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!

What’s up with that Lindsay girl doing her Homework?

28 02 2008

“It is so satisfying, reading this book. Just as I feel hopelessly lost in the complicated ideas and language and my eyes begin to disconnect from my brain, something makes absolute and perfect sense – it resonates and I have found that somehow, I have just learned something profound.” – My writings in the margins of my Cosmology notebook.

I am in the middle of reading Steven Weinberg’s The First Three Minutes which is “a Modern View of the Origin of the Universe.” Cosmology is one of the most fascinating and certainly one of the best classes I have ever had in any of the five colleges. Professor Tom Dennis, myself and one Mt. Holyoke student sit in his office talking about Light, The Universe and Everything – as he’d say, from 9:00am until whenever he kicks us out for the fifth time (neither of us ever really wants to leave.)

I was originally a little hesitant about the class, as I felt I had none of the “requirements” for being there, those pesky little requirements like Calculus and Physics. When I mentioned that to him he told me this story:

A young man was quite remarkable in Mathematics and Physics – he graduated and went on to graduate school where he learned that he wanted to do research in Astronomy. He wanted to learn about the beginning of the Universe. At the time, researching the beginning of the Universe in a modern sense was quite cutting-edge and, in fact, he learned that all the research at the time was done primarily in France and thus, all the papers he wanted to read were in French. He dropped his Mathematics and his Physics and began to study French. And to this day Tom was unsure as to whether or not the young man had ever made it to studying the Universe.

“Are you the kind of person who will leave this class for your Calculus and your Physics and learn from the building blocks up?” He asked me simply, “Or are you the kind of person who will just jump right in?”

I have done my homework every night. I have done extra homework every night. I have done my homework and extra homework even when I had none to do in the first place. I have learned and retained more math skillz in the past few weeks than during all of high school. I am actively seeking out more information because class just doesn’t happen often enough. I am loving every moment of this class. Except maybe for the fact that it begins at 9:00am.