Thursday, November 21, 2013

Fall 2013 Demos at Hampshire College

You may or may not have gathered that I attend Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, which is a beautiful, wonderful school between fields and forests that I'm so fortunate to attend, and beyond lucky that I can simultaneously study history, mythology, and archaeology, as well as practice the crafts that I love with my whole heart.  It's actually unbelievable, but I try not to walk around smacking myself in the head out of incredulity and instead make the most of it. 

Don the 18th century sutler!
We have an incredibly well-equipped and accessible fabrication shop, which in particular houses a wonderful array of smithing tools in good shape, thanks to our legendary shop-master Don Dupuis.  In some ways, I might say "you've probably worked with someone like him", if you've spent any time working with craftspeople or in any kind of shop where people care about their work.  On the other hand, I'd also say that you've very rarely met anyone like him.  I'm so grateful for the support and encouragement I've received almost constantly over the past three years, but his has been some of the most constant and welcome.  He's absolutely awesome.  He'll give you anything you need and answer any question, but he'll do it in a way that makes you figure it our for yourself at the same time.  He's one of those.  He's a great teacher and a great friend, and he'll always be those to me.

Don holding a spring fuller for Jack McAuliffe
Thanks to him, our shop is great and we have a strong blacksmithing collective which buys most of our equipment and materials with school funding (awesome).  Our freedom and opportunity is rare and almost unheard of, but the trade-off is that we as a group need to teach ourselves most skills.  That's a wonderful way to learn, but for my own part, mentorship and teacher-student relationships are hugely important in craft, and community is one of my favorite things about it.  So, I've taken the initiative to contact several local smiths and bring them into our shop to do paid demonstrations, so the Hampshire blacksmiths can absorb skills, witness the techniques of experienced craftspeople, and network in person.  It's what makes this such a real and rewarding practice: sharing work and ideas with other people and riding the wave of collective creativity.  It's one of those few things in life that's both addictive and can't do you any wrong.

Derek addressing our small group of smiths!
So, the first person I contacted to come and teach our group is Derek Heidemann, owner & operator of Resurrection Ironworks in Millbury, Massachusetts.  He's only a few years older than me but he pulls weight with the old guys.  He's been a blacksmith at Old Sturbridge Village for a long time, and when it comes to the accurate production of 18th and 19th century tools and hardware, I'd say his work is not only of incredible quality and execution but also distinctive in its style, which is definitely something to say about someone who's in their mid-20s!  The first demo he came to do was a rose-head nail-making demo, which was impressive in his efficiency, accuracy and speed, but also marvelous in his exhibition of toolmaking: his steeled wrought iron nail header is not only a beautiful take on an historical object but also a fully functional and intuitive tool.  That's pretty representative of Derek's work: he loves old things because they work, not just because they're old, and he knows how to bring both of those out in beautiful harmony.  

Derek's custom tongs
Last year I contracted him to come for a nail-making demo, just to sort of get used to the shop and feel out the whole situation.  This time, we planned a little better, invited more people, and did something a little more exciting: tong-forging.  He brought an impressive array of tongs, all of which he had made, and in a fast, controlled, and coherent demo, he forged a pair of tongs in front of the small assembly, taking care to explain the objective and parameters of each step, and the anatomy of the product: jaws, reins, and rivet.  Derek is an excellent teacher and craftsperson, and I'm always happy to share a shop with him, absorb his experience, and share his unquenchable spirit of pursuing the craft and having a good time doing it.  

Explaining Japanese geometry
Our next demonstrator this month was Matt Venier of Lancaster, MA.  I met him in March at Baltimore Knife & Sword's Fire and Brimstone hammer-in, and was blown away with his intense attention to detail in the Japanese tradition, his great presence, and his proximity to my home (but wished I'd known he was driving instead of paying for the train ticket!  Oh well, I love trains)!  His exploration of Japanese blade geometry is exciting and honestly tempts me, but his primary pursuit is the elusive hamon: the ethereal line between the hardened martensitic edge steel and the unhardened spine.  Being among a student body interested in blades and certainly enchanted by the legendary Japanese aesthetic, and knowing Matt's passionate knowledge about it, I thought a demo on heat-treatment and a Japanese-style take on aestheticizing it would be perfect.

Applying clay for differential hardening & hamon!
So that's what we agreed on, and showed up with his whole home-made heat-treating arsenal: a furnace made from an old propane take with two strategically placed thermocouples, a horizontal quench tank filled with Parks 50 fast-quench oil, a small clamp table for blades and a few jars of black Rutland furnace cement.  With these tools, he taught us how to prepare the blade for claying, how to clay it for basic function, and how to augment it to achieve certain aesthetic details in the hamon.  Under his direction, each of us who had blades ready for heat treatment clayed up and hardened them.  His strong working knowledge of the properties and behavior of certain steels is very valuable and resulted in a beautiful hamon on my blade (I was using Aldo's 1095), but unfortunately some of the blades were mystery steels and we had to just sort of wing it.  Some still got some activity, some didn't, but overall it was a massively informative and clarifying demonstration, especially for those who had never heat treated before at all.  Matt's demo was an awesome follow-up to Derek's, in that he's an equally talented craftsperson working in almost exactly the same materials but with entirely different objectives and pertinent knowledge sets.  Having these two demos back to back really displayed the harmony and discrepancy between blacksmithing and bladesmithing, and the exciting and compelling levels one can pursue them to.

Jack talking with Brendan and Paolo in the background
Our third and final demonstrator this month was one of my oldest friends, Jack McAuliffe of Worcester, MA, where he bases his bladesmithing/teaching endeavor Underhill Edge. Recently, he's been bravely and successfully exploring the making, refining, and forging of metallurgically historical steels, particularly his own hearth-melted steels with varying levels of carbon.  This lends an intimately historical knowledge to his work like Derek's, but in a different way: not only is he incredibly faithful to historical construction but also to vital material, giving him an intensely real idea of the techniques and frustrations of the ancient smith whose work is he is trying to emulate.  Working mostly in charcoal and coke forges with primeval materials, Jack's experience of welding and pattern-welding is ingrained and he had much to share.

Straightening a 6-bar hearth steel spatha
His demo focused on the techniques for forming traditional weld joints and ensuring their success.  He went over steels for welding in historical tools, material and forge preparation for welding, the use and behavior of flux, how to know when you are ready to weld, setting and finishing the weld, which weld joints require certain hammering,  how to know if your weld failed and how to save it if you can.  He demonstrated butt-welds, lap-welds, scarf-welds, and billet-folding, and talked about twisting laminated bars, multi-bar construction, and the consequences of weld failure, which is not a pretty sight!

This demo was, in the words of friend and fellow student Paolo, "quite the game-changer" for those who have forged but never forge-welded.  I'm probably a bit biased in that it's the basis of all my ironwork, but on all account's he's right.  To be able to almost indiscriminately bond immovable pieces of incredibly strong material into bigger or more specialized shapes is beyond useful: it's magical, and no matter how much I learn about it, my wonder and enchantment only increases.  Magic and science are not mutually exclusive; I think that from the vantage point of the human experience, they rely on each other and cannot exist without some measure of the other. 

Endless thanks to all these awesome people for sharing coming and sharing their knowledge, experience, and excitement, which we can all feed off and become inspired by!  Also I want to acknowledge how unbelievably awesome all the Hampshire blacksmiths are: Sam, Andi, Peter, Emiliano, James, Paolo, Brendan, Rhett, Allxie, and just everyone else who's in the shop all the time: damn, you are cool people to work around.  Definitely good looking folks all around, too.

But to Don, I don't think any of us would be sharing this space, community, and thirst for knowledge if it wasn't for you.  Thanks from all of us, students and friends past, present & future. 

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