Williamsburg's Blacksmith

Williamsburg’s blacksmith transforms crude metal into elegant, functional tools. Master Blacksmith Ken Schwarz details the trade.


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I'm Harmony Hunter. The Blacksmith's Shop in Colonial Williamsburg's Historic Area is a controlled chaos of clanging hammers and hot fires.

The man who stands in the middle of it all is master blacksmith, Ken Schwarz, who stopped by the show today to tell us about the life of the blacksmith in the 18th century. Ken, thank you for being here today.

Ken Schwarz: Glad to be here.

Harmony: Who was the blacksmith in the 18th century and how do you base your work on what you know about him?

Ken: In the 18th century our site was operated by James Anderson. He was a traditional blacksmith, meaning that most of his work was custom order work; he did a lot of repair and maintenance. Blacksmiths really run a service industry so that when you come to a blacksmith shop there's not a show room, there's not a display area of finished products.

Usually you come to the blacksmith's shop with a need. You either have been searching for a product that the merchants don't sell and the blacksmith can manufacture that, or you're bringing something in that's broken or worn and needs to be fixed. So, we're responding to repair and maintenance in an 18th century shop.

Now that the shop that we run in Colonial Williamsburg today is providing a lot of the commercially produced goods from the 18th century. In 2011 we don't have access to manufacturers in England who produce building hardware and tools and the modern commercial products don't look like the 18th century examples.

So our work differs from our 18th-century counterparts in that we're doing a lot more manufacture than was done in the period.

Harmony: You talked about things that the blacksmith would have repaired. What is the range of some of those items that would have come through the blacksmith's shop for repair?

Ken: I think overall in the Chesapeake the biggest demand for ironwork relates to the biggest industry, which was agriculture. So there's a lot of demand for axes, hoes, plows, rakes, harrows, wagon hardware. But, Williamsburg being an urban environment, you also would see a lot of work on household goods: fireplace equipment, cooking tools, tools for the other workmen in the shops, some building hardware, so it's a pretty broad range that we cover in the shop.

Harmony: And you mentioned also things that are getting manufactured: new commercial goods. What is the blacksmith making just brand new?

Ken: In the 18th century you do see that there are objects that local consumers desire that aren't provided by English industry or that there are objects that are expensive to transport. Transportation from England, the cost is usually calculated by volume, so something like a wagon or a cart was expensive to transport.

You'll see smiths then that manufacture wagon and carriage parts and pieces for carts, other vehicles. The type of tools that were used in tobacco cultivation in Virginia were different from those that were used in England and so the English farm tool manufacturers weren't making tools that were well suited to Virginia, and so you find a whole class of farm implements being made here.

Harmony: How are Virginia tools different than the English ones?

Ken: One of the most common complaints you see from the 18th century regarding farm tools is that where the handle attaches to the blade, they break off, so there was a weakness in the design that was overcome by making that joint stronger, thicker.

I think the big difference is that Virginia soils have a much heavier clay base to them. In the Virginia heat of the summer they bake into an almost concrete-like ground surface and the English tools just didn't hold up to that. So the Virginia versions were a little bit heavier in construction and stronger where the handle joins.

Harmony: What is in your shop? Walk us virtually through the Blacksmith's Shop so we can understand what's happening there and what kind of tools you have out everyday?

Ken: In the blacksmith's shop, we're working with iron and steel as the raw materials and so the equipment necessary to shape iron and steel begins with the forge. Iron is a pretty tough material at room temperature.

By heating the material we can soften it and give it clay-like properties so the forge with the bellows to raise the temperature and a chimney to conduct the smoke and the fumes out of the room. Once the material is hot, it goes to the anvil and it's primarily hammered into shape. So shaping iron and steel is a squeezing process much like working with clay but it's done with hammers and anvils.

So we'll squeeze out the shape, hammer out the shape. For many objects there's then a follow-up process of smoothing, polishing and assembly, which is done at the vice. So you have a workbench usually near the window with a vice and the finishing work is done with files and saws and smaller hammers. The finishing work at the bench is usually done cold so it takes a lot longer than working the material hot.

Harmony: I'm thinking about what the blacksmith in the 18th century knows about what processes are happening to these metals when you add heat, when you plunge them into water, at what temperature things change.

The blacksmith must understand these things by sight and by feel. Just as a modern person when you reflect on the body of knowledge that we have now versus what the blacksmith had to work with in the 18th century, does it strike you as kind of miraculous that he was able to work and produce what he did?

Ken: It's like all other materials. The knowledge developed over time. So it was an empirical knowledge of working with the material rather than a scientific analysis of what was happening in the work. We do much the same as our 18th-century counterparts in that while we have the science available to us we don't necessary have to know, for example, exactly what the temperature is when we're working the material in degrees Fahrenheit. We can judge that by color.

What's important to us is at a specific temperature what are the characteristics of the metal? What can we accomplish at various temperatures? And that's something that you learn by experience. As for how rate of cooling affects the material, again, that's something that the workman learns by experience.

You usually learn from somebody who's already skilled at the work who can guide you through the basics, the fundamentals of learning a process, but then you have to actually participate in the work. You have to fail several times usually and then you kind of narrow down your options until you figure out how to work the material to achieve the desired result.

Harmony: What are you making right now in the shop?

Ken: Actually, we're working on a pretty interesting project at the moment. There's a church in Pennsylvania that was built in 1743 that has two weathervanes that were built for the building in 1743. The original weathervanes are still on the structure.

The church has decided that it's time to remove the originals from the structure so that they can be preserved, because being out in the weather a single bolt of lightning or an inopportune gust of wind and these things could be lost forever. So the originals will be preserved and we're putting the copies on the new building.

Harmony: That sounds like kind of a very sculptural object. Do you get to the chance to make more artistic objects in the shop or more utilitarian ones?

Ken: Most of our work in the shop is very utilitarian. Tools, agricultural implements, hardware for construction, but part of what attracted me to 18th century work is that even these very utilitarian objects usually have a pleasing aesthetic so the look and the design of the object was part of the thought process in designing the piece.

Harmony: What sort of stature does the blacksmith have in town? It sounds like he's indispensible as a tradesman. Everybody's got to come to him at some point for either a broken farm implement or a wagon wheel or they need an axe. What is his standing in town though?

Ken: A blacksmith's standing in a community like this will rely on several things. First of all, in order to have success in the trade you have to be skilled as a workman, so I'm sure there were blacksmiths in town that were less skilled than others.

In a small town the less skilled will stand out. Everybody in the town will know that he lacks in skill or organization and won't frequent his business as well. So somebody that has strong hand skills, strong organizational skills, and management skills could succeed very well.

James Anderson is an example of that. He owned several properties right in the middle of town as a blacksmith. Also status would depend somewhat on birth, and by that I mean there we many skilled slaves who were involved in trades like this and they didn't receive the economic benefits of those skills.

Harmony: I just learned yesterday about a skilled free black man who was Williamsburg's blacksmith in the 19th century and he actually practiced on the opposite end of Duke of Gloucester Street from you up where Merchants Square is today.

So we know that it's a trade that continues through a couple of centuries, but is there a modern-day equivalent that we can look at today and say that it's a descendant of the 18th century blacksmith trade?

Ken: Well, if we look at a colonial blacksmith as a service industry doing repair and maintenance on metal work or custom manufacturer I think in 2011 you could look to a welding shop or a small machine shop as doing the same sort of work.

A welding shop will do a lot of repair but they also do some creative manufacture of custom pieces. That's kind of the modern version of the colonial blacksmith.

Harmony: We encourage all of our guests to stop by the Anderson Blacksmith Shop and Public Armory and see all the great work that's happening there with Ken and his staff. Thanks so much.