Old beats new: blacksmith forges handmade metalworks with 19th century techniques

Posted on April 27, 2014 in Arts & Culture
By Francis Flisiuk

Randy Hazelton | The Free Press
Randy Hazelton | The Free Press

Tucked away in a side shop on Fore street, hiding behind a heavy wooden door, is a workshop that looks like it was pulled from a time warp.

The Portland Forge is a soot filled shop that specializes in crafting custom ordered metallurgic items made using only historical blacksmithing techniques. By using historically accurate techniques and tools, Sam Smith, the founder and master blacksmith, forges handmade metal works for a variety of purposes.

Metal tongs, bellows and hammers, his tools of the trade, are scattered across the dusty room, bathed in a soft orange light from the roaring fire and red hot coals. All are evidence of Smith’s unconventional mastery and what he described as his passion.

“I put my life-force and creative energy into this,” said Smith. “It’s nice to see something either useful or beautiful come out at the end of it.”

Smith forges everything from hooks, nails and mason’s tools, to fireplace pokers, knives and swords are, who believes in the value of good old-fashioned hard work. According to Smith, many manufacturers today seek technology that is convenient, and the human element is often overlooked.

“I work with the sweat of my own brow and the strength of my own back,” said Smith.

Jeremy Niles, a senior business administration major, and founder of a co-working creative space that Smith collaborated called the Open Bench Project, agrees.

“The most efficient ways of making something, never turn out the most beautiful,” said Niles.

Smith works with metals like bronze, copper, steel, iron and silver that he exposes to a heat of over 2,500 degrees and then bangs into shape with his hammer and anvil. Depending on whether the metal is ferrous or nonferrous, it’s then dunked in a barrel of water to either harden or soften it respectively. Ferrous metals containing iron, non ferrous do not, and both react to temperature changes in different ways.

Sometimes custom orders can take days because this process has to be repeated several times to strengthen the metal. Smith takes orders from around the Portland area and they usually include things like intricate metal work for fencing or gates and aesthetically designed coat hooks.

Smith said that although his methods are time consuming, the quality of his work is superior and more durable because of his choice to stick to the historical roots of the trade.

“A lot of people consider my job antiquated or extinct, but I’m here to show people it’s still viable,” said Smith. “But I’m not only providing services that are valued, I’m keeping an important part of Portland’s history alive.”

Smith detailed Portland’s rich and vital history with blacksmithing by explaining that it was through it that the city became more accessible to trade. According to Smith, in the late 19th century, The Portland Company hired blacksmiths to build the first locomotives. Blacksmiths were crucial in forging construction equipment and railroads that would eventually connect Portland to Boston and Montreal.

According to Smith, using the same methods of our ancestral blacksmiths is important to the trade because it pays homage to generations of craftsmen and ensures the skills get passed on through mentors. Smith called his craft “saving history,” and he preserves it by demonstrating at fairs, events and art walks. He also welcomes anyone interested in a one-on-one apprenticeship in his workshop.

“I’m duty bound to teach people this craft,” said Smith. “You couldn’t have civilization without blacksmithing.”

Smith said that it was actually in the same building that he works in now, at the Portland Company, that the forge operated at full capacity during World War I, providing munitions and equipment for the troops overseas.

“There’s a reason town centers almost always had a working blacksmith,” said Smith. “Not only does it promote productivity and creativity, it builds communities.”

Smith said even with the advanced progress of technology, blacksmithing the 19th century way is simply too skills-based to be replaced by machines or any other time saving and modern methods. According to Smith, you can’t accomplish this kind of metal work any other way.

“There’s an industrial heritage to Portland,” said Smith. “We can’t forsake and abandon our past.”