Human beings have been using fire to shape metal into tools for a very long time. In ancient Greek mythology, the god of fire, Hephaestus, was also a blacksmith. Hephaestus was the son of Zeus and he forged all the weapons for the gods of Olympus in his workshop under a volcano. According to legend, every time Hephaestus worked on something, it would cause an eruption.
At Earthshine, we’ve been blacksmithing with students and family groups since the early 1990s. We never got volcanic with anything, but over the years we’ve helped some pretty excited people shape a lot of hot steel over an anvil.
There are several ways to work with metal. There’s casting, which means the metal is melted into a liquid and then poured into a mold to shape it. There’s also machining, where material is cut away from the metal to make something new, like a screw or a gear. Then there’s what a blacksmith typically does, which is called wrought iron.
The word wrought is the past participle of the word work. So, wrought iron is basically worked iron, meaning the metal is heated until it becomes malleable, then worked over with tools, like a hammer. The word malleable comes from the Latin word malleus, which translates to hammer. It’s also where we get the word mallet!
And while we’re on the subject of Latin, the Roman version of Hephaestus was called Vulcan. Which, incidentally, is where Charles Goodyear got the name for his rubber hardening process, vulcanization. And then, of course, in a famous science fiction 1960s television series, there was…
Wait, what were we talking about? Oh, right. Blacksmithing. Yeah, we do that at Earthshine. It’s still a popular feature of our educational hands-on history programs. And we’ve recently expanded our blacksmithing program to include primitive knife making. Small groups spend about two hours down at the forge. Participants take turns with our blacksmith at the anvil to shape a hunk of steel into their own basic knife form. Everyone leaves knowing a lot more about blacksmithing legends and lore, history and techniques, and even a little science. For example, what’s the best way to keep an anvil from rusting? According to one old timer, the best way to keep an anvil from rusting is by applying hot metal to it repeatedly with a hammer as often as possible.