I’m teaching a blacksmithing class at Hampshire College this semester. It’s a really cool opportunity for both me and the students. We’re going to be doing some really great stuff, and I hope to get a camera so I can document as much as possible.
The class is exciting for me for a number of reasons. It diversifies my income — I’m not relying solely on commissions to make rent. I’ll get some sort of Honorarium payment from Hampshire for teaching. The other thing it does is tell me a bit more about what I have learned in the past eight or nine months since I went to Europe. They say the best way to reinforce what you learn is by teaching. Since I want to be doing larger architectural works, I’m focusing this class on creating a window grille for the Lemelson office, and a section of fence, hopefully for the community garden.
We’re doing two projects, because the class is oversubscribed and I don’t want to turn everyone away. Since there isn’t enough room for a dozen people to work in the shop, I have to split the class up into two groups of six. Each group will design and carry out a different project.
This leads us to the nuanced difficulties of my task. I’m the only one in the room who really understands what it means to do one of these projects — I’ve been watching blacksmiths work on them for a while, but never really got a chance to do it myself. Now I get to be project manager and direct a bunch of other people. I have to plan out the workload so we don’t hit a bottleneck, relying on one or two people to get work done before the whole project can proceed.
I also have to teach blacksmithing techniques. The aim of this class is to build something large, because most of the blacksmithing that goes on at the Lemelson Center is small and relatively crude. People know how to make knives and hooks and bottle openers, because that’s all they’ve seen. No one has been teaching blacksmithing for a few years, so what’s been passed on is limited knowledge. I get to educate a bunch of almost-blacksmiths. Some of them have decent skills and hammer control.
Some of them haven’t ever swung a hammer in their life. About half my class has no blacksmithing experience. They don’t know the first thing about forging, and they just came to the class because it sounded really interesting. This group of people is also exciting to engage with — I have to figure out how to develop the right techniques without losing sight of the main project. They have to build muscle memory, a feel for the metal, a knowledge of which tools can accomplish what tasks, and they have to do it all while putting together a fence, or a window grille. I think they can do it though.
My hope is that the presence of a larger project will actually aid in our (nearly daunting) task. Once we get past the basics of hammer work, which will be an exercise at the start of next class, we can focus on the techniques specific to our projects. Does it have a rivet joint? We’ll learn to punch a hole and hammer over a rivet. Do we need twenty elements to be all exactly the same? We’ll learn to make and use jigs. Do we have a mortise and tenon joint? We’ll learn to put a tenon on a bar and drift open a hole. Of course, then we have to learn about proper cutting tools and making drifts of the correct size. I hope you can see how it all logically flows together.
The first hurdle, however, is getting the design together. How do you get a room of people who have never conceived of blacksmithing as anything larger than a bottle opener to design a window grille? You have to train their eyes and mind to perceive and think about the properties of ironwork. I started with books, lots of books with pictures of contemporary blacksmithing. I told them to look for compositions, joints, and textures of metal that they really liked, and share them with the class. The assignment was to go home and, from the books, choose elements or make up their own for ideal window grilles.
I’ll tell you how it goes! Next class, after a forging exercise, we’ll compile the drawings into our design. We’ll figure out how much metal we need, and by the third class hopefully we can start forging the final projects!