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Blacksmithing at the Library with Columbia Fire & Iron

Posted on July 23, 2019 at 6:00 am

Hammer-in with Columbia Fire & Iron; photo credit: Megan Kennedy
Hammer-In with Columbia Fire & Iron. Photo credit: Megan Kennedy

By Erin Dodge

Within the Library District’s creative spaces—The Lab at North Spokane Library and The Studio at Spokane Valley Library—we’ve hosted creators who have taught program participants how to reupholster furniture, decorate cakes and cupcakes, shoot professional-level film, take awesome photographs, sew something special, paint landscapes, illuminate manuscripts, write poetry, bind books, and more.

This August, we’ve partnered with a non-profit group that won’t fit in The Lab. However, they fit in the parking lot of North Spokane Library. Columbia Fire & Iron will be teaching participants the basics of blacksmithing, using their mobile forge, in two sessions. Spectators are welcome to watch and learn more about the craft and work of blacksmithing.

I got the opportunity to ask Steve McGrew and Mallory Battista of Columbia Fire & Iron some questions about blacksmithing and what people can expect from that event. After reading what they share, I hope you are just as excited as I am to see this great event.

Registration to be a student for the morning and afternoon blacksmithing sessions begins Thursday, July 25, at 8am. You’ll find the link below in the information about the event.

LIBRARY EVENT

Blacksmithing at the Library
For adults

Learn the basics of blacksmithing from Columbia Fire & Iron. Using coke forges, tongs, hammers, vices, and anvils, students heat and transform steel into nails and decorative hooks to practice basic blacksmithing techniques. Only registered participants are allowed in the blacksmithing tent. Spectators are welcome in the bleachers.

Registration is required. Please only register for one session—morning or afternoon.

NORTH SPOKANE
Saturday, Aug 24, 9am–1pm & 2–6pm | Register online

The mobile blacksmith station has been made possible by a grant from Spokane Arts.

INTERVIEW WITH COLUMBIA FIRE & IRON

Erin Dodge: What does Columbia Fire & Iron do and who is involved?

Steve McGrew: Columbia Fire & Iron is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, organized to practice, teach, and promote the craft of blacksmithing. We have two Hammer-Ins per year with 50–80 attendees on average, where we teach blacksmithing techniques at beginning through intermediate levels in half-day sessions. We also demonstrate at the Spokane Interstate Fair, and this summer we are demonstrating at the Emerson Garfield Farmers’ Market on North Monroe every Friday. For more accomplished smiths, we occasionally have focused workshops on such things as wedge joinery, forge welding, and Damascus blade making.

Mallory Battista: CFI’s primary mission is education. Along with the Hammer-Ins and classes for people to give blacksmithing a try or expand their knowledge of it, we do demos to increase public awareness of the craft. Blacksmithing is still a relevant skill, not antiquated like many think. It’s an old craft, but so is cooking.

We call CFI a blacksmithing club, and I get asked a lot, “How do I become a member?” You just show up to events—that’s all. There is no initiation fee or annual dues. You just come to a Hammer-In and you’re a member of CFI.

We post all of our events online, so it is easy to get involved. We want to help people get into blacksmithing and support them however far they want to take it, whether it’s trying it once or pursuing it as a career. Our Hammer-Ins and the upcoming event at the library are great places to start. You can try it and learn the basics without having to invest in your own anvil and forge.

Erin: Fans of the History Channel’s Forged in Fire know of the many weapons that can be forged with blacksmithing. What else can be created with the forge and other blacksmithing tools?

Steve: A master blacksmith can make practically anything you can imagine that’s made of metal. Gates, railings, window grilles, BBQ and fireplace tool sets, wagon wheel rims, napkin holders, coat racks, pot racks, chandeliers, sconces, chairs, tables, arbors, sculptures, bottle openers, corkscrews, and shop tools like tongs, chisels, punches, calipers, scissors, etc.

Mallory: I make a lot of things for my house: a pot rack, a dinner bell, a coat rack, trellises for the garden…. I really want to forge a couple garden gates. I create jewelry sometimes. There are a lot of things you can make. This summer, CFI is forging an ornamental bike rack during our demos at the Emerson Garfield Farmers’ Market, which will be installed on-site at the Adult Education Center at the end of the market season. There is definitely an increased interest in blacksmithing because people want to make knives and swords, but there is so much more to blacksmithing. We can also make our own tools as needed, which is a beautiful thing.

Erin: If someone is interested in blacksmithing and metalworking but hesitant or uncertain that they would be able to do it, what do you share about the craft with that person?

Steve: We tell them that they should try it. At the Hammer-Ins we have taught 12-year-old kids and women over the age of 70—plus policemen, professors, doctors and accountants. Anybody can do it.

Mallory: I’m usually one of the few, if not the only, women hammering at our events, and I’m excited to change that. (Women are welcome!) It’s not all about strength, and I have learned over time with help from more experienced smiths that technique and hammer control are more important than muscle.

We have a huge age range at our events too, teenagers up to folks in their 70s. Obviously, everyone needs to be safe about it, but if you are strong enough to swing a hammer, then you can probably blacksmith. And we always welcome folks to just come out and watch if they are unsure.

Erin: How long does it take to go from a beginner to an expert blacksmith and metal worker?

Steve: That really depends on the definition of expert blacksmith and metal worker. Nobody has all the skills that are available to acquire. I’ve known a few people who progressed from rank beginner to accomplished smith in as little as two years, and one who did it in one year. Four or five years is more common. The key thing is to put in a lot of time at the forge and anvil—as much as 20–30 hours a week—and to keep trying new techniques.

Erin: Columbia Fire & Iron recently acquired a mobile forge. And as many can imagine, forging is dangerous. What safety measures are in place with the mobile forge that allow you to teach others and include a spectator area?

Steve: We give all students a safety talk before each session, and keep a close eye on them to make sure they are taking the right precautions for their own safety and others’ safety. All students are required to wear eye protection. Spectators are kept on the far side of a yellow-ribbon safety line, far enough away that no hot scale will reach them. We keep a fire extinguisher on hand, and make sure that nothing flammable is nearby.

Erin: What can students expect to do and spectators expect to see at the Blacksmithing at the Library event on Saturday, August 24?

Mallory: We will go over safe practices while forging and lead students in beginning projects, starting with making traditional nails and then twisted S-hooks. Every student has to make a couple nails—it’s a rite of passage. I really love making the S-hooks. They are fun to forge and they have so many uses. And of course, everyone gets to take home what they make.

Steve: Spectators there will see us making simple items like nails, leaves, coat hooks, and bottle openers. We will keep up a running dialog with spectators, explaining what we’re doing and answering questions.

Board members of Columbia Fire & Iron
Columbia Fire & Iron board members: Steve McGrew, John Huffstutter, Mallory Battista, and David Kailey

Steve McGrew began blacksmithing in 2004, is presently President of Columbia Fire & Iron, and is currently on the Board of Directors of the Northwest Blacksmith Association. He has taught approximately 350 students blacksmithing and knife making since 2008. He is a founding member of Columbia Fire & Iron and has published approximately 25 how-to articles in blacksmithing trade journals and websites, including two ABANA journals and the NWBA journal. His Rhino anvil design has become popular across North America. He has done public demonstrations of blacksmithing at the Spokane Interstate Fair and other venues annually since 2009. His dandelion sculpture commemorating young victims of the great Sichuan earthquake has been on display at the Earthquake Museum in Chengdu, China, since 2009. He taught a one-week blacksmithing workshop for art students in Dujiangyan, then Chengdu, every spring from 2009 through 2016. Steve considers himself a blacksmith hobbyist. In his “other life,” he owned and managed a small high-tech business, from which he retired in August 2017.

Mallory Battista has always been interested in metalwork; as a kid, she made sculptures out of bare copper and steel wire and, as an adult, became fascinated with the idea of blacksmithing. Mallory first met Steve McGrew at the interstate fair and was thrilled to find out that blacksmithing is actually feasible to learn! Her biggest supporter and instigator in her pursuit of learning the craft has been her husband, who surprised her with her first hammer and a two-day class with Steve for Christmas 2013. After that, Mallory attended CFI hammer-ins and has been lucky enough to learn from Steve, David, and John. She’s working on piecing together a shop in her small garage and hammers with CFI whenever she can. Working as a graphic artist and a writer, both sedentary jobs, she loves that blacksmithing gets her “off her butt” and makes her think in a different way.

Erin Dodge

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