Whatever happened to iron?

I recently spent a day working as a blacksmith. It’s the kind of thing I like to do: understanding the origins and basic principles of an industry. (My next such outing, in a few days, will find me operating an old printing press…) I think it’s important that a 21st century citizen should be able to make something, rather than depending on unseen, anonymous factories for everything…

During the induction, amid the safety tips and general advice, one thing that the tutor said surprised me: that we would be working in steel. Not iron? Surely, blacksmithing dates back to the iron age… so why wouldn’t you work in iron?

Too expensive, I was told. Apparently there are one or two people who still pursue authenticity, but this involves such curious practices as dredging up links from old naval anchor chains in order to obtain the required material. Wait… what? Iron is a chemical element, and steel is an alloy. Iron ore is blasted out of the ground in chunks the size of the Albert Hall, in places as diverse as Australia and Sweden. How can iron be harder to come by than steel, the material that’s almost entirely composed of iron?

Nonetheless, I spent the day working in steel. Steel may have been in use more than 3,000 years ago, in East Africa and what is now Turkey, but iron has been around for billions of years, since the earliest days of the solar system… so how does a man-made alloy get to be cheaper and more readily available than the base material?

Forging a steel bar into a point

A first hands-on experience: forging a steel bar into a point.

It’s an interesting supply chain effect: although there’s more work in the production of steel (even the relatively unsophisticated mild steel), there’s not much demand for plain old iron nowadays, and that which is non-standard costs extra. The iron age has been and gone, and now iron is quite hard to come by.

Coke burning in the forge

For fuel, you can’t beat the real thing: industrial coke.

I found the mild steel to be a very forgiving material: when glowing orange-hot it seemed you could batter it from one shape to another with impunity – quite different from my experience turning pots, where the clay becomes ‘tired’ and threatens to collapse if you overwork it. No doubt I still have a great deal to learn about grain structure and tempering, but I’m interested in making the effort.

Blacksmithing tools, and workpiece.

That threatening spike in the first picture ended up being formed into a keyring.

There’s something very satisfying in the low-tech business of forging hot metal into shape. I’m sure it could be done faster, more accurately, cheaper, etc. by a professional or a piece of modern machinery, but sometimes that isn’t the point. Our stuff shouldn’t just be faster, cheaper, better: it should be good for the soul, too. A person should feel a connection with the things they own (beyond the slightly creepy connection that you get by letting an Apple watch share your medical information). In any case, five hours spent swinging a hammer turned out to be far more therapeutic than you might expect.

Norse-inspired dragon coathook

I’m not sure we’re going to display it in the house, but this is the end result of my labours: a Norse-inspired dragon coathook.

Hands-on Heritage: Introduction to Blacksmithing took place at Gayle Mill near Hawes, North Yorkshire. Plenty more information about blacksmithing can be found by visiting instructor Adrian Wood’s website.


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