As I sit in front of my laptop, listening to YouTube on my flat-screen TV, with my iPhone propped up to my left, I can’t help but be drawn back into the world I just so recently left.
The world of blacksmithing.
My body is aching, I have a nasty blister on the palm of my right hand and my wrist is extremely stiff, yet I have just had one of the best weekends ever.
Why? Well, I’ve always been a little bit obsessed with all things medieval. I regularly attend medieval fairs (in costume), watch a lot of fantasy movies/shows and listen to ‘calming medieval’ mixes while I write. Does it really surprise anyone that I’m a fantasy writer?
Ok, Bron, that’s great. You think you were born in the wrong time, but why the blacksmith course?
Everybody knows that any good writer will use their own life experiences to enrich their storytelling. It doesn’t matter if it’s the experience of a broken heart or of being shot or of jumping from a perfectly good airplane with nothing but a parachute to save your life (why)… all of these experiences are things you can use to make your writing more than just words on a page.
These experiences allow you to inject passion into your writing, to show people that you have lived and that you are expressing part of your life on the page.
Writing exposes who you are. This is perhaps why it can be so daunting to have others read your work and why it can be so painful when they criticise it.
Of course we can’t experience everything. If we only wrote about what we could experience, we would never have genres like fantasy and science-fiction. I went to space, hello! Yeah right.
I can’t sit here and tell you that I have known what it feels like to be my main character Kaylan. I can’t tell you what it feels like to be dying, to be poisoned, to have lost my family, to have lived poorly, to have worked in a smithy—
Wait! I can tell you what it’s like to work in a smithy – because that’s what I did this weekend!
I did a two-day blacksmith course with Eveleigh Works (Sydney). You may have heard a lot of different authors say something along the lines of ‘If you could see my browser search history, I’d be a candidate for a terrorist watch list’ – because they’re Googling some very, very dodgy things in the name of research.
Me? I have Googled ‘how long does it take for a body to decompose’ and ‘most effective way to stab someone’ and countless other weird and horrible things. Once, I even gagged myself (see episode 1 of A Writer’s Life). I have Googled how to make chainmail and endless videos on blacksmithing because I wanted to authentically represent what smithing might have been like.
Then it occurred to me: I may not be able to physically experience a lot of things for this novel, but I can experience what it’s like to work in a smithy. Just like my character Kaylan.
So what was it like?
I could leave it there but it is so much more than that. Let me just admit here and now that this would not be for everyone. This is rough, dirty, sometimes tedious work. I even struggled a bit because I have weak wrists and wielding the larger hammers was difficult at times.
Still, ‘she persisted’.
On Saturday morning, my dad and I arrived at the smithy – a huge warehouse where they used to repair trains, now used by the wonderful people of Eveleigh Works. There were a few classes being run that day – blacksmithing 101, a knife-making class and a hammer-making class. After a tour of the space, we split off into our groups and cracked into our work.
We would be making wall-mounted coat racks and when our blacksmith Matt showed us an example I remember thinking ‘That shit looks fancy, there’s no way…’
Alas, I was wrong!
There was a lot more to this weekend – great advice and tid-bits from Matt – that I won’t go into because I want to get more into what I felt and how it relates back to my novel.
My book, Relic, is written – but as I was experiencing things I had already written about, I realised how much more there is to it. I remember I wrote a line about the sweat that drips on every inch of Kaylan’s body when she’s in the smithy and I definitely drove home the idea that it is relentless and disgusting.
It’s one thing to write about it, but it’s another to experience it. I sweat a lot – I do a lot of sport – but this was a whole other level of sweat. I felt like my forehead was raining sweat. It would not stop. It was as if my forehead was the gutter overflowing with rainwater and my eyes were the windows below being drenched.
Perhaps one of the most important parts of smithing is a technique called tapering. This involves bringing a length of iron to a point. To do this, we were given two metal bars and heated them in the fire (HOT. HOT. HOT.) for a minute or so before pulling them out. The metal glowed like the sun.
The fire was searing. I’m not kidding. At times it was so hot, I couldn’t go near it. This is not a warm-yourself-by-the-campfire kind of heat. I had to pull my hand away many times because it felt like my skin was melting from my very bones.
There’s a lot of technique to tapering as well, which is why it’s considered to be a real bread-and-butter part of smithing. Any blacksmith worth their grain of salt will be able to do a nice taper. You have to get the right angle and hit the hammer in a certain way and make them all match.
Tapering was the hardest part for me (and, from what I could tell, for everyone else too). Striking the end again and again until we got it to the exact measurements we wanted was tricky. Then we had to repeat the process on the other iron bars – while making sure they matched (worst). My poor little wrist did not like the constant hammering, I got a lovely blister on my palm and my right thumb went numb. No idea why. Stupid thumb. It’s ok now.
Once we had somewhat-successfully tapered our bars, we bent the ends into pretty little patterns. These were our hooks, see below:
That part was really fun, personally. I loved seeing the metal bend to my will (mwahahahaha). Plus, it’s so pretty!
That night I went home feeling half-broken but accomplished and eager for day two.
We returned the next day ready for more! The work was a lot easier today, in my opinion. There was still a lot of hammering but it seems my body quickly adapted to the pressures experienced in a smithy. My thumb was perfectly fine today – not a hint of numbness.
We worked on the metal plate that would eventually become the backing plate for our hooks. We got to express our inner-creativity here a little bit, as the design and patterns were entirely up to us. I went for something simple – a little flair in the corners, a nice little border and then I ‘softened’ the edges of the plate.
This was when we got to be a striker for our partner! The blacksmith runs the show and the striker is essentially their assistant. The blacksmith will hold the piece or tool in place, while the striker uses a sledge hammer to strike where required. This bit was personally a real thrill for me, as Kaylan is the best striker in her smithy. She is the strongest, therefore has no problem wielding those big-arse hammers.
Our next step was to use a grinder with a wire brush attachment to ‘buff’ the metal, which removed the excess scale. I only used the grinder a bit, as I wanted to keep that real rustic look. Others worked on theirs a lot more, which made the metal SHINY AS F.
We then worked on hot riveting our bits of metal together. The next time you go over the Harbour Bridge, take a closer look (unless you’re driving, then don’t) because there are thousands of rivets. Basically, we drilled holes in both our plate and hooks for our rivets to go through. Using a blowtorch, we heated the open end of the rivet and banged the living daylights out of it until it smooshed down against the back of the metal plate, thus locking our pieces of metal together. Together forever, awww.
The blowtorch had a fun effect on some of the metal. We were essentially ‘heat treating’ our metal but kind of by accident. When you heat metal, the colour can change. The varying temperatures result in a spectrum of colours across the work, like a rainbow! It starts off kind of gold, then as it gets hotter it goes to shades of blue! Etc, etc.
However, not everyone’s pieces had this happen. Mine didn’t and honestly, I kind of loved the look. So after my piece was assembled, I put the blowtorch to my piece and just had at it. Some bits are a bit gold, others blue.
The end result?
I’m going to hang me some sh*t on that.
So that was basically my weekend. I have a new level of respect for Kaylan (even if she is fictional) and for all blacksmiths past, present and future. I can’t imagine doing this for a living (although, in saying that, my body was able to cope a lot better today so I figure you would just get used to it, like most things) but I have such respect for those who do it.
It’s not just that it’s physically demanding. You have to have a level of confidence and creativity to be a blacksmith. It’s a place where you can express yourself through your work. It’s a place where control goes hand-in-hand with chaos. To some degree, you never know how your strike is going to turn out or what the metal might do. You might hit it slightly wrong or it might shift or just be slightly below the required temperature and things can go wrong. But then you have control because 99% of the time you can fix it.
Another thing that really struck me was the sense of community. I’ve mostly worked desk jobs in my time and, as those of you who also work in an office are aware, there can be a division among the workers due to stupid things like superiority. I didn’t feel that here. Sure, we were just students but I could imagine what it would be like for Kaylan working alongside her friends and colleagues inside that smithy.
We took a ‘smoko’ break on both days (there’s a term I haven’t heard in a while), basically to rest and drink tea and have a chat. Everyone sat together to laugh and bond and reminisce. It felt like we were all equals in that moment. Our projects might be different and our skill levels might be different but we were all there for the same reason: to learn about smithing.
I have to say though, it was so quiet at lunch, mostly while we were eating, but even while we were all talking; it felt as if something was missing. I got up to use the bathroom and when I came back, everyone had returned to work. Suddenly, the room felt less empty than it had before. It almost felt wrong for there to be silence in a forge. The tink, tink, tink of the metal is something I talk about in my novel, but hearing it for myself was really comforting.
Walking back into that room and seeing everyone leaning over their little projects and hearing the sound of hammers hitting metal was one of the best moments of the weekend for me.
I think I’ve gone on long enough but I have to say that I am so glad I did this course. I will definitely go back to do another (perhaps the knife-making course!?), because even if Kaylan ends up being my only blacksmith character, there’s a reason behind everything we write, isn’t there? I had to choose what my main character’s profession would be and I could have chosen anything. She could have been a florist or a baker or a singer. But I chose for her to be a blacksmith. There were many reasons for this – I wanted her to be physically strong. I wanted her to have a practical skill-set. I also wanted her to be a blacksmith because it’s something I’ve always been fascinated with. I have always wondered about what would happen if I got sucked back in time to the medieval times (yes, I know) and what would I do? Every time, the first thing that pops into my head is:
“Bron, you’d be a blacksmith.”
~ Bronwyn xo