A blacksmith transforming metal with heat and pressure seems like an ancient art lost to the world of modern manufacture.
Yet the creativity involved in metalwork: the cutting, grinding, forging, bending and hammering, is a joy that many still want to experience.
This interest is exemplified by blacksmiths like Jake James of Metchosin and Benoit Laurent of Langford, who’ve been teaching classes to those interested in learning about the trade.
James recently started his “first season” of one-day forging sessions in partnership with Camosun College. Laurent instructs his own group out of his workshop. The two still get commissioned to create their works for residents and businesses around Greater Victoria.
Blacksmithing as a job died fast after the period of world wars, when mass production became commonplace. Laurent said the revival came 20, 30 years ago and is now “exploding” with the internet.
What was once a “cliquey movement” has led to people being more aware that we live in a world of manufactured items, James said. “That’s translated into thinking about how things are made and the experience of how something is made.”
“The appreciation of the quality of a handmade product is becoming much more ingrained in people, I think, having almost been lost for a while.”
The rise in popularity is partly because word has gotten around on how much you can create, Laurent said. “Anything you can imagine is pretty much doable,” with scale and volume being the only mitigating factors, he noted.
Oftentimes, James said architects and designers have come to him for particularly tricky constructions without a “logical solution” after finding out about the freedom and flexibility that handcrafted metal work allows over the offerings of welding and fabrication shops.
James is able to maintain a living in this line of work because, he said, as long as the economy is strong, people still desire the originality of handcrafted work rather than picking out something at Home Depot. There are also the people looking for heirloom items, like a “nice axe,” he adds.
Blacksmithing as a trade is still an indefinite process, even though modern machinery has augmented capacity of the lone forger over “four or five people swinging sledgehammers,” Laurent said. He gets requests varied enough that continue to make it a challenge, he said.
“No project is the same and there’s no monotony.”
The job might look east to Newcomers who watch professionals on “high-end” TV shows on forging on History and Discovery channels, although the hard work involved quickly “dawns on people,” Laurent said.
“You will get burned…you will get your face covered in soot..you will get hands covered in grease and oil,” he said.
Laurent recommends those who are interested to join a group like Vancouver Island Blacksmith’s Association to get an idea of the work, which is how he got started in the work over six years ago. The yearly fee is a “pittance” for the quality of the education afforded, he said.