Ever since I started reading fantasy novels as a child, I, along with most other fans of the genre, have loved a blacksmith. The archetypical blacksmith’s son/ apprentice finds he has great powers and sword wielding skills in so many novels and films (Pirates of the Caribbean, How to Train your Dragon, Wheel of Time, Wizard of Earthsea). Along with wanting to be an elf, I was certain I could craft my own sword and that being a blacksmith was magic.
Well for our wedding anniversary, AfroKen and I went on a day workshop in Norfolk to make our own knives. It was in keeping with all of the other crafting we’ve done (e.g. making our own wedding rings) as well as living out our fantasy world dreams (e.g. survival weekend learning to start fires and snare rabbits). We had illusions of grandeur, of making a sword in a day, of being naturals. What actually happened was so much more interesting.
My vision of what we were doing was heating up some metal and hitting it with a hammer. That did happen. And it was so difficult to be fast and precise and strong all at the same time. After about 5 attempts, the blacksmith Nick offered to help me out and in one go, made a basic knife shape. Although I hate to admit weakness, I accepted straight away that his decades of experience were worth seeing.
But it doesn’t end at the hammer! To make one little bushcraft knife took us about 8 hours. We had to grind the edges down, sharpen the blade, temper the cutting edge, burn on the handle and then shape it, polish it up, make a leather sheath, and lots of other steps that makes me head spin. It gave me so much respect for the time and cost of handcrafted items.
What I loved even more were the stories. Nick was turning anything into a blade from old Landrover parts to century old ship pins. He made things from meteor and mammoth tusks. He had a backlog of quirky commissions to do and yet he seemed to savour the time telling his stories and teaching two rank amateurs on how to make a knife.
Of course in this day and age everything can be done quicker and cheaper but Nick, and the people who commissioned these items, wanted it for the history, the care and the beauty of a hand-forged item. He told us about making movie props, pieces for museums and when we stopped for lunch we could see his hand-craft in the cutlery, the door handles shaped like leaves and candlestick holders on the table. It was beautiful and the skills to make anything he needed from a chunk of ugly metal was astounding. I can entirely understand why blacksmiths were seen as magicians back in the day.
The sad thing is that it is a dying art. Knowledge and skills were passed down through generations and not in books or videos. I felt like I was being given a glimpse into an old world, another world where we didn’t just buy things from shops but used our hands to make it. And if the first attempt fails, we just keep trying. I know most of it is on youtube and Wikipedia these days, but hearing it from an experienced blacksmith was so much more satisfying. It was more in keeping with the oral tradition.
I’ve never felt closer to the fantasy books of my youth than listening to Nick’s stories about hunting with a bow and arrow, falconry and making his own set of tools in his apprenticeship.