Striking Iron

Attend a blacksmith class and get a lesson in music
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The author gives hammering iron a try. He got better the second day.

A smokey blue haze hangs in the air and greets me when I open the door to the blacksmith shop. The coal-fired forges have been lit but are still cold and not yet drafting away the smoke. The shop itself is sweatshirt cold, and the lighting is dim and dusky. Both will change once the flames in the forges start throwing light and heat. Students are practicing their hammering techniques while they wait for the forges to heat up, and the striking of hammer on anvil has a pleasing ring to it. Alternating blows coupled with varying strengths of the students produces a rhythmic din reminding me of “The Lone Ranger” theme song. Ta-da-dump, ta-da-dump, ta-da-dump. 

I’m at Sanborn Mills Farm in Loudon where blacksmith Garry Kalajian holds workshop classes teaching basics to beginners and more complicated techniques to advanced students. Kalajian has been striking iron for over 30 years, and he makes everything look easy. When I try my hand at it, I quickly discover that it is harder than it looks. I try hammering a 3/8-inch round piece into four equally squared sides, but the iron doesn’t cooperate. Heated to a hot red glow, I try hammering it flat on four sides, but it develops a twist and looks like a drill bit instead of a squared rod. On my attempt to straighten it, the iron overheats and breaks off in the forge, lost to the coal embers. I’m not quick enough on my second attempt and the piece cools down, making my hammer strikes ineffective. The right balance between too hot and not hot enough is determined by subtle differences in the shades of red and yellow in the heated iron. Lacking an experienced eye, the nuanced shade distinctions all blend together for me. 

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Instructor Garry Kalajian striking iron and
making it look easy. It isn’t.

This is the second three-day class I’ve attended, and I’ve witnessed an eclectic mix of students with varying skill levels making trivets, shelf brackets, tools, latch hooks and door strap hinges. Students range in age from 22 to 78. With me today is Eric, a 34-year-old software engineer from Somersworth. Skilled with his hands and creatively inclined, Eric decided to give blacksmithing a try. He is busy making iron trivets with a lot of compound “S” curves and rivets. Chris is a website designer from Deerfield. He grew up watching his gunsmith father make replacement parts and straighten bent gun barrels. Today, Chris is making a variety of tools, including tongs, punches, chisels and a flux spoon. When I ask him his plans for the new tools, he answers, “Use them to make more tools.” 

Historically considered to be a male-dominated profession, I’m surprised to find about a quarter of the students in my class are female. In the old west John Wayne movies, the blacksmith is usually a burly guy with bulging shoulders and forearms who also acts as the farrier. A farrier shoes horses, while a blacksmith makes the shoes. Kalajian tells me that men are more powerful and can heft a bigger hammer longer, but women tend to be more methodical and diligent in applying what they’ve learned. With proper hammering technique and good body mechanics, women often achieve results superior to their stronger male counterparts. 

Working beside me are Elizabeth from Francestown and her daughter Hannah from Henniker. Both mother and daughter work in a hardware store frequented by Kalajian and were inspired to try blacksmithing after interacting with him as a regular customer. Elizabeth tells me she’s hammered iron for six months now and is setting up her own forge. Hannah says she’s always enjoyed crafts like ceramics, and this was a natural transition that provided another outlet for her artistic creativity. Another student, Emily, is 32 and a health care professional from Nashua. I ask her if she feels disadvantaged being a petite woman in a profession that requires a lot of upper-body shoulder and arm strength. “No,” she says without any hesitation, “but I’m left-handed and that is a disadvantage. The forge is set up backwards. The controls should be on the opposite end and the tool bench and anvil should be on the other side.” 

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Chris from Deerfield got to take the class as a birthday present from his wife, then signed up for another one.

Each student has their own workstation complete with tools, forge, vise and anvil. Instructor Kalajian has his own station where he demonstrates the how-to-do-it techniques and then circulates amongst the students practicing what they just learned. I notice that the anvils at each station are different in size and shape. This gives each anvil and each student a distinctive “ping” reverberation when their hammer strikes iron. I mention this to Kalajian and the corners of his mouth turn up in subtle smile.

Kalajian hasn’t always been a blacksmith. He holds degrees in music and education and spent several years pursuing his interest in choral conducting before switching to blacksmithing. When we break for lunch, he returns with a tuning fork retrieved from his car. I strike my hammer on the anvil while he strikes the tuning fork, and we conclude my anvil has an F-natural pitch. Garry’s is a G and Emily’s rings with a C-sharp note, the difference created by the shape and mass of the anvil, the purity of its iron and the platform it is anchored upon. With these three musical notes, some variation in our striking pattern and sufficient motivation, we could probably hammer out a simple tune.

Sanborn Mills Farm offers these hands-on blacksmith courses about 14 times a year. Classes are typically held over a three-day-long weekend and include eight-hour days of hammering iron and fixing mistakes. Students leave with whatever items they create. Sanborn Mills Farm owns the facility and handles the sign-ups, registration and fees. Dorm rooms and meals are available for students desiring to stay overnight. In addition to the introductory basic course, Kalajian also offers courses in forge welding, tool making, knife or cutting tools and advanced courses dealing with softer metals like brass and copper. 

At the end of the day my shoulders ache, and my hands feel like they are vibrating. Proud of our accomplishments, we examine each other’s masterpieces, then extinguish our forges, put away our tools, say our goodbyes and make our way out the door. As the fires die down, coolness returns to the shop and the failing draft hangs a smokey blue haze in the air once again. 

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Students prod the fires in their forges and wait for class to begin at Sanborn Mills Farm blacksmith school.

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