Learning the craftWritten by Caitlin Bowling
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In a classic case of the student becoming the teacher, Brock Martin signed up for his first blacksmithing class at the Jackson County Green Energy Park and began apprenticing soon after.
That was four years ago.
Now, he has been teaching classes at the park for a little more than year.
“I was always interested in it,” Martin said.
However, he did not quite know how to get started or if anyone really lived as a blacksmith anymore. After a high school teacher introduced him to a group of medieval re-enactors, he began seeking out more information about the art.
Martin, 23, blacksmiths as often as he can, teaching classes or creating custom pieces for sale. A resident of Hickory, near Asheville, he makes maille jewelry and armor, among other things.
Creating something from metal can be a long process.
Students start with a metal rod, which they regularly heat to up to 2,300˚F.
The progression of the heat turns the metal from yellow to dark brown to blue to black to red.
“Once it gets red, you can really start getting it to do what you want it to do,” said Martin.
Then, they begin working the metal with all variety of hammers — ones with flat, square heads, ones with spherical heads and ones with wedges heads. Each makes a different impression on the metal, works it in a different way and can be used to make a myriad of objects. It all hinges on the angle of the metal versus the angle of the hammer’s blow.
“It’s a misconception that you have to be strong,” Martin said.
Depending on the project, shaping and perfecting an inch-long piece of metal can take more than an hour. The rod must be reheated to make it more malleable, but students must watch that thinner portions don’t get too hot. Steel begins to melt at 2,500˚F.
To temper the heat, they must immerse the thin and more easily warmed part of the rod in water so they can continue to heat thicker portions of it.
Beginning blacksmithing classes are offered about once a month at the Jackson County Green Energy Park. The park is part of a county government initiative to use the old Dillsboro landfill gases as well as promote sustainability and various educational opportunities.
The beginner classes are “very gradual” compared to the intermediate level, Martin said.
Students move from station to station, trying to master individual skills before they tackle the end goal of actually creating something.
The class sizes are generally small, making them more hands on. At a recent intermediate class, three people independently worked on projects as Martin moved from workstation to workstation, offering help and tips.
Although the class was only their first or second attempt, the three burgeoning blacksmiths have all spent time working with their hands.
Todd Sagy, 48, diligently worked on a metal toilet paper holder. As a welder, metal work is second nature, but blacksmith permits more creativity.
Blacksmithing allows him to “take something that’s nothing and make something out of it,” Sagy said.
There is a fine line between working the metal too much and not enough, said Jesse Johnson, a 22-year-old construction worker.
Johnson spent much of his time twisting the small steel rods, with which he worked, to craft a necklace holder for his girl friend’s birthday.
“It’s not that bad, really, if you are used to working with tools,” Johnson said. “Mostly, it’s just a lot of fun.”
After taking his first class, Jesse got his twin brother Josh to join in as well. Both said they had been interested in learning to blacksmith for a while but actually decided to take a class after their mother took a glassblowing class at the energy park.