Blacksmiths had a general knowledge of how to make and repair many different things.
In Hindu mythology, Tvastar also known as Vishvakarma is the blacksmith of the devas. The earliest references of Tvastar can be found in the Rigveda.
Hephaestus (Latin: Vulcan) was the blacksmith of the gods in Greek and Roman mythology. A supremely skilled artisan whose forge was a volcano, he constructed most of the weapons of the gods, as well as beautiful assistants for his smithy and a metal fishing-net of astonishing intricacy. He was the god of metalworking, fire, and craftsmen.
In Celtic mythology, the role of Smith is held by eponymous (their names do mean ‘smith’) characters : Goibhniu (Irish myths of the Tuatha Dé Danann cycle) or Gofannon (Welsh myths/ the Mabinogion). Brigid or Brigit, an Irish goddess, is sometimes described as the patroness of blacksmiths.
In the Nart mythology of the Caucasus the hero known to the Ossetians as Kurdalægon and the Circassians as Tlepsh is a blacksmith and skilled craftsman whose exploits exhibit shamanic features, sometimes bearing comparison to those of the Scandinavian deity Odin. One of his greatest feats is acting as a type of male midwife to the hero Xamyc, who has been made the carrier of the embryo of his son Batraz by his dying wife the water-sprite Lady Isp, who spits it between his shoulder blades, where it forms a womb-like cyst. Kurdalaegon prepares a type of tower or scaffold above a quenching bath for Xamyc, and, when the time is right, lances the cyst to liberate the infant hero Batraz as a newborn babe of white-hot steel, whom Kurdalægon then quenches like a newly forged sword.
The Anglo-Saxon Wayland Smith, known in Old Norse as Völundr, is a heroic blacksmith in Germanic mythology. The Poetic Edda states that he forged beautiful gold rings set with wonderful gems. He was captured by king Níðuðr, who cruelly hamstrung him and imprisoned him on an island. Völundr eventually had his revenge by killing Níðuðr’s sons and fashioning goblets from their skulls, jewels from their eyes and a brooch from their teeth. He then raped the king’s daughter, after drugging her with strong beer, and escaped, laughing, on wings of his own making, boasting that he had fathered a child upon her.
Seppo Ilmarinen, the Eternal Hammerer, blacksmith and inventor in the Kalevala, is an archetypal artificer from Finnish mythology.
Tubal-Cain is mentioned in the book of Genesis of the Torah as the original smith.
Ogun, the god of blacksmiths, warriors, hunters and others who work with iron is one of the pantheon of Orisha traditionally worshipped by the Yoruba people of Nigeria.
Before the Iron Age
Gold, silver, and copper all occur in nature in their native states, as reasonably pure metals – humans probably worked these metals first. These metals are all quite malleable, and humans’ initial development of hammering techniques was undoubtedly applied to these metals.
During the Chalcolithic era and the Bronze Age, humans in the Mideast learned how to smelt, melt, cast, rivet, and (to a limited extent) forge copper and bronze. Bronze is an alloy of copper and approximately 10% to 20% Tin. Bronze is superior to just copper, by being harder, being more resistant to corrosion, and by having a lower melting point (thereby requiring less fuel to melt and cast). Much of the copper used by the Mediterranean World came from the island of Cyprus. Most of the tin came from the Cornwall region of the island of Great Britain, transported by sea-borne Phoenician and Greek traders.
Copper and bronze cannot be hardened by heat-treatment, they can only be hardened by cold working. To accomplish this, a piece of bronze is lightly hammered for a long period of time. The localized stress-cycling causes work hardening by changing the size and shape of the metal’s crystals. The hardened bronze can then be ground to sharpen it to make edged tools.
Clocksmiths as recently as the 19th century used work hardening techniques to harden the teeth of brass gears and ratchets. Tapping on just the teeth produced harder teeth, with superior wear-resistance. By contrast, the rest of the gear was left in a softer and tougher state, more capable of resisting cracking.
Bronze is sufficiently corrosion-resistant that artifacts of bronze may last thousands of years relatively unscathed. Accordingly, museums frequently preserve more examples of Bronze Age metal-work than examples of artifacts from the much younger Iron Age. Buried iron artifacts may completely rust away in less than 100 years. Examples of ancient iron work still extant are very much the exception to the norm.
Concurrent with the advent of alphabetic characters in the Iron Age, humans became aware of the metal iron. However, in earlier ages, iron’s qualities, in contrast to those of bronze, were not generally understood. Iron artifacts, composed of meteoric iron, have the chemical composition containing up to 40% nickel. As this source of this iron is extremely rare and fortuitous, little development of smithing skills peculiar to iron can be assumed to have occurred. That we still possess any such artifacts of meteoric iron may be ascribed to the vagaries of climate, and the increased corrosion-resistance conferred on iron by the presence of nickel.
During the (north) Polar Exploration of the early 20th century, Inughuit, northern Greenlandic Inuit, were found to be making iron knives from two particularly large nickel-iron meteors. One of these meteors was taken to Washington, D.C., where it was remitted to the custody of the Smithsonian Institution.
The Hittites of Anatolia first discovered or developed the smelting of iron ores around 1500 BC. They seem to have maintained a near monopoly on the knowledge of iron production for several hundred years, but when their empire collapsed during the Eastern Mediterranean upheavals around 1200 BC, the knowledge seems to have escaped in all directions.
In the Iliad of Homer (describing the Trojan War and Bronze Age Greek and Trojan warriors), most of the armor and weapons (swords and spears) are stated to have been of bronze. Iron is not unknown, however, as arrowheads are described as iron, and a “ball of iron” is listed as a prize awarded for winning a competition. The events described probably occurred around 1200 BC, but Homer is thought to have composed this epic poem around 700 BC; so exactitude must remain suspect.
When historical records resume after the 1200 BC upheavals and the ensuing Greek Dark Age, iron work (and presumably blacksmiths) seem to have sprung like Athena, fully-grown from the head of Zeus. Very few artifacts remain, due to loss from corrosion, and re-use of iron as a valuable commodity. What information exists indicates that all of the basic operations of blacksmithing were in use as soon as the Iron Age reached a particular locality. The scarcity of records and artifacts, and the rapidity of the switch from Bronze Age to Iron Age, is a reason to use evidence of bronze smithing to infer about the early development of blacksmithing.
It is uncertain when Iron weapons replaced Bronze weapons because the earliest Iron swords did not significantly improve on the qualities of existing bronze artifacts. Unalloyed iron is soft, does not hold an edge as well as a properly constructed bronze blade and needs more maintenance. Iron ores are more widely available than the necessary materials to create bronze however, which made iron weapons more economical than comparable bronze weapons. Small amounts of steel are often formed during several of the earliest refining practices, and when the properties of this alloy were discovered and exploited, steel edged weapons greatly outclassed bronze.
Iron is different from most other materials (including bronze), in that it does not immediately go from a solid to a liquid at its melting point. H2O is a solid (ice) at -1 C (31 F), and a liquid (water) at +1 C (33 F). Iron, by contrast, is definitely a solid at 800 °F (427 °C), but over the next 1,500 °F (820 °C) it becomes increasingly plastic and more “taffy-like” as its temperature increases. This extreme temperature range of variable solidity is the fundamental material property upon which blacksmithing practice depends.
Another major difference between bronze and iron fabrication techniques is that bronze can be melted. The melting point of iron is much higher than that of bronze. In the western (Europe & the Mideast) tradition, the technology to make fires hot enough to melt iron did not arise until the 16th century, when smelting operations grew large enough to require overly large bellows. These produced blast-furnace temperatures high enough to melt partially refined ores, resulting in cast iron. Thus cast iron frying pans and cookware did not become possible in Europe until 3000 years after the introduction of iron smelting. China, in a separate developmental tradition, was producing cast iron at least 1000 years before this.
Although iron is quite abundant, good quality steel remained rare and expensive until the industrial developments of Bessemer process et al. in the 1850s. Close examination of blacksmith-made antique tools clearly shows where small pieces of steel were forge-welded into iron to provide the hardened steel cutting edges of tools (notably in axes, adzes, chisels, etc.). The re-use of quality steel is another reason for the lack of artifacts.
The Romans (who ensured that their own weapons were made with good steel) noted (in the 4th century BC) that the Celts of the Po River Valley had iron, but not good steel. The Romans record that during battle, their Celtic opponents could only swing their swords two or three times before having to step on their swords to straighten them.
On the Indian subcontinent, Wootz steel was, and continues to be, produced in small quantities.
In southern Asia and western Africa, blacksmiths form endogenous castes that sometimes speak distinct languages.
In the medieval period, blacksmithing was considered part of the set of seven mechanical arts.
Prior to the industrial revolution, a “village smithy” was a staple of every town. Factories and mass-production reduced the demand for blacksmith-made tools and hardware.
The original fuel for forge fires was charcoal. Coal did not begin to replace charcoal until the forests of first Britain (during the AD 17th century), and then the eastern United States of America (during the 19th century) were largely depleted. Coal can be an inferior fuel for blacksmithing, because much of the world’s coal is contaminated with sulfur. Sulfur contamination of iron and steel make them “red short”, so that at red heat they become “crumbly” instead of “plastic”. Coal sold and purchased for blacksmithing should be largely free of sulfur.
European blacksmiths before and through the medieval era spent a great deal of time heating and hammering iron before forging it into finished articles. Although they were unaware of the chemical basis, they were aware that the quality of the iron was thus improved. From a scientific point of view, the reducing atmosphere of the forge was both removing oxygen (rust), and soaking more carbon into the iron, thereby developing increasingly higher grades of steel as the process was continued.
During the eighteenth century, agents for the Sheffield cutlery industry scoured the British country-side, offering new carriage springs for old. Springs must be made of hardened steel. At this time, the processes for making steel produced an extremely variable product—quality was not ensured at the initial point of sale. Springs that had survived cracking through hard use over the rough roads of the time, had proven to be of a better quality steel
During the first half of the nineteenth century, the US government included in their treaties with many Native American tribes, that the US would employ blacksmiths and strikers at Army forts.
During the early to mid-nineteenth century, both European armies as well as both the U.S. Federal and Confederate armies employed blacksmiths to shoe horses and repair equipment such as wagons, horse tack, and artillery equipment. These smiths primarily worked at a traveling forge that when combined with a limber, comprised wagons specifically designed and constructed as blacksmith shops on wheels to carry the essential equipment necessary for their work.
Lathes, patterned largely on their woodturning counterparts, had been used by some blacksmiths since the middle-ages. During the 1790s Henry Maudslay created the first screw-cutting lathe, a watershed event that signaled the start of blacksmiths being replaced by machinists in factories for the hardware needs of the populace.
Samuel Colt neither invented nor perfected interchangeable parts, but his insistence (and other industrialists at this time) that his firearms be manufactured with this property, was another step towards the obsolescence of metal-working artisans and blacksmiths.
As demand for their products declined, many more blacksmiths augmented their incomes by taking in work shoeing horses. A shoer-of-horses was historically known as a farrier in English. With the introduction of automobiles, the number of blacksmiths continued to decrease, many former blacksmiths becoming the initial generation of automobile Mechanics. The nadir of blacksmithing in the United States was reached during the 1960s, when most of the former blacksmiths had left the trade, and few if any new people were entering the trade. By this time, most of the working blacksmiths were those performing farrier work, so the term blacksmith was effectively co-opted by the farrier trade.
In the final part of the 18th century, forged ironwork continued to decline due to the aforementioned industrial revolution, shapes of the elements in the designs of window grilles and other decorative functional items continued to contradict natural forms, surfaces begin to be covered in paint, cast iron elements are incorporated into the forged designs.
Main features of Neoclassicism ironwork (also referred to as Louis XVI style and Empire style ironwork) include smooth straight bars, decorative geometric elements, double or oval volutes and the usage of elements from Classical antiquity (Meander (art), wreaths etc.).
Typical for this kind of ironwork is that the ironwork is painted white with gold (gilded) elements.
20th and 21st Centuries
During the 20th century various gases (natural gas, acetylene, etc.) have also come to be used as fuels for blacksmithing. While these are fine for blacksmithing iron, special care must be taken when using them to blacksmith steel. Each time a piece of steel is heated, there is a tendency for the carbon content to leave the steel (decarburization). This can leave a piece of steel with an effective layer of unhardenable iron on its surface. In a traditional charcoal or coal forge, the fuel is really just carbon.
In a properly regulated charcoal/coal fire, the air in and immediately around the fire should be a reducing atmosphere. In this case, and at elevated temperatures, there is a tendency for vaporized carbon to soak into steel and iron, counteracting or negating the decarburizing tendency. This is similar to the process by which a case of steel is developed on a piece of iron in preparation for case hardening.
A renewed interest in blacksmithing occurred as part of the trend in “do-it-yourself” and “self-sufficiency” that occurred during the 1970s. Currently there are many books, organizations and individuals working to help educate the public about blacksmithing, including local groups of smiths who have formed clubs, with some of those smiths demonstrating at historical sites and living history events. Some modern blacksmiths who produce decorative metalwork refer to themselves as artist-blacksmiths. In 1973 the Artists Blacksmiths’ Association of North America was formed with 27 members. By 2013 it had almost 4000 members. Likewise the British Artist Blacksmiths Association was created in 1978, with 30 charter members and had about 600 members in 2013 and publish for members a quarterly magazine.
While developed nations saw a decline and re-awakening of interest in blacksmithing, in many developing nations blacksmiths continued doing what blacksmiths have been doing for 3500 years: making and repairing iron and steel tools and hardware for people in their local area.
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Originally published by Wikipedia, 11.08.2002, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.