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Iron in the Blood 

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Welcome to my shop. I live at the end of a long dirt road in Ettersburg in Southern Humboldt County. Every morning I pull the chains to open the two large rollup doors, reintroducing the cold steel layout table, the anvil and rows of tongs and hammers to the rich, quiet beauty of the forest that I live in.

The propane forge, the oxygen/propane torch and the pneumatic power hammer sit quietly, full of potential energy, waiting to be called to action. Today I will be using the coke forge to heat the metal. Coke is a refined low smoke form of coal. It looks like a pile of small porous grey rocks. Once lit, the coke burns to temperatures above 2,500 F, warming and awakening the shop.

Patience is probably the greatest skill you can bring to blacksmithing. Lighting coke takes patience. First make a fire with newspaper and wood sticks. Add air and push the coke up towards the flames until you see the dense smoke whorl around and over it, casually swirling up the pile like thick curls of hair until the draw grabs it and sucks it up the flue. Gradually the coke will start to burn around the edges. It will slowly burn hotter and hotter overpowering the smoke with a translucent steady flame. Put a bar of steel into the fire. As it reaches a temperature of 2,000 F, it becomes a plastic medium, like glass or ceramics, that can be stretched and pushed into different shapes.

Humans have been learning the trade for over 3,000 years. The trade is highly refined and vast. Forged steel can emulate the forms of skin, bone, leaves, water and stone. When it cools it possesses incredible strength, allowing the blacksmith to make sculptural pieces that function. When I look at a forged piece, I hope to see that the blacksmith used steel's strength as an advantage. I want to see the contrasts this offers, like a delicate forged part holding up something heavy or a fine puzzle made at the connections in a table. Perhaps a large mass hanging askew from an unlikely bracket. I want to be astounded. In my shop I make everything from commissioned architectural work — gates, railings, range hoods, fireplace doors and commercial sign brackets — to tables, chairs, mirrors, chandeliers and sculpture. Much of my work is in private homes but some may be seen at The Blacksmith Shop in Ferndale.

There is a lot of ironwork around us, the majority of which was made in the past 50 years from manufactured parts that are welded together. Today finding a forged piece of work is rare but in the early 19th century there were 28 blacksmith shops in Ferndale alone. We are lucky to still have one of the largest collections of forged ironwork in the world right here in The Blacksmith Shop. The showroom holds contemporary and ancient pieces alike. Look closely at the parts. Can you see a change in mass or are all of the parts the same? Was it worked like clay? Can you see hammer marks? Look at the places where the parts come together. Is the connection made up of forged pieces that were fit together like a puzzle? Once you start to look you will remember. A block of steel becomes a flower? This may not be in our present vocabulary but it is in our collective memory. We have been watching that finished piece of iron turn from red to black with amazement for thousands of years. I am a blacksmith. But we can all taste the iron in our blood.


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About The Author

Monica Coyne

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