Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge, was ugly and lame, the revered misfit who crafted weapons and armor for his swift and beautiful relatives on Mount Olympus. Like their mythical forebear, modern blacksmiths wrestle with iron and fire and carry the marks of the craft on their bodies.
“My right eye is held in place with a plastic cup,” says Rob Edwards, editor of The Anvil magazine. “When I go to the dentist, everyone wants to look at my x-rays. There’s all this stainless steel wiring in my cheek from where I got kicked by a horse. I have scars from nails in my hands and feet.”
A retired Navy pilot, Edwards, 57, started a second career as a farrier, making horseshoes and tending horses’ hooves, about 24 years ago. His line of work is what most people associate with blacksmiths. It’s less romantic than the common image of the village farrier hammering a horseshoe onto a stallion’s hoof, perhaps serenaded by a resentful neigh. But these days few blacksmiths shoe horses.
In the past 30 years there’s been a renaissance of blacksmithing among artisans who craft sculptures, grates, gates, fireplace screens, and other decorative items. A handful of blacksmiths formed Artists-Blacksmiths of North America (ABANA) in 1973, which now boasts 4,200 members. There are also industrial blacksmiths whose work can range from joining and shaping the bits for jackhammers to forging parts of ships and submarines. And, of course, there are still some farriers who pound shoes into horses’ hooves.
Perhaps because there are relatively so few working artisans and farriers, the government doesn’t keep track of their injury and disability statistics. If it did, blacksmithing might rank among the more hazardous occupations.
Aside from the major insults to his face, Edwards has suffered all manner of debilitating musculoskeletal injuries. “Beating on cold steel is hard on your hand and shoulder,” Edwards says. “I started getting the typical repetitive stress symptoms — your hands falling asleep on the wheel when you’re driving, waking up with aching wrists.”
But it wasn’t the repetitive stress or the kick in the head that convinced Edwards to lay his hammer down. It’s what happened to his back.
“The horse is built in such a way that you slide underneath it at an angle. When the horse leans into you, you’re never really in the right position to take all the stress. Most of us have lower back strain. [Every morning] I’d have to roll out of bed and crawl into the shower and run hot water on my back until I could stand up,” Edwards says. “That’s why I’m publishing a magazine and not shoeing horses any more.”
Hazards at every turn
Jefferson Mack Metal, the small San Francisco shop that Mary Jo Mack runs with her husband Jefferson, specializes in bending, stretching, and hammering lengths of iron and steel until they look like hand-drawn arabesques and giant ribbons rippling in a breeze. She glances at a pair of journeymen working on a 10-foot garden sculpture that will be shipped to a client in Colorado. As one swings a 50-lb. steel bar from the gas forge, the other begins hammering the end in a pattern suggesting the contours of a sapling.
Nearby, another worker removes red-hot bars from a small forge. These will be bent into U shapes for custom drawer pulls. In another corner, a master blacksmith pulls a cotton jacket on over his overalls and dons a welder’s mask. Soon, tiny bits of steel fly up around his shoulders as he bends over a piece of hot metal.
About every six weeks, Robert Owings does a safety workshop at Jefferson Mack. Owings spent 30 years as a blacksmith before the work aggravated a congenital shoulder condition, forcing him to retire three years ago. Now he consults on design and project management, as well as on health issues. Over the years as an artisan-blacksmith, Owings has had his share of burns, strains, stitches, and crushed fingers. He’s even had iron splinters removed from his eyes.
“Your hearing will eventually be destroyed if you’re not careful,” he says. “But the most immediate threat is to the eyes. Machine-powered equipment can bring a new dimension of danger.”
Electrically powered wire brushes that are used to whisk away bits of burnt metal, called “scale,” can throw tiny shards into the eyes and skin. And what erodes the hearing isn’t the clanging of the anvil but the roar of the gas forge and the constant whine of whirling grinders and cutters. Some smiths are left with tinnitus, a sensation of ringing in the ears.
The long hours blacksmiths spend standing on concrete floors wear on smiths’ knees and feet. Good shoes help, and protective clothing can help guard against burns and cuts. But even such clothing can be hazardous in some circumstances. Tama Sagapolutele, 35, an industrial blackmith at Terry Steel and Supply in San Francisco, broke his right arm when his long sleeve got caught in a threading machine. Sometimes, Owings says, a machine will catch a glove and break a worker’s wrist. Leather gloves that protect against metal fragments can also set you up for a nasty burn unless they’re insulated. Leather conducts heat very efficiently, and often, because they’re wearing gloves, people forget they may not be protected against heat.
In the absence of government guidelines for health and safety in the industry, much of the specialized monitoring and education comes from within the profession. Owings counsels blacksmiths on the importance of wearing eye and ear protection. They also learn to use counterbalancing and leverage to hoist and hold materials. Sometimes the smiths at Jefferson Mack use a set of pulleys and slings to move heavy pieces.
In addition to the articles on tools and techniques in Edwards’ magazine, The Anvil, there is also the occasional piece on health and safety. In one story, Dan Bradley, the director of a farrier school in Washington state, strongly recommends using a respirator and gloves when working with the carcinogenic compounds and adhesives used to rebuild horses’ hooves. In another piece, Carol Prentice, a former dancer who discovered the Alexander Technique several years ago when she hurt her back dancing, provides an ergonomic lesson tailored for farriers.
“Farriers get into really awkward stances. When they are bent over and they’ve got the horse’s foot between their legs, they’re kind of in a ‘crunched’ position,” says Prentice, who has been a certified Alexander instructor for 16 years. She teaches them to keep the head balanced on the spine, freeing the neck and allowing the back to lengthen and widen. As they move and work, they give themselves mental reminders — “soften the knees,” “free the neck” — to maintain proper alignment.
Prentice admits it hasn’t always been easy to get farriers to accept the language of the Alexander Technique. “‘Soften’ isn’t a very masculine word,” she says, laughing. But pain is a great motivator to get them to try it. “I get a lot of referrals from the pain doctors,” she says. “Sometimes it’s a last-ditch effort — go see Carol.”
Edwards found a measure of relief through regular yoga classes. “I used to be knock-kneed. I think that came from shoeing horses,” he said. “It took a couple of years of yoga before I could get my knees back into proper position.” Yoga also helped him strengthen his stomach muscles and reduce the pain in his lower back. “The stretching really helps keep the joints lubricated, and that’s important,” he says.
Perhaps the most important lesson Owings offers is mindfulness. “This work requires a lot of physical energy and intense concentration,” he says. “When you’re distracted or tired, accidents tend to happen.”
That’s why Mary Jo Mack insists on regular safety workshops for her blacksmiths. “If they get hurt — well, we can’t afford to lose anyone,” Mack says. “We’ve got projects based on each one of these guys.”
Tips for avoiding injury
Blacksmithing veterans — including one blacksmith who logged onto the Blacksmiths Junkyard safety chat room under the name Uncle Goodcrank — suggest the following safety tips for others in the field:
- Your hearing and sight are irreplaceable — don’t forget to protect your ears and eyes. The whine of the grinder and the roar of the forge can leave you as hard of hearing as a rock star. And standard eyeglasses and sunglasses are no match for flying micro shards of hot metal. Before you pick up your hammer, strap on some protective wraparound goggles and pop in a pair of earplugs. “Nobody has a spare set of eyes,” Goodcrank says. “Wear safety glasses — simple, no? Get something between your ojos and that [stuff] flying off the anvil.”
- Warm up before starting your day. New research shows that a few minutes of simple stretching before lifting not only improves flexibility but may make it easier to lift longer. Try warming up stretches at the beginning of a work session; if that feels good, try stretching a little more throughout the shift and at the end. Pilates, an exercise practice that emphasizes stretching and strengthening non-dominant muscles, can help you learn to use your body more efficiently. And another movement therapy known as the Alexander Technique can teach you how to reverse the physical habits that lead to back and neck and shoulder pain.
- Be prepared for fires. Always have a fire extinguisher handy. Goodcrank also suggests having a tub of cold clean water nearby for submersion, just in case you or your clothing catch fire.
- Be careful with adhesive and composites. Most of these products are toxic and some are carcinogenic, requiring you to wear a respirator when you’re using them.
- Wear protective clothing and gloves. “I wear bib overhauls and a T-shirt in the summer, lots more in the winter,” Goodcrank says. “I always wear a big leather apron – from the neck to below my knees. You sweat like a pig in summer, but it is worth it. Cuts down on the burns. Always wear a cap or hat. Yeah, I can hear some of these guys groaning away, but I still got all 10 toes, all 10 fingers, and most of my teeth, and been at it for some 50 years, off and on.” Know when and when not to wear gloves. “You wear gloves when you are unloading machinery, or humping old pallets, or coal sacks,” says Goodcrank, who advises never to wear a glove on your hammer hand lest hot material splatter into the cuff. Don’t forget that the leather glove that shields you from shards can also conduct enough heat to burn you.
- Keep the tops of the anvil and forge clear. “Never lay tongs on the forge,” Goodcrank says, “you are asking for a whole new world of hurt and lots of fancy cusswords.” The same goes for the anvil. “A good buddy of mine lost his right hand little finger last year just because he left the cut-off in the hole, took a heat in the cut-off end, then swung around, hit it a lick, dropped the hammer and about one and a half inches of his pinky.”
- Stay focused. Accidents usually happen when you’re distracted or tired. The long sleeves that protect you from hot ash can get caught in a machine if you aren’t being careful. Don’t try to get too much done at once. “Always know what you are gonna do next,” Goodcrank says. “When you have a pound of yellow/orange at the end of your tongs, that’s not the right time to look for the right hammer. Stick that back in the fire and think about it. Plan the work and do it that way. Don’t try to get in just one more lick.”
Artist-Blacksmith’s Association of North America
Anvil Magazine: Voice of the Farrier and Blacksmith
American Craft Council
Prentice, Carol. Changing The Way You Work: The Alexander Technique. ANVIL Magazine. http://www.anvilmag.com/smith/cntwywr.htm