Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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What does a Blacksmith do?


After posting about our newest building, a blacksmith shop, I was suprised at the number of comments made to me about the new horse building.  In fact, our new shop really doesn't have anything to do with the horses, and I realized it was my fault for not clearing up what I mean by "blacksmith", so I wanted to remedy that with this post.

 Although the word blacksmith may make folks think of the guy putting shoes on a horse, the actual name of that profession is farrier.  Years ago, it was common for farriers to make horseshoes out of hot metal to custom fit the horse, but today most farriers' vehicles are stocked with a variety of sizes of premade horseshoes.  Very few do custom work with hot metal.

The term blacksmith, however, is used to describe a person who works with metal.  The traditional way to do this craft is to heat a piece of metal in a coal fire and then shape it using an anvil and a variety of hammers, tongs and other tools.   Years ago, many farmers were amateur smiths, and would make lots of different items for the like rakes and shovels, blades including knives and axes, hardware like hinges and door pulls, plus fire pokers, pot racks, hooks for hanging things and more.  Most blacksmiths made many of their own tools, and were able to use their craft to repair  or recreate parts for the machinery around the farm.  Those with more skill or interest would refine their craft, sometimes generating extra income for the farm with their metal work.  When you think of wrought iron, the twists and scrolls are good examples of what a skilled blacksmith can do with a piece of raw metal.

I find it absolutely fascinating to watch Dan working at this ancient craft.  To watch as a straight piece of square metal is twisted and worked into a fancy fire poker or other item amazes me every time.  There is real skill involved, much of it learned simply through practice.  You must be able to tell how hot the metal is simply by the color it turns in the fire...too cold and it won't shape properly, too hot and it will melt and be ruined.  Different tools create different shapes and textures.  The forge can be used to harden metal, or to weld as well.  It truly is an art, and one that truly fits our farm, with our desire to preserve old skills that increase our self-sufficiency.   I'm also really excited about my own workspace there. I've already moved my jewelry making supplies there, and the internet tracking code says my stained glass supplies should arrive today.  While I'm anxious to get started with that, between butchering a pig today, picking up a coffee order, and setting up the stand for tomorrow, not to mention running the stand and attending a wedding tomorrow, I'll have to wait a few days at least.  But as the days grow cooler and the garden wraps up for the year, I think we'll be spending plenty of time in our new workspace!


(Almost) An Old-Fashioned Barn Raising

Dan has had a few rare days off of work lately, as his brother Matt (and the other half of the construction company) is out of town visiting his folks. With some time to spend here on the farm, Dan has put some thought into what he'd like to accomplish this week. We decided to get to work on a project we'd been discussing for a couple months now, namely building a new workshop for Dan's blacksmithing. The oldest building on the farm was once a blacksmith shop, but due to the condition of the chimney and the age of the building (late 1800's), we'd rather err on the side of not burning it down. Dan has been working in a small shed, but the 8' x 10' space isn't big enough to accommodate much more than the forge & anvil. So, we decided to build a new workshop big enough for the forge & smithing tools, and also other metalworking tools such as welders, grinders, chop saws, etc. This way, all the tools will be in the same place and a metal project can be worked start to finish in the same place. He was also generous enough to promise me a section of workbench, because I'd like to try my hand at doing some stained glass projects during the off-season. You know, because I need another hobby.

Dan came up with the blueprints himself, and the new shop is 16' x 20'. We began setting a few posts over the weekend, and building in earnest this week. And an amazing thing happened. Some of our friends happened to have a few days off at the same time, and came to see the building go up. One had 20 + years of construction experience and is semi-retired, so it was easy to hand him a tape measure and a saw. Other friends were eager to pick up the cordless nail gun and get the boards secured. We had extra riders over to the Amish sawmill to pick up more rough cut lumber. Enough guys were happily building away that my main job has been picking up scraps of lumber so no one trips, and making sure there are enough refreshments in the crock pot and the cooler.  As much as I feel guilty not making salsa or pickles or dilly beans (and letting the produce go to the livestock or the compost bin), I think about what I'll remember 5, 10 or 20 years from now. Canning is my full-time summer job, but I don't think I'll ever have the opportunity to have a hand in building a blacksmith shop here on the farm, one we hope will outlast us.

 And even though all the men helping are old enough to be Dan's father, no one questions how he is going about with the project. They just ask what needs to be done next, and then grab a ladder or more nails or whatever is called for.  At the same time, he isn't afraid to bounce an idea off of someone on the best way to do something, either. While it's not the enormous project of raising a barn in a day, it surely has the same spirit of community, of helping a neighbor because you know that he would do the same for you. And in an age where almost everything is done by hired experts, or bought already assembled, I also think that there is a need to be a part of the doing of a project like this. To see the raw boards and steel roofing go from piles on the ground to a finished building, to create. It's the same kind of spirit that surely was present 150 or so years ago when the first shop was built, and an amazing thing to be a part of now.


Pleasant Valley...Forge?

I've mentioned many times how so little goes to waste on a small farm like ours- manure becomes fertilizer for the garden, garden leftovers are canned, and the scraps from that process supplement our pig's food. The same is true for lots of stuff here- non-organic “stuff”, that is. The original produce shed was a humble 8' x 12' building. Sales quickly outgrew it, but when our current stand was built, the old one didn't just go away. It made a very serviceable garden shed for a number of seasons, housing tomato stakes, irrigation equipment, hoes and more. Last year, we brought it closer to the house, did some repairs and maintenance, and our flock of Delaware chickens happily called it home. This year, we're breeding fewer varieties of chickens and we don't need the extra coop, but unused space rarely stays that way for long. This little building is now a fully functional forge, which is also a great way to recycle scrap metal from around the farm.

Dan isn't the first farm resident to try smithing, nor is this the first forge here. In fact, the original forge is still here. It's located in the workshop building, which is the oldest building on the farm. (It's older than the barn, which was built in 1894.) It was once a busy place, shoeing teams of horses and mules on their way to the town of Nebraska just over the hill. (The town is long gone, a boomtown that had mostly disappeared before being flooded under what is now Tionesta Lake.) The original stone forge is still there in the center of the shop, but the chimney leans at a pretty significant angle as it passes through the second story. While it would be really neat to use it again, the chances of the building catching fire are just too high, and we decided to err on the side of not burning it to the ground! So the anvil, the hand-cranked blower and other tools such as hammers, punches, chisels and tongs have been moved to the new, smaller forge. The anvil & blower are old, probably 100+ years, and have been on the farm much of that time. At least a pair or two of the tongs were likely made here in the old forge, as blacksmiths routinely make their own tools. The smaller workshop does have the advantage of being quite warm and toasty in this winter cold, as the heat from the coal fire necessary to heat the metal up soon warms the building as well. Dan has already made a few projects for the house, including a poker for the woodstove and decorative hooks for my cast iron skillets to hang from in the kitchen. Although I'm not much help besides cranking the blower to help the metal heat faster, it's fascinating for me to watch an ordinary piece of scrap metal be turned into something useful and beautiful as well. It's a wonderful way to pass some of the winter away!

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