FORGING THE PAST
BY CHERYL A. HOLMES
I hear the sound of metal striking metal, do you? Let me take you to the sound, it’s not far; just a short trip down this dirt road and then a bit farther on up the winding driveway through the woods; it’s a place you’ll enjoy.
This is the home of Donald and Evelyn Shelton. Over here, on the left-hand side of the driveway, is the garage; inside you will find the tools he uses, rooms for the finishing process and lots of storage for the distinctive items Don makes for his business, A Touch of the Past (ATOTP).
He is a Blacksmith; the sound of metal meeting metal that you heard was him going through the process of making a leg for a stool, yet doing it in a very old way.
Blacksmiths have been around for centuries. They have made and repaired items through heating and molding metal with a hammer, they are true craftsmen and they are artists. Don is what people call an artistic blacksmith. He is a creator, using his forge to make practical things of beauty. I have seen many of his works first hand and I thought you would appreciate a tour of his crafting domain.
Don enjoys what he is doing, while providing a service to others. He has made many items to customer specifications and if in fact there is something a bit ‘off’ with the idea, Don uses his knowledge to perfect what he is making. He has made signs for shops and tables for books as well as smaller items, just for the enjoyment of all who see. His work has been at The Everhart Museum in Scranton, PA as well. It was not what people were there to view; it was holding the items on display. Like the nails that goes un-noticed during the building of a house, his work took a back seat to an African artifacts display and nothing could have pleased Don more.
The substance wrought iron, a ferrous metal, is for the most part no longer available. In the past blacksmith items were made of wrought iron, now steel is used. Don has made items using a new type steel called pure iron, which is a new method of producing carbon free iron. Usually tool making is done using a high carbon steel while decorative blacksmiths use low carbon steel. The term, wrought iron, is an adjective used in today’s language as a description for decorative ironwork in which the steel has been worked by hammer and usually fire.
How, you may wonder, does Don make his works? Let’s look at the necessary items… the tools of a blacksmith’s trade. Don uses a heavy hammer to hit the steel, but just hitting steel would only make small dents, so he needs a forge to heat his metal to a malleable state. The temperature, which he defines as ‘a nice bright orange glow’, is somewhere between 2000 and 2500 degrees Fahrenheit.
So, all blacksmiths need something to hit – i.e. steel, something to hit it with – a hammer, in addition, something to make the metal hot – a forge. They will also need something to hold the heated metal – tongs, and something to hit the heated metal on and give it new shape. An anvil or piece of railroad track, even an I-beam will work.
Don’s work is hot and can be a lot of trial and error, but that gives him great pleasure. It is also something in which he takes pride. A happy customer is often a return customer and they frequently send or bring their friends to his business; in other words, word of mouth helps immensely when one is in this business.
Don’s wife Evelyn (fondly known as Evie) is also of great significance to the business. She is the office person, web designer, booth designer, and Don’s companion, assistant, and right-hand-man when dealing with sales. She is also the analytical end in product design. Sometimes a small flaw may go unseen by Don’s tired eyes but he has Evie to help him review his work. By also demonstrating his craft at shows and home, Don is working hard to make the elderly see their past as well as let others see life from another time. Together they make history fun to visit.
It may seem like blacksmithing is a straightforward occupation. In fact, it can be quite problematic. Don finds his new ideas in a variety of ways. He says some of his ideas have even come from dreams; he is a man who eats, sleeps and lives his job!
Once he has an idea in his head he needs to make a sketch and estimate the amount of steel needed. He must know which tools will be necessary and then test his technique. Being able to make an item is perhaps half of finishing the job. With his first draft made, he must now refine his work; this can take many tries for him to get the finished product. Nothing leaves ATOTP without his final approval.
Don’s search for perfection is no different from those of blacksmiths of long ago. Blacksmithing has evolved from its beginning, in the Iron Age, when someone discovered that certain rocks, when put in the fire, yielded iron. Since then people have used the iron for simple tools and cookware, to plows and wheel rims.
Did you know that the compass was discovered and made by a blacksmith? That’s right, a blacksmith forged a needle in such a way that the molecules in the iron aligned. When floated in a round container of water this needle could show people where magnetic north was. Thanks to a blacksmith, travel was changed forever. Sailors no longer needed the sun or stars, they could tell without a doubt, in any weather, what direction they were traveling.
At one time, the village blacksmith was one of the most indispensable people a town had. He could make nails, repair pots, fix a broken wagon rim or make weapons. From civilized tools to items of war, he could and would make anything.
Blacksmiths often focused on a specific area of smithing. If a man needed a suit of armor, he would travel to an Armorer, if the same man needed a lock he would seek out a Locksmith. There were Gunsmiths to make guns, Bladesmiths to make knives and swords, and the Farrier to shoe their horses. All specialties still exist today. Probably the best knows is the Farrier, who still shoes pleasure horses, draft horses and even oxen.
Blacksmiths are more artistic and harder to find in this age of automation. There are a few and if you look you will see they make their living doing what they enjoy. They are a group who, like Don Shelton, are devoted to a lifelong labor of love. Love of heat and metal, love of learning and designing, love of sharing the past with the future and keeping Blacksmithing, an important part of our heritage, alive.