Blacksmithing Research - On-site Interview with Kenneth Schwarz
By Carrie Fancett Pagels
I was recently privileged to interview Master Craftsman, Ken Schwarz, at CW. I was referred to him by the Carriage Maker Shop blacksmiths. At this location both wheelwrights and blacksmiths work on site.
One question I had for Mr. Schwarz was – Within a blacksmith shop are the workers specialized?
Answer: There are skills craftsmen with specialties but almost every activity has an unskilled part that anyone can perform. Also, within a small shop in a more rural area the blacksmiths would need to know many different skills and less specialized work would be done.
|Colonial Williamsburg Blacksmith at Work|
When I was observing, I noticed hat the metal rods being used had to be removed from the coal fire of the forge frequently and examined. I asked why that was.
Mr. Schwarz responded: The color of the metal indicates how hot it is and different metalwork projects require varying temperatures and thus different coloration of the metal.
Red = When it first softens, then Orange, then Yellow, finally White when it gets close to (melting) the temperature for welding metal.
I watched as the smiths made an elaborate curlicued potrack. I had just researched that for my character and found that there were many tools that made the job easier.
However, Mr. Schwarz told me (and I observed!): You can hammer the curlicues into the metal.
He added: At a smaller shop during that time there would be no sense in purchasing an extra tool for such work. Hammering removes the extra metal – it just falls off. It also polishes the metal well. The hammer is essentially squeezing the metal into shape.
There is a rhythm to the work of blacksmithing. The worker pulls the bellows from overhead to fan the flame, inserts the metal to a certain heat, then repeats as necessary. Mr. told me that a rhythm is needed to do the work more quickly and uniform. Making nails in quantity for instance, each nail is almost exactly the same. The blacksmith hardly has to think about it. With a hinge, if they make them routinely it can be done faster but it still may require up to two to three hours for a large pair of hinges.
He shared that blacksmiths used to be known to sing together as they worked to reflect that pace. In England there was a lawsuit brought about because of “industrial noise” but it was really about the loud singing!
They were mixing a white powder into the molten metal that day. It was Borax.
I asked why?
Answer: Borax acts as a Flux. It controls oxidation from forming scale on the surface (iron oxide.) Borax eliminates the iron oxide and thus helps with welding.
I commented - The men at work were not wearing gloves. Why not?
Answer: Gloves do NOT offer protection over tongs. No glove would have stood up to the heat generated plus gloves would interfere with using the tongs.
Mr. Schwarz also commented that a blacksmith must have skill in building and maintaining the fire, keeping it at the proper temperature. I want to thank Mr. Schwarz for all his help!
Here is a great link for an interview CW did with Kenneth Schwarz (and much better than mine since I had some pretty specific research questions! http://www.history.org/media/podcasts_transcripts/CWPP_KSchwarz.cfm
I live in Yorktown and am fortunate to be able to go out to CW frequently for my writing research. Is there someplace nearby you, maybe almost in your own back yard, that you go to for inspiration or for historical research? If so, share!