Columns and stories of life from the Fredericksburg area.
Blacksmiths forge link to past
BY SEAN McCOLLUM
FOR THE FREE LANCE–STAR
Metalworking is one of the oldest human skills.
Through the ages, there was always a need for a sword, or armor, or good strong gates to protect against intruders. Except, perhaps, in modern times.
The iconic hammer and anvil have mostly given way to machine-tooling and mass production.
The Central Virginia Blacksmith Guild wants to keep the skills and tradition of forging metal alive.
The members—a mix of traditionalists, hobbyists, and artists—meet regularly to exchange knowledge, demonstrate skills, enjoy camaraderie of fellow tradesmen and pass the tradition to the next generation.
“You’ll never find a better bunch of guys and women in terms of sharing of their time, their knowledge, their tools, their equipment, whatever, to help another smith out and keep the craft going,” said Guild Vice President Hunter Perkinson Jr.
Guild members throughout Central Virginia host the monthly meetings on a rotating basis. A recent meeting was held in Petersburg. Members displayed completed projects and made others— such as crosses and leaves—on the spot.
The gatherings give members like Daniel Boone of Louisa the opportunity to share a lifetime of experience.
“My father was a blacksmith,” Boone said. “When I was young I used to hang around the shop and get in everybody’s way, but I learned a whole lot.”
Boone claims his ancestors—including the famous one whose name he shares—have been smiths for many generations. He says the family trade stretches back to making armor for the Vikings.
The larger-than-life Daniel forged his own path when “they found his skills at leading [people] were better than blacksmithing, and the rest is history,” the modern Daniel Boone explains.
While Boone seemed to have the trade stamped in his DNA, others came to the craft in a more roundabout fashion.
Artist Tom Chenoweth initially went to college for photography. He found he was better at working with his hands.
Two degrees and 36 years later, he makes furniture and does other artistic work.
Chenoweth said he doesn’t use traditional forging methods to create his art, but he said it still helps to know the basics.
“Blacksmithing is thousands of years old,” Chenoweth said. “By learning the old methods, you can then use your own aesthetic and knowledge to integrate it into things you do.”
Even in an age of machines, Guild members see a trade that is alive and well. Boone cited a number of factors for this longevity, the first being the uniqueness of the finished product.
Metal moves differently “every time you hit a piece,” Boone said. “So you can’t make two things alike. Machines do that. People don’t.”
The uniqueness has allowed metal artisans to share their methods and practices without fear of plagiarism. And so the coal-fired forge demonstrations of the Guild are available for everyone willing to learn.
“They want this to survive,” Boone said of the Guild members. “They want this to go on forever.”
Sean McCollum is a freelance writer who lives in Fredericksburg.