Blacksmithing in Italy

16 02 2010

This summer, one of the festivals I attended was the World Forging Championship in Stia, Italy — a small town up in the mountains near Florence. Here’s some photos taken by my friend Kate Dinneen. We’ll play the ‘can you spot the safety violations?’ game!

A pose!

Modern Artistic Blacksmithing Class

12 02 2010

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!


27 01 2010

Here’s a fun recipe from The Spice Cookbook (Avanelle Day and Lillie Stuckey, 1964). I made pfeffernuesse last year and again this year, and both times it came out great! It’s supposed to be a holiday cookie, but I think any dayou make

“Pepper Nuts” or “Spice Nuts are English for this traditional German Christmas cooky.
3/4 cup strained honey
3/4 cup unsulphured molasses
1/4 cup shortening
1 large egg
4 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon double-acting baking powder
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground allspice
3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom seed
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground anise seed

Heat honey and molasses (do not boil) in a saucepan large enough for mixing the dough. Add shortening. Cool. Beat in egg.

Sift remaining ingredients together and gradually stir in honey mixture. Let dough stand 30 minutes to stiffen enough to handle.

Moisten hands and shape dough into 3/4 inch balls. Bake on lightly greased cooky sheets in a preheated moderate oven (350ºF.) 13 to 15 minutes. Frost with Pffernusse Frosting. if a soft cooky is desired, store airtight.

In lieu of ground nutmeg, we used 3/4 teaspoon cloves. It worked out alright. These are a savory cookie, and the black pepper adds a little burn. Our cookies were a little on the big side too, around 1 inch or larger. I recommend trying to make them smaller.

This recipe I found online at The Spice House (after a very quick google search) recommends making them, “small balls the size of nuts.” Our recipe made 8 dozen, but the book says it should make 11 dozen. Maybe if we rolled them smaller…

pfeffernuesse Frosting
1 large egg white
2 teaspoons light corn syrup
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1-1/2 cups sifted confectioners’ sugar

Combine the first 3 ingredients in a 1-quart mixing bowl. Gradually beat in confectioners’ sugar with an electric or rotary beater. Place 12 to 14 pfeffernuesse and 2 tablespoons frosting, at a time, in a mixing bowl. Stir with a fork until all pfeffernuesses are lightly covered. Repeat using all cookies and frosting.

Lift out with a fork onto a wire cooling rack. Have a pan, wax paper, or foil underneath to catch frosting that drips through the wires. Let stand until frosting has hardened.

The frosting recipe says it makes enough for 9 dozen pfeffernuesse, which doesn’t match up with how many the cookie recipe says it can make. For 8 dozen cookies, we barely had enough frosting. Also, don’t forget for the frosting, the confectioners’ sugar has a thickening agent in it — usually corn starch or something like it — you can’t just use powdered sugar.

Speaking of powdered sugar, some recipes say to just roll them in powdered sugar. No, says I. I don’t like powdered sugar as a coating for cookies because it comes off on everything, and dries out your mouth. It feels chalky. When given the option, I prefer special glazes and frostings. Especially the pfeffernuesse frosting. I mean, it has its own recipe in a cookbook! How special is that? They’re basically saying, “You don’t get the full pfeffernuesse experience without the proper frosting.”

These are one of the cookies that apparently ages well. I love these! The spices mature over time, so they say. Says the author of the Spice House recipe:

The flavor gets better with age. Tradition has us making these the day after Thanksgiving so they are ready for Christmas. We store them in a pillow case and hide them, so they will last until the Christmas Season.

If you make them, tell me how they came out!

An Interesting Article and an Interesting Photo Gallery

26 01 2010

My internet score is up by two:

Last month, I was featured in a blog article from Hampshire College’s Lemelson Center blog! It’s about my six month trip to Ukraine and beyond as an artist blacksmith and has some interesting comments by me. I promise I am (slowly) writing about my trip and will have some of that project up soon.

There’s a photograph from Arisia of me and a few close friends and relations over at the Boston Phoenix. The girl with the balloon over her head is my sister. Lindsay mentioned Arisia a few days ago. It’s the largest New England region science fiction convention, and takes place every January in Boston. We here think it’s worth both your time and money.

Artist Blacksmith

25 01 2010

It’s been around a year since I’ve posted here. What have I been doing in the meantime? Well, I quit my job last spring and went to Europe for six months to learn more blacksmithing. It was an epic adventure, spanning ten countries, several festivals, and hundreds of international blacksmith friends. I visited places as far apart and diverse as Ukraine, Finland, England, and Italy.

Since arriving in the States, I’ve been working to set myself up as an artist blacksmith. I’m working on a website. It’s not done yet, but I’ve got a little teaser for you here:

Robot, plugged in

This robot was accepted into the “I… You… We… Robot” show at the Space 242 gallery in Boston. If you’re local, you should show up for the opening, this Friday (29.01.10) from 6pm-8pm! I’ll be there. Don’t forget to RSVP!

If you are interested in ornamental ironwork, handmade art such as lamps, gates, fences, furniture, or sculpture, give me an e-mail. Blacksmith at, and I’ll get back to you!

I’ll definitely be posting here about more of my adventures in both the professional blacksmithing, art, and design world, and the science fiction world! Keep reading :)

A quote

30 12 2008

On the new Celestial Seasonings Chamomile Tea box:

“”Inkwells and teacups are never so full as when one upsets them.” – Edith Wharton

What say you?

Writing update

29 12 2008

So, I’ve been writing a lot, finally.

In the week and a half before Christmas, I wrote a story currently titled “The Master Clock,” about 6500 words. It’s in editing stages. I sent it to a couple people to read and I hope they like it. (I already know where some of the problems are. Eeek. I wish I’d proofread it before I gave it to them, but I needed it out the door to feel good about myself.)

Since Christmas eve, I’ve laid down 7500 words of a story “The Crystal Face of God,” and it’s almost drafted. I think I have a fair amount more editing to do on this one though, and at least another 1000 words to add or more, because I just filled in some details so I could get to the end and have it all down.

Both are entering the editing stages. I have a few more stories in the brain pipeline that I might start working on while editing, but that will require me to pay special attention to time management, making sure I can finish everything.

Woo, productivity! Sadly, I have real work tomorrow morning, and I am up past my bedtime.