Red Hot & Banging

Writer Erica Carson goes to the anvil.

By Tony


March 17, 2020


Backyard blacksmiths are terrorizing neighborhoods across North America thanks to the History Channel’s “Forged in Fire” series, a “Chopped”-style elimination tournament for bladesmiths. Metalsmithing is a male-dominated community that publishes video series with titles like Christ Centered Ironworks’ “The Blacksmith’s Wife” on YouTube. But I’m not a man, I’m not burly, and I’m not even particularly coordinated; I’m just a creaky, queer woman who really loves pounding steel.

hot knife in progress

 In America, we idolize the lone hero who conquers fate with the power of his tools. His manhood is as essential in pop culture as his isolation, and inextricable from his vitality and mastery of technology. We’ve mythologized our nation’s founding with legends of these men: inventors, yeoman farmers, warrior-poets. Entire genres feed the self-sufficiency fantasies of would-be Robinson Crusoes and their adoring, sexualized love interests. I’m not immune to power fantasies. I want to believe that even if the whole world falls apart, I can keep my little slice of it hammered together. This ideal is not an aesthetic; I want to seize sole control of my fate. In part, that fantasy is what drew me to the Adirondack Folk School to forge knives after a year of sweating over hot iron.

When I designed my forge last year, my first move was to look up how John Gomes of Cohoes, NY, set fire to three city blocks so I could avoid doing the same. But unlike Mr. Gomes, I didn’t find my inspiration through the nearly-all-male competitive spirit of “Forged in Fire,” which I’ve never watched. Instead, the YouTube algorithm that turns some people into far right extremists herded me from ASMR recipes to blacksmithing how-tos. It’s a touch ironic that the instructors of both classes I took, Matthew Parkinson and Jordan LaMothe, are “Forged in Fire” winners.

Forging steel strategically applies heating and cooling to change the molecular structure of the metal into something tough but able to flex without permanently deforming–a series of steps that change the metal’s hardness and its elasticity, two types of material strength. Part of me hopes that with every hammer blow some of that strength will pass through into me. I want to take the raw stock of my body and soul and forge them into something useful.

I am the only woman in both courses, but the first day at the anvil is an equalizer: we all get beaten up with good grace. Three hours in, my hands are weeping and we’re all comparing blisters; six hours in, my blisters have unionized and are presenting their list of demands. By then I’m just relieved that my biggest liability hasn’t come into play–my busted back is biding its time.

Smiths say forging isn’t about strength, and that idea lasts until you’re the only woman and the slowest student in a smithy. Then they’ll tell you to hit harder, show you how to hit harder, and take over your workpiece because they can hit harder. An anvil sings when you strike steel skillfully, and my anvil rarely sings. My blows move the surface more than the core of the steel, forging flaws in the knife that could snap when I harden it later. I’m not confident in my aim, my grip, or my traitorous spine. But I won’t improve if I’m not here swinging.

My confidence is laid out on the anvil. Matt and Jordan step in numerous times during their respective classes to correct my angles or move through a particular stage faster. Sometimes they ask first; it is part of teaching, after all, but I’m hesitant to let go of my workpiece. Worse is stepping outside of my work station; it’s like surrendering ownership of the work. But my workpiece isn’t precious. No one’s putting my knife in a museum. I’m still learning. I can hammer solo another time.

Once my knife actually resembles a knife, it’s time to normalize it. The normalization process releases the internal stresses that accumulate in steel when you wail on it with a hammer and softens it as well. It’s a sauna for steel, and it’s relaxing for me too, because my poor aim isn’t a problem here. By the end of the day, my knife is shaping up. It’s not the best–that honor goes to Knife Kid, the only student younger than I am, and whose blade already resembles a bowie knife.

On day two, we grind. It’s not remotely sexy, and the better your forging, the less grinding you have to do. Naturally we spend most of the day at the belt grinders. First we grind the edges of the knives to be more knife-like; this is called “profiling.” I try to grind the plunges (the shoulders separating the beveled blade from the ricasso or bolster), but I don’t want to risk undercutting the blade’s spine, so they end up crooked. My back is killing me.

But I’m not the only one. Matt has back trouble too, and we spend a bit of precious downtime commiserating. I’m reassured that a professional is able to work through something that’s hindered me for years. My classmates genially grouse about shoulder pain and we get back to work: gluing the tang ends of our knives into some antlers.

While the epoxy sets, Knife Kid asks, “so tomorrow’s the day I can slip my knife in someone’s ribs?”

Matt and I stare as we compose responses. My internal Ralph Wiggum chuckles, “I’m in danger!” while Matt slowly says, “No, because that’s illegal.”

“You can stick it in some barbecue ribs,” I add, which means “please don’t stab me,” and Matt agrees. Until this moment, I haven’t felt unsafe.

I harden my knife with the brittle awareness that I’m actually making a weapon beside a kid who at best lacks comedic timing.  This is appropriate; the hardening process makes steel alloys brittler, too. When the metal is red hot, it soon reaches a critical temperature that shifts the carbon into the spaces among the iron molecules. This new crystal, martensite, is the structure we actually want. The reaction actually cools the steel, creating a dull “shadow.” This is called “decalescence.” If the steel is allowed to cool normally, the carbon falls back out of this configuration and becomes pearlite again, which briefly heats the steel back up — this is “recalescence,” and creates the illusion of a band of shadow passing across the steel. After I see the “shadow,” I briefly reheat the knife, and then it’s time to quench. Knife Kid is my shadow; his awkwardly-fitting machismo as rigid and brittle as my pride.

Quenching in oil is dramatic; the metal smokes while the oil bubbles, then ignites, so you have to move fast to avoid fires. All this effort is to stop time and lock the carbon into that martensite form. I drop both knives right after quenching. I knew this would happen. Matt warns me the first time that he can re-harden the knife to straighten it, but it could break. (It doesn’t.) The second time, Jordan laughs when I tell him I’m getting a new complex about this maker thing. But we all know the answer to the riddle of steel: humanity’s real strength is community, and teaching and learning are at the heart of it. 

In Jordan’s class, almost everyone else’s knife fails along the way, and I’m struck by an evil thought: I’m slow, but my knife didn’t break. It got through tempering intact. I even burned my blade’s spine. As it happens, you can heat steel up enough that the carbon burns out, leaving you with bubbling slag. It should’ve broken. Despite the pitting, my knife is as strong and flexible as it needs to be.

And so am I.

Over lunch on the next-to-last day, we talk about what got us into smithing. Most of my classmates are bored retirees who are into knives, but I want to make my own tools. Jordan brightens up. “Making your own tools is power,” he says. In a time of fear, the power to transform scrap into tools galvanizes me against despair. As I learn, I can appreciate the work of designers and craftsmen not just in luxury goods, but also our daily surroundings. I know the color of steel that means it’s time to strike. I’ve seen the shadow pass through the steel. I see it pass through myself. Nothing sublimates anger like fire and hammers.

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