History of Campbell County, Tennessee

Time Line


By Dallas Bogan

Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan.  This article was published in the LaFollette Press.

     Many local Campbell countians can well remember the trade of the blacksmith to one degree or another. Many had ancestors who practiced the profession, and through them they possibly picked up a point or two. 

     No trade holds a candle to the early business of blacksmithing in this country. Virtually every small pioneering settlement utilized this essential vocation, simply because it was the backbone of everyone's livelihood. 

     Blacksmithing is not only one of the oldest, but a fascinating craft, regardless of the age of the craftsman. This technique is still quite active, the modern smith having to constantly keep up with the new tools, new materials, and new processes. (The word smith comes from the German word "schmied." The work of the blacksmith comes from the forge - black.) 

     The glow of the sweltering forge, the ringing thunder of hammer against anvil, the sizzle of heated iron or steel cooled suddenly in water, and the whinny and thump of the horses, all were familiar sights and sounds of the blacksmith's shop. Within these premises the smith shod horses along with making repairs to carriages, wagons, tools and machinery as needed.

     School kids on the way home could peek through the open door that was darkened by smoke from the forge. The leather aproned smith would seem strange to these young observers at first as he thrust his tongs into the forge and pulled out pieces of chalky-looking glowing iron. They would witness him quickly turn to the anvil, place the pieces together, and hammer them to a hard consistency in which to weld and shape them. 

     The old smith shop was a community gathering place, where persons of all trades would assemble and solve the problems and politics of the day.

     Most shops were rather large in order to hold the wagons, plows, and horses, along with the multitude of tools that the smith worked with. They were generally equipped with a workbench, a water tub, an anvil, a tool table, a forge, and a coal bin. Infiltrated into this rather odd-looking interior were horseshoe racks, as well as racks to hold the iron and steel rods and sheets used by the blacksmith. Everything had a purpose and all were utilized to make new items and to repair old ones.

     In addition to the blacksmith there are many other similar metal-working trades such as the white smith, tin smith, copper smith, locksmith, silversmith, gun smith, gold smith, saw smith, wheel wright, ship smiths, and many others. The white smith takes the work of the blacksmith and will file and finish it until the base metal shines brightly. 

     One specialist, who is in great demand today, is the friend of the horse, the farrier. This smith systematically knows the horses' physical arrangement, simply because of the technique of applying shoes. This field requires a highly skilled smith and is one of the few craftsmen who work with living things. The farrier's anvil is special built to make animal shoes. It is lighter and has a longer horn or beak and most generally has a projection on the side of the body for special functions.

     A blacksmith is the only craftsman that makes his own tools. There are quite a few modern-day lady blacksmiths who also fabricate their own tools. Whether early day or modern day smiths, all have the same intellect from which they implement their own tool-making to suit their own needs. 

     Possibly the most recognized anvil today is called the London Pattern. It has a round horn on one end, a narrowing tail on the other, with two holes near the tail. The horn makes it possible to fabricate curved shapes, or to change the curve of an existing shape. The square hole is called the "hardy" hole, its function being to insure a large mounting space. The smaller round hole is called the "pritchel" hole, which is used for punching holes for rivets. The anvil top is made of steel and is specifically hardened. Its function is to provide a table on which most forging is done. This appliance is normally placed about 6 feet from the forge and rested on a block of wood that extended downward in to the soil about 2 feet below the floor surface. 

     Europe, in the late 1800's, displayed dozens of anvil shapes, and nearly every smith fancied a different design, reason being, perhaps, that each village had different needs. Anvils come in numerous weights, ranging from a few pounds to nearly a thousand pounds. The old country anvil generally ranged from 125 to 500 pounds. Most modern anvils are marked in kilograms or pounds. They have long lives if properly cared for. Many are still in use that were fabricated more than a century ago.

     A blacksmith's hammer is, beside the anvil, the most essential tools required. Being made by the individual smithy, the immense variety is remarkable. Old hammers are sometimes modified for individual jobs. Most generally it is cheaper and quicker to make a special hammer than to buy one. Meeting the smiths' specifications is a problem when purchasing a new one.

     For nearly 500 years power hammers have been used. These oversized tools may be operated from water power, steam, compressed air, or electricity. Hydraulic presses have evolved for this purpose in the last 150 years.

     Tongs are the widest in variety of all the tools made. Generally a different set is necessary for each size and shape of material. They are made to hold the materials from the side or the end, requirements being to hold the objects tightly. Tongs of all sizes grace the old blacksmith shops worldwide. Most tongs could be held in one or two hands while some were so heavy that they would be suspended by a crane or perhaps a number of men. 

     Many materials are used by the blacksmith, each having its own advantage. Brass, a combination of copper and zinc, or bronze, a combination of copper and tin, or perhaps aluminum or titanium, are all essential in the trade, along with the basic metal, iron.

     Last, but certainly not least, the forge was considered the major tool. Many materials and shapes made up this versatile apparatus. Africa today uses simple ground forges that utilize goat skin bellows as a forced air source. Today's modern forges are constructed from cast iron to steel or brick, with electric blowers generating the air force. 

     Forges are designed to get their wind, from which to fan the fire, from either the side or the bottom; each has its advantages; most American smiths use the bottom draft forge. The draft may come from the traditional bellows or from a hand-cranked blower, the latter replacing the former. 

     Many smiths prefer a low sulfur bituminous Pocahontas coal because of its flexible heating ability. Natural or propane gas is becoming more universal, especially for production work. Charcoal and coke have also been used at times.

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