In April 2006, this column described the origins of the iron industry in America. Then, in April 2018, Industrial Heating’s cover story was about blacksmithing.
I recently visited with specialty knife-maker Tony LaSeur (www.laseurknives.com) in Fredericksburg, Va. His art and its unique history in America offer a wonderful view of this niche as part of what makes our country great. Our world since Colonial times has grown and changed beyond belief, but quality metal arts have survived and improved significantly.
In the Middle Ages, the need for iron utensils for cooking and iron blades for sickles, scythes and axes grew the work and art of blacksmithing. Iron was the preferred, stronger metal despite more plentiful metals such as copper. We know this from the writings of Benedictine monk Theophilus Presbyter and because Europe is not well-endowed with quality iron ore.
Blacksmith James Read arrived in Virginia at Jamestown in May 1607. One year later another arrived. In 1611, a shipload of mechanics came to assist together with four more blacksmiths. By 1619, the first colonial full-scale iron works began operation about 60 miles north of Jamestown. It was open until 1622, when all the workers were killed and buildings and equipment destroyed by indigenous people. The first sustained iron works opened in Saugus, Mass., in 1647.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, ironsmiths outnumbered all other metalworkers. A Boston business directory from 1789 listed only seven other metalworkers, seven farriers and 25 blacksmiths. In 1770, the William Hunter Works in Falmouth Va., made 1.5 tons of pig iron into bars each day. In 1781, Thomas Jefferson listed eight iron works in Virginia making 900 tons of bar annually. These workers met local citizen needs and did not make or sell products for sale in Europe because of British protectionist trade regulations. (Sounds familiar; government interfering with the private sector then as well as now.)
Ultimately, higher-quality ore deposits were discovered in the 1840s in the northern Great Lakes region, and the U.S. metals manufacturing sector grew and prospered thereafter. However, the U.S. was forced to import iron rails from the U.K. until 1844. Things really changed when Henry Bessemer made steel from iron in 1855. Remember that it was not until the 1930s that automated steel production came about. So, the heart of blacksmithing had to wait many years to evolve into what it is today, with the ability to make knives from higher-quality and less-expensive materials.
There are well over five dozen types of knives in common use from craft makers, such as hunting, kitchen, fillet, razor edge and bowie. It is necessary to know the type of steel to use (tool, stainless or carbon). In blades, they go by names of O1 (tough, oil-quenched, wear-resistant), 1084 (suited to imprecise heat treating), 1075 (heat treatable with blow torch and affordable) and 1095 (high carbon, rust-resistant and easily sharpened).
If you wanted to take up the hobby, it is essential that you obtain and learn how to use a variety of tools, including:
- Metal files to perform grinding, finishing and smoothing
- Clamps to hold the blade in place while shaping it
- Hacksaw with high-quality blades
- Bench vise with a 360-degree swivel to hold the blade in place in correct orientation
- Grinding abrasives of various types
- Drill press to drill holes for handle attachment
- Sharpening stone used in last steps of fabrication
- Torch to heat the workpiece
You should also have safety gear (e.g., glasses, respirators and gloves) and a fire extinguisher. Getting more proficient with the hobby of blade-making will prompt adding items like a belt grinder and an oven with suitable tongs for insertion and removal of the workpiece on the anvil.
Having seen LaSeur’s shop, it is evident that an artisan can fabricate beautiful works of art and utility in an ordinary workplace where any blacksmith would be comfortable. It really is “truly amazing.”