The Blacksmiths of Auburn, Maine

Eva Murray. Sunday, Mar-01-09

(this article appeared in the Lewiston Sun Journal, March 1, 2009)

If you happen to find yourself in the industrial outskirts of Auburn, not far from the railroad tracks, near the scrap metal companies, recyclers, and snowmobile dealerships, you may hear a sound that was commonplace years ago...the ring of the hammer on the anvil.

The New England School of Metalwork, located at 7 Albiston Way is, to quote their brochure, "a non-profit educational facility devoted to the training of welders and artistic blacksmiths." The school offers a series of classes in MIG, TIG, old-fashioned "stick," and oxy-acetylene welding. It also offers sessions in blacksmithing...the ancient and modern arts of working in iron with (mostly) hand tools. Started in 2000 by Bruce Albiston, the owner of Maine Oxy, and Dan Guerin, the company's president, who'd been hearing from customers that there was a need for more training for welders, it seemed logical for a dealer in welding supplies to offer education in welding skills for both the professional and those looking to enter the trade. But blacksmithing? Who does that anymore?

As it turns out, plenty of people.

The NESM blacksmithing/bladesmithing program defies easy categorization. Sort of a trade school, sort of an art studio, the school is a venue which brings together respect for traditional craftsmanship, artistic vision, some just-for-fun hobbies, and the satisfaction of hard work. The varied courses and workshops offered throughout the year welcome beginners and experts, backyard scrap-iron sculptors and precision designers. They attract craftspeople, builders, historic re-enactors, old-tool enthusiasts, thoroughly modern, technology-aided machinists looking to expand their experience, engineers and "dumpster-divers," jewelers and pipe-fitters, teenagers and retired folks, men and women"

Yes, women. It's a fact that quite a few metal artists, and blacksmithing instructors, are women.

Dereck Glaser, who describes himself as the "metalsmithing program director and resident blacksmith," is a working smith with a studio/forge in Winthrop, Maine. He's been working in iron since he was a teenager in the Cincinatti area. When Maine Oxy decided to open the school, Albiston approached Glaser to help develop the program. Glaser is also trained as an Industrial Arts teacher, and with safety always first, he comes across like the former "shop teacher" he is. The work area is clean and orderly, and Glaser shows new students how to be good to the equipment, how not to waste fuel, how to bank their fires so they will still be going when everybody gets back from lunch. He keeps a close eye on both the tools and the workshop participants; if he is not teaching, he's helping students to choose the steel they need for their projects, or to select the right tool; he busies himself sharpening chisels, tightening belts, and grimacing uncomfortably when it looks like a student is about to inadvertently abuse the bandsaw blade. Glaser specializes in architectural ironwork and traditional joinery, as well as sculptural work.

The NESM is no longer a part of Maine Oxy, but the school still maintains a close relationship with the company. Glaser and Warren Swan, who heads up the welding program, see the school as (in their words) "dedicated to creating the most comfortable and motivating atmosphere," to help students "obtain mastery of their craft." The emotional connection between the craftsperson and his or her tools is recognized and acknowledged here; unlike mere "vocational" training which is geared first toward helping the student make a living, here the satisfaction and pleasure of participating in and perfecting one's craft are deeply respected, without exclusive attitudes, snobbishness or incomprehensible "art jargon."

Visiting artists and instructors come from all over the country to share their particular expertise with the students at NESM. I've attended workshops with Doug Merkel (who also teaches at the John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina) and with Caleb Kullman, who designs and creates, among other things, those massive and unique fireplaces for fancy ski houses in Telluride, Colorado. Some classes have a specific theme...toolmaking, or botanical forms in metal, or Japanese bladesmithing; the school also offer beginner's classes, "open forge" workshops where students can bring their own projects to work on, and sessions where the group, working together, fabricates enough coal forges or power hammers for everyone (bring your truck!)

In a typical workshop, the instructor will demonstrate particular techniques from time to time, and move around assisting students as needed. Participants are typically a varied group, and though the course catalog describes some sessions as beginner-friendly and others as requiring more experience, there is always a range of skill and background among the students, who often pick up ideas and tips from each other. Sometimes students have specific projects in mind, sometimes they don't; some may just want to experiment with a new medium or a new technique without concern for a finished product.

What's a day spent at the forge going to be like?

You arrive at 8:00 in the morning, and meet the other students sitting around the tables in the classroom, where Glaser has made a pot of coffee. (At this point you might find yourself sizing up the other students...ah, good...they're not all seven-foot tall gorillas.) Participants make introductions and hear a brief talk from the instructor. Then, the small group walks a few feet across the parking area to the workshop building. Inside, a large room dedicated half to blacksmithing, half to welding holds a generous collection of metalworking tools...not machine shop equipment intended for precise fabrication, but rather, hand tools and common power tools, accessible to most of us. On the blacksmithing side there are coal forges and propane gas forges, anvils and vises, sledge hammers and pneumatic power-hammers, files and chisels, coal buckets and water barrels. There are grinders and torches, a drill press and belt sander, and, perhaps mystifyingly, big racks of tools, some of which you might actually recognize (and many you won't.)

If it is your first experience at the coal forge, you'll likely spend a good deal of time starting and figuring out your fire...perhaps you'll look at anybody in the group who's done this before and think, "Why aren't they having as much trouble as I am?" Before lunch, though, you'll be thinking, "This is just like a childhood dream...get dirty, play with fire, pound on things, make noise..." Your lunch will taste wonderful, and if you go to a local store for your sandwich, they may just be able to figure out where you've been all morning, from the coal smudges on your knuckles.

There is definitely a sense of pride to be felt in saying, "I made this." One five-day workshop will not make a master smith out of a beginner, but your first usable hook or fire poker feels pretty good. Then, your first good ("stuck") forge weld feels great...before that becomes routine as well. Working with tools you've made yourself is also a terrific feeling. I now use "my" hammer, plus a few chisels and center punches and lots of fire tools; they aren't perfect, but they're distinctly my own. Blacksmiths often make their own tongs. My first tongs are ugly and primitive, but usable; undoubtedly the next ones will look better. There is something very special about making the tools with which to make the art.

Many people think of the blacksmith as the farrier, the specialist who shoes animals. When I first mentioned my interest in this craft, several of my neighbors felt the need to observe, "...but you don't have a horse!" NESM does not offer training in shoeing horses (although Dereck might be able to connect you with somebody who can) but does offer classes in a wide array of other metalwork. You might create elegant steel flowers, or construct your own hammer; make a set of fireplace tools or work in copper to craft a weather vane; learn to reproduce colonial hinges, make a knife or try your hand at casting. As for the image of the brawny blacksmith, "We're not building railroad engines" remarks (seriously brawny) instructor Doug Merkel. You do need to be prepared for some physical exertion, but I can assure you...it feels good.

Picking up the blacksmith's hammer connects one to a millenia-old tradition of craftsmanship. Metalsmithing was the "cutting edge technology" of the day, many, MANY days ago. This art, these skills were a big deal in ancient times, almost bordering on magic; the civilians were impressed.

When I first started, I was particularly entranced with the colors in the hot steel. When I look at the gray or black metal, I know that it's got those brilliant reds, oranges and yellows hidden inside. Maybe there is still a bit of magic to it.

Most of the workshops are four or five days long, enabling instructors and students to come from some distance away and devote themselves full-time to the work (room and board are your own responsibility.) Evening classes, which might span a month or more, are also available for those who live locally.

You may get a few blisters. You'll certainly get dirty. You'll probably make some friends. Your neighbors will be impressed with whatever you bring home, not knowing that a simple plant hanger or fire poker is really not that hard to make. You will learn a new language...the fuller, the flatter, the swage and the drift, hardie and pritchel, coke and clinker, annealing and tempering.

By the way, speaking of language" this work is not called "forgery!" That means something entirely different"

...and as for that well-known poem by Longfellow, which begins "Under the spreading chestnut tree, the village smithy stands..." allow me correct a common misconception. The "smithy" is the shed, the building that shelters the forge. Sometimes the whole business is called the forge. The smithy, however, is never the person. He, or she, is the "smith."

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This summer, the NESM will also be hosting the annual conference of the American Blade Society, three days of demonstrations, small classes, and more for knife- and sword-smiths. Check the NESM website or request a brochure for information on 2009 workshops.


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Eva Murray first came to Matinicus as the teacher in the island's one-room school. She is a freelance writer, an EMT, runs a small seasonal bakery from her home during the summer, is married to the island's electrician and has raised two children on Matinicus.