BLACKSMITHS claim, "By Hammer and Hand
all arts do stand." It's not
an empty boast. No other colonial trades could develop until the blacksmith
established his business. He made and repaired the tools of all other
craftspeople. In the early colonies, he was usually the only person who knew
anything about repairing guns. He made the axes that felled the trees to
build houses. No other smith was more necessary to the colonists' survival
than the blacksmith.
When the Virginia Company formed, one of its main objectives was to
establish an iron industry in Virginia. England's supply of iron was running
low. It was relying on iron imported from Scandinavian countries. The first
full-scale American ironworks was operating in 1620 at Falling Creek, a
settlement about eighty miles north of Jamestown. Its success was short
lived. In 1622, Indians massacred most of the workers at the ironworks and
destroyed the buildings and equipment.
After the massacre, finances became a problem for the owners of the Virginia
Company. Instead of re-establishing the ironworks, they built a bloomery.
A bloomery was a simple establishment for producing wrought iron. It had a
plain open hearth with a bellows and a fire bed filled with charcoal. Pieces
of iron ore were placed on the charcoal to soften. The fire was intensified
by blasts from the bellows. Impurities were drawn out of the ore as slag.
Liquid iron particles fused and absorbed carbon. Spongy masses of iron, known
as blooms, were produced. The blooms were heated and pounded with heavy
hammers several times. This process removed any remaining impurities and
reduced the iron's carbon content. Finally, refined wrought iron was pounded
into bars for storage; this was called bar iron.
Although colonists were now producing some iron, the Virginia Company still
had problems. Apprentices and hard cash were rare in the infant colonies.
There were no stores where people could buy food and supplies. Incentives
were offered to get craftspeople, especially ironworkers, to come to America.
Land was cheap, and the artisans who came purchased huge tracts of it,
particularly along navigable waterways. But when they discovered they could
become rich growing tobacco and other crops, they gave up their crafts. Their
plantations became self-contained. They build docks so English ships could
pick up tobacco and drop off English products. Each plantation usually had
its own blacksmith, tanner, carpenter, and mill. The owners relied on each
other for entertainment and socializing. There was little to encourage
craftspeople to return to their trades.
The Virginia legislature took action. It stopped the importation of iron
and other commodities useful to craftspeople. If artisans gave up farming
and returned to their trades, they didn't have to pay taxes or levies. But
even this didn't help the situation. Finally, the legistature had to pass a
law making it mandatory for all blacksmiths to become armorers in order to
repair guns and other weaponry, and maintain the local militia's guns. The
safety of the colonists might depend on the condition of their weapons. If
a craftsperson refused to do this, he could be heavily fined.
As the seventeenth century closed, there were enough people in the colonies
to keep blacksmiths steadily employed in some towns. People needed wagons,
mills, equipment for small farms, nails, and more. America's iron industry
began to flourish. The colonies' dependency on English iron products
The English became resentful. To stop the growth of America's iron industry
and to encourage Americans to export bar iron to England, Parliament passed
the Iron Act of 1750. It had little effect on the colonists. They continued
producing iron, especially in Pennsylvania. There, deposits of iron ore and
coal were mined by German settlers long known as expert miners and ironworkers.
Coal, free of sulfur and phosphorus, was the fuel ironworkers preferred to
use. Charcoal was used, but it was not always suitable for all smithy
operations. It was lighter than coal and could be blown around the fire bed
by powerful blasts from the bellows. When his fire's hot spot was destroyed,
only the blacksmith's temper flared.
Colonial blacksmiths took their work seriously. Silversmiths probably
snubbed them as barbarians because they "upset" iron and used "snarling"
tools. Upsetting was the opposite of drawing. This process was used for
compressing and thickening iron. Snarling tools were used for rounding out
vessels. Blacksmiths also used drawing, welding, and punching techniques to
shape iron. Other tools frequently used were swages, punches, and wrenches.
No other tools were used more often than hammers, tongs, and anvils.
Anvils used by ironworkers could weigh over five hundred pounds. If an
anvil had a rounded heel and a pointed horn, they were used for bending iron
into numerous shapes. The anvil's hard face was kept smooth and flat. It
was where the heavy pounding was done. A small square area between the face
and the horn, called the table, was used as a cutting surface. It was softer
than the face and wouldn't damage cuttine tools when they hit it. There were
two holes in the anvil. The round "pritchel" hole held tools with round
shanks. It was also used when the ironworker punched holes in an item. The
"hardie" hole was larger and square. It held auxiliary anvils and "hardies",
square shanked chisels.
Pieces of metal separately forged on anvils could be joined by welding.
Apprentices learned to properly heat these pieces and keep them free of dirt.
They also learned that the hotter iron gets, the more oxygen it absorbs.
This oxidation causes scaling in the metal. Apprentices knew if the metal
was dirty or full of scale, no amount of hammering would weld it together.
To prevent scale or dissolve it, a fluxing agent was wiped on the metal prior
to heating it. The flux was forced out of the welding joint when it was
When welding, the blacksmith would first upset the joint area in case
accidental drawing occurred when the iron was hammered. The pieces to be
welded were heated to a brilliant white. They sparkled and hissed when
exposed to the air. Pieces heated to this temperature became pasty and
would stick together when they touched. The smith joined them with pressure
or one heavy hammer blow. If the pieces didn't weld, they were returned to
the fire for additional heating.
After the pieces were joined, the blacksmith continued hammering. This
broke up crystals that were formed by the high heat of the fire. It also
gave the iron a strong grain and created a weld that was almost as strong
as bar iron.
Iron work too thin to be welded would be brazed. The pieces would be
joined by means of a brass or silver solder. Sometimes blacksmiths referred
to brazing as welding.
Although blacksmiths were originally jacks of all trades, their craft became
specialized as the need for their services increased.
Information from the book
Colonial American Craftspeople
by Bernardine S. Stevens
by Sandra S. Bray