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Blacksmiths Forge A New, Artisanal Future

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Blacksmiths Forge A New, Artisanal Future

Art & Design

Blacksmiths Forge A New, Artisanal Future

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So you probably don't have a neighborhood blacksmith these days. Blacksmithing is an ancient trade that, like other crafts, saw a downturn during the Industrial Revolution, when machines took over jobs that humans once did. Now, even if there isn't one around the corner, blacksmithing - believe it or not - is enjoying a small revival as smiths connect with customers over the Internet.

Alex Schmidt reports on one man who's leading the renaissance.


ALEX SCHMIDT, BYLINE: Adam's Forge in Los Angeles is a dark, high-ceilinged warehouse space. It's set up with anvils, medieval looking tools and black ovens that breathe fire.

MARK ASPERY: So, I'm going to do this once. Take the drift, make sure it fits.


SCHMIDT: Today, about a dozen people have gathered for an advanced class taught by master blacksmith Mark Aspery.

ASPERY: It's perpendicular, overlap them not more than half the thickness of the bar, break the common hole, drift the common hole and you'll have an angle. OK, I need some mathematicians.

SCHMIDT: Aspery walks up to a dry erase board to illustrate some of the finer trigonometric points of blacksmithing. He only makes it to L.A. a couple times a year. And his students get more from him than math class. During lunch, Aspery tells an old story about King Arthur.

ASPERY: And he invites all the artisans in and says I'm going to have a feast.

SCHMIDT: Arthur asked each artisan to explain why his work was important to building Camelot. Tailor, carpenter, stone mason, goldsmith, each made a strong case. But then Arthur thought twice.

ASPERY: And he says, Tailor, tell me, your needles, your scissor, where did you get those from? He says, Sire, I go down to the blacksmith shop. And so it is down the road, the carpenter goes to the blacksmiths shop, the stone mason.

SCHMIDT: Then, Arthur gets to the blacksmith.

ASPERY: Blacksmith, he says, who makes your tools for you? He says, Sire, I make my own tools - that is my craft.


SCHMIDT: Aspery learned the ancient craft through a traditional apprenticeship in the U.K. Now, he's spreading his knowledge throughout the U.S. by literally writing the book on blacksmithing. His three-level program was adopted by the National Blacksmith Association and it routinely sells out here at Adam's Forge.

ASPERY: It's exciting for me. There are a lot of people developing crafts and I really think that the time is right to help those people along. Whether it's structure, whether it's financing, that the time is right.

SCHMIDT: Still, it's not a huge industry. There are between five and 10,000 blacksmiths in the U.S., and of those, only about 10 percent do it professionally; they make things like custom railings or artistic hardware for homes.

Scott Higgins was learning to punch a hole in metal during class.

SCOTT HIGGINS: I'm having a great time. I would never here unless they, you know, if they didn't throw me out I'd stay here the whole time.

SCHMIDT: Higgins' day job is making electronic equipment for rockets. He's deep into blacksmithing in his spare time.

HIGGINS: My target is to do everything, learn everything within six years. When I do an early retirement and this is just what I'll do.

SCHMIDT: And maybe make some money on the side, or is that the idea or...

HIGGINS: Enough money to pay for materials and maybe an occasional beer.

SCHMIDT: Blacksmiths can make money these days finding customers on the Internet. That means they need to be entrepreneurs, and have an artistic vision to sell.

Len Lodish teaches marketing at the University of Pennsylvania.

LEN LODISH: Instead of having to spend time in front of an assembly line doing repetitive things, we now have people who are making artisan crafts and selling those, and learning how to banter, and learning how to deal with customers. And I would expect that's a much more satisfying life.

SCHMIDT: Mark Aspery agrees. Being an artisan now means making human connections.

ASPERY: You need to have some sort of verbal repertoire. It's not just banging on a hammer. And so, you've got to have a few jokes.

SCHMIDT: Remember Aspery's story about the blacksmith at Camelot? It wasn't just something to do during lunch. In fact, charming customers is an important part of the blacksmith's new skill set.

For NPR News, I'm Alex Schmidt.

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