Inside a nondescript industrial building in Auburn, the ring of hammers on anvils sounds like only one thing: good.

Picking up the blacksmith’s hammer connects one to an ancient tradition of craftsmanship. Metalsmithing was the “cutting edge technology” of the day, many, MANY days ago, in an age when this art, these skills almost bordered on magic. The civilians were impressed.

From my first experience at the forge (the steel, brick or stone apparatus that holds the fire in which metal is heated to be worked) I was entranced with the colors in the hot iron. When I look at the gray or black metal, I know those brilliant reds, oranges and yellows are hidden inside. Perhaps there is still a bit of magic to it.

Who does that anymore?

If you find yourself in the industrial outskirts of Auburn, near the railroad tracks, scrap metal companies, recyclers and snowmobile dealers, you may hear a sound that was commonplace years ago … the ring of the hammer on the anvil.

The New England School of Metalwork, at 7 Albiston Way, is, to quote their brochure, “a nonprofit educational facility devoted to the training of welders and artistic blacksmiths.” The school offers classes in MIG, TIG, old-fashioned “stick” and oxy-acetylene welding.

It also offers blacksmithing, the ancient and modern arts of working in iron with (mostly) hand tools. Started in 2000 by Bruce Albiston, the owner of Maine Oxy, and Dan Guerin, its president, who’d heard from customers about the need for more welder training, it was logical for a welding supply dealer to offer education in welding skills for both professionals and those looking to enter the trade.

But blacksmithing? Who does that anymore?

As it turns out, plenty of people.

The NESM blacksmithing/bladesmithing program defies easy categorization. A little bit trade school, a little bit art studio, the school brings together respect for traditional craftsmanship, artistic vision, some just-for-fun hobbies and the satisfaction of hard work.

The varied courses and workshops offered through the year welcome beginners and experts, backyard scrap-iron sculptors and precision designers. They attract craftspeople, builders, history re-enactors, specialty knife makers, old-tool enthusiasts, modern, technology-aided machinists looking to expand their experience, engineers and “dumpster-divers,” jewelers and pipe-fitters, teenagers and retired folks, men and women…

Yes, women. Quite a few metal artists, and blacksmithing instructors, are, in fact, women.

Dereck Glaser, who describes himself as the metalsmithing program director and resident blacksmith, is a working smith with a studio/forge in Winthrop. When Maine Oxy decided to open the school, Albiston approached Glaser to help develop the program.

He’s trained as an Industrial Arts teacher, and with safety always first, he behaves like the former “shop teacher” he is. Work areas are clean and orderly; Glaser shows new students how to be good to the equipment, how not to waste fuel and how to bank their fires so they’ll still be going when everybody gets back from lunch.

He keeps a close eye on both the tools and the participants; if not teaching, he’s helping students to choose the steel they need for their projects or select the right tool. He is constantly sharpening chisels, tightening belts and grimaces when it looks like a student is about to abuse the bandsaw blade. Glaser specializes in architectural ironwork and traditional joinery, as well as sculpture.

NESM is no longer part of Maine Oxy, but the two still maintain close ties. Glaser and Warren Swan, who heads up the welding program, see the school as “dedicated to creating the most comfortable and motivating atmosphere,” to help students “obtain mastery of their craft.”

Glaser understands the emotional connection between craftsperson and tools. Unlike vocational training, which is geared toward helping the student make a living, at NESM the satisfaction and pleasure of one’s craft are deeply respected, without exclusive attitudes, snobbishness or incomprehensible “art jargon.”

Visiting artists and instructors come from all over the country to share their expertise with NESM students. I’ve attended workshops with Doug Merkel (who also teaches at the John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina) and Caleb Kullman, who designs and creates, among other things, massive and unique fireplaces for fancy ski houses in Telluride, Colo.

In a typical workshop, the instructor demonstrates techniques from time to time, and moves around assisting students as needed. Though some courses are beginner-friendly and others require more experience, there is always a range of skill and background among the students, who often pick up ideas and tips from each other.

Many classes have a specific theme: toolmaking, botanical forms in metal, Japanese swords, weather vanes, reproduction Colonial hardware, cast iron work. The school also offers beginner’s classes, and sessions where the group, working together, fabricates enough coal forges (think steel work tables with fire pots in the middle) or power hammers for everyone. (Bring your truck!)

A day at the forge

You arrive at 8 a.m. and meet the other students sitting around tables in the classroom, where Glaser has made a pot of coffee. (At this point you might find yourself sizing up the other students…ah, good … they’re not all seven-foot tall gorillas.)

Participants make introductions and hear a brief talk from the instructor. Then, the small group walks across the parking area to the workshop. Inside, a large room dedicated half to blacksmithing, half to welding holds a generous collection of metalworking tools … not machine shop equipment intended for precise fabrication, but rather, hand tools and common power tools familiar to most of us.

On the blacksmithing side there are coal forges and propane forges, anvils and vises, sledgehammers and pneumatic power-hammers, files and chisels, coal buckets and water barrels. There are grinders and torches, a drill press and belt sander, and, mystifyingly, big racks of tools, some of which you might actually recognize (and many you wouldn’t).

In your first experience at the coal forge, you spend a good deal of time starting and figuring out your fire, while looking at others in the group and thinking, “Why aren’t they having as much trouble as I am?” Before lunch, though, you’ll be thinking, “This is just like a childhood dream … get dirty, play with fire, pound on things, make noise …”

Lunch will taste wonderful, and if you go to a local store for your sandwich, they may just know where you’ve been all morning from the coal smudges on your knuckles.

There is definite pride in saying, “I made this.” One five-day workshop won’t make a master smith out of a beginner, but creating your first usable hook or fire poker feels really good. Then, your first good (“stuck”) forge weld feels great … before that becomes routine too.

Working with tools you’ve made yourself also feels terrific. I now use “my” hammer, a few chisels and center punches and lots of fire tools; they aren’t perfect, but they’re distinctly my own. Blacksmiths often make their own tongs. My first tongs are ugly and primitive, but usable. Undoubtedly the next ones will look better. There is something special about making the tools with which to make the art.

You may get a few blisters. You will get dirty. You’ll probably make some friends. Your neighbors will be impressed with whatever you bring home, not knowing that a simple plant hanger or fire poker is not really that hard to make. You will learn a new language: the fuller, flatter, swage and drift, hardie and pritchel, coke and clinker, annealing and tempering.

As for the image of the brawny blacksmith, brawny instructor Doug Merkel scoffs, “We’re not building railroad engines.” You do need to be prepared for physical exertion, but I can assure you one thing.

It feels good.

And as for that well-known Longfellow poem, “The Village Blacksmith” which begins “Under a spreading chestnut tree, the village smithy stands …” allow me correct a common misconception.

The “smithy” is the shed, the building that shelters the forge. Sometimes the whole business is called the forge. A smithy, however, is never a person.

He or she – like me – is a “smith.”

Eva Murray, of Matinicus, is a 1985 graduate of Bates College and a columnist for Maine Boats, Homes & Harbors magazine. E-mail her at [email protected]

Most NESM workshops are four or five days long, enabling instructors and students to come from some distance and devote themselves full-time to work (room and board are your responsibility). Evening classes, which may span a month or more, are available for locals.

This summer, NESM will host the annual conference of the American Blade Society, three days of demonstrations, small classes, and more for knife and sword-smiths. Check the NESM website, www.newenglandschoolofmetalwork.com, or call 1-888-753-7502 and request a brochure for information on 2009 workshops.


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