ranged from artists to stressed-out executives. “A lot of wives send their husbands. Some are spurred to take it up professionally – not everyone is cut out to be a hedge fund manager,” says Petersen. Everyone comes away with their own finished pieces, be they bespoke tools, nails, decorative artwork or doorknockers. Others renovating their homes come to work on specific items.

The Economist

2. Write an essay answering the question: ‘Will blacksmiths actually be needed in the future?’


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