Tuesday, March 30, 2010

19th Century Poetry Slam.

When Washington Irving was a young man in 1803, he traveled from Albany to the frontier hamlet of Ogdensburg. The journey was made to view land in which he planned to invest. To get to Ogdensburg on the shore of the St. Lawrence River was a trip of epic proportions.

Irving traveled with some fellow land speculators from Albany up the lightly settled Mohawk valley. They then traveled overland from near Utica to the headwaters of the Black River. Then they followed the Black River Valley north, as there was no road yet north of Rome. At the village of High Falls (now called Lyons Falls, N.Y.) he boarded a scow that carried him north with the river current. In two days he and his companions had traveled 42 miles, and disembarked at the hamlet of Long Falls (now called Carthage, N.Y.) Still 60 miles of travel from his destination, they sought lodging in the only Public House in the village.

To say that Irving was unimpressed with his accommodations on the frontier would be an understatement. He dubbed the Inn by the title, “The Temple of Dirt”. Upon leaving he scribbled this on the plaster over the fireplace mantle,
“Here Sovereign Dirt erects her Sable throne,
The house, the host, the hostess are all her own.”
Some years later, Judge William Cooper was also traveling through Long Falls, and stayed in the same Public House. Cooper was, himself, the namesake and founder of the town of Cooperstown, and no stranger to the conditions of the frontier. He penned a reply to Irving’s complaints on the same wall. He wrote,
“Learn hence, young man, and teach it to your sons,
The wisest way is to take it as it comes.”
There you have it, Northern New York’s first Poetry Slam! Washington Irving went on to become famous for his stories like Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. Judge Cooper became a prosperous and influential figure in N.Y. His son James Fennimore Cooper would also become a famous author, known for his Leatherstocking Tales featuring adventures on the New York State frontier.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Tool Making at The River Forge

Even blacksmiths have some time off.  On mine this winter, I visited friends and helped make some tools.  My friend Marty Snye is proprietor of The River Forge near Ogdensburg, NY.  The Farmers’ Museum shop uses 1840’s tools and technology.  Marty’s shop uses a wide variety of tools.  In some ways it is like jumping forward a century from the 1840’s to the 1940’s.  On this project we were using a combination of hand tools and powered machines.

We worked on making some tools for use with his anvil.  His anvil is an English-made Peter Wright like one we use in the Fields' Shop.  To make the large cut off hardy, it had to be forged from a larger piece of high carbon tool steel.  That would need at least two smiths with sledgehammers in the Fields' Shop. 
Marty, however, has a Little Giant Power Hammer.  Designed in the last years of the 19th century and likely made before the 1920’s, Marty’s mechanical hammer has a 25lb. reciprocating hammer die that hits the iron up to 3 times per second.  While not stronger than 2 men with sledgehammers, the mechanical hammer never gets tired and doesn’t take coffee breaks!

Here Marty is using the Little Giant to draw the solid bar of tool steel out into a wedge-shaped cutting tool.  He has welded a piece of pipe to the tool steel to handle it while hot, and will cut that off later.  When the finished cutting edge is done, it is then welded to a previously made base that is fitted to sit tightly in the hardy hole of the anvil.  The finished tool fits well and is ready to cut some hot iron and steel!  The new hardies are on the left and right, with two older hardies in the middle.  The ones we made are larger than his old ones, and are ready for some work!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Finding Blacksmith’s Tools

Where can beginning blacksmiths find tools?  That is a simple question with a complicated answer.  Here in the northeast, local farms date to the early19th century.  Farm auctions, antique stores, and junk shops may have some useful tools.  There are also a growing number of vendors selling new blacksmith’s tools over the internet.  Finally, hardware stores and Sears still carry blacksmith’s hammers, punches, and chisels.

I often recommend that people interested in blacksmithing try it before buying a lot of tools.  Meet the blacksmiths in your area, look for educational blacksmithing organizations locally, and go to a hammer-in or take a class.  The national organization for blacksmiths is the Artist Blacksmith Association of North America. My sidebar has links to several blacksmithing organizations in NY.  Setting up a shop is a commitment of time and money.  But a hobbyist can start with only a few basic tools to get started.

The core shop tools of blacksmithing are the forge, anvil, and vice.  The core hand tools are the hammer, tongs, chisels, and perhaps a hacksaw.  After you have those basics, the tools you need will be determined by what you are doing.  Many smiths today use propane-fired portable forges rather than a coal fire and bellows.  Each style has benefits and drawbacks.  Talking to other smiths and taking classes that let you use a variety of tools can help in the decision-making process.  Buying new tools, making tools, and refurbishing old ones for another generation of use is part of the fun of blacksmithing.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Casting Pewter Spoons: Part II

The Farmers’ Museum is also the home to the Cooperstown Graduate Program in History Museum Studies.  This is associated with the State University of New York at Oneonta.  Recently the students came to the Blacksmith Shop to learn how to cast pewter.

An important part of metal working, particularly casting, is to use the appropriate safety equipment.  Required equipment is proper clothing, eye protection, gloves, and an apron.  We also have additional equipment such as full-face shields.  Here is part of the class modeling their safety glasses and goggles!

The students worked in teams with a Blacksmith “assistant” tending the fire.  This workshop is one of many they will undertake to familiarize themselves with the methods and results of traditional craft.  The molten pewter is poured into the mold and then removed after it cools.  The new spoon is then examined for flaws, voids, or other imperfections.

If the spoon meets the initial inspection it is then taken to the workbench or vice.  There the flashing is filed away and the spoon smoothed and polished.  The students worked hard and most made several pours to get a spoon that met their standards.  Then they worked to finish and customize their spoons.  I appreciated their good humor and hard work.

Of course in a class like this the pewter spoons are just the byproduct of the larger mission.  The real lessons were about working with artisans, the nature of craft, dealing with failure and trying to succeed when some variables are beyond your control.  A perfect spoon requires a flawless mold, clean metal at the perfect temperature, steady hands, and a perfect pour of molten metal into the mold.  It is important to strive for perfection while accepting that you may not get there.  These are lessons to augment those from their academic studies. 

I can’t resist ending with a cryptic quote from the movie The Matrix:
“Do not try and bend the spoon. That's impossible. Instead... only try to realize the truth.  What truth?  There is no spoon. Then you'll see, that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.”
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