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A Day In The Life Of An Apprentice Blacksmith

Historical Fiction by Jock Dempsey  - anvilfire guru

Copyright © 1998

This story came about as the answer to the following query:

Hi, I'm doing a report and need to write about the day in the life of a -. I'm going to do a blacksmith. The main project is not that, but I do need at least a paragraph about the day in the life of a blacksmith. Only thing is, it has to be a day in 1640-1730, thank you so much!!!!


Well, how about - You are an apprentice to a blacksmith. You are 11 years old and only four months into your 7 years of servitude as an apprentice, making you the lowest of the low. Even the Missus' negro house slave gets treated better than you. Your morning starts before the Master's and Journeymen while they are having breakfast. It is cold and you have to clean out the forges, break up and haul in charcoal for the day (about 2 bushels), sweep and pick up the tools and scraps of iron left on the floor from the previous day. Then you start fires in the forges and before it gets warm you leave to get breakfast from the Master's table (if the Journeymen have left any). The Master's wife gives you a lump of hard bread and some hot tea and tells you to make it quick, its going to be a busy day. You drink the tea and eat your bread on the way back to the shop (about half a minute's walk).

In the shop there is a lot of banter among the Journeymen and the Master is discussing a new job with the senior Journeyman. No one pays attention to you as you take your place at the bellows behind the Master's forge. The Journeymen pump their own as they work because there is only one first year apprentice. You start to pump the paired bellows and heat up the forge. As you do little sparks jump from the fire like fleas and occasionally land on you. You forget to pay attention to the fire and soon it is roaring. The Master snaps at you for not paying attention and wasting fuel. All banter stops as everyone looks at you. Your Master is a good man and assured your parents you would learn the trade but right now you just feel like an abused slave. So far all you have done is sweep and clean and most of the time the Master takes over pumping his own bellows and sends you to haul in more charcoal, water for the slack-tub or bars of iron that weight half as much as you do. You wonder if you will ever be allowed to use a tool other than a broom.

You get more charcoal for the Master's forge, carefully breaking it up in the size lumps he prefers. The charcoal is still in the shape of the branches and logs that were coaled and are often as strong as the original. You use an axe to break up the charcoal. You dislike this more than anything else you do because it gets you covered with fine black dust from head to toe and it itches!

When you return the Master is heating a two large pieces of wrought iron in his forge and the head Journeyman is doing the same in his. The pieces are as big as your arm and probably weigh 25 pounds each! Both smiths are vigorously pumping their bellows and the Master nods to you to put the charcoal in both forges and then says, "More" as he intently gazes into the fire watching the heat soak into the iron. More CHARCOAL? You scurry out and break up some more not being so careful this time. You notice the other Journeymen cutting more of that big bar with a long handled chisel and a sledge. They cut iron bars like you cut a twig with an axe! The Master is up to something big so you hurry even more! When you get back there more pieces of iron in the forges and the Journeymen have the third forge blazing now and had even gotten their OWN charcoal! The small shop appears to be ablaze from the almost bonfire sized blazes. And THIS just after admonishing you about wasting fuel!

The Master nods at you indicating to take over at the bellows. The pieces of iron in his forge are white hot now and little white sparks occasionally rise from the fire as the iron starts to burn! All the Journeymen quit what they are doing and gather around the Master's anvil as he and a Journeyman pull out the white hot metal and stack it on the anvil. Suddenly there is a bam, bam, bam, bam, as the the Journeyman hit the huge mass with sledges and there is a rain of white sparks! Then you see the Master tap the piece with a small hand hammer and the Journeyman each hit the piece exactly where the Master hit within a second of each other! The two lumps are becoming one! You had seen the Master and Journeymen forge weld, but nothing as grand as this!

Now the heavy welded lump is returned to the fire and the Master just says, "Hotter", as the Journeymen bring two more white hot lumps to the anvil and this time you SEE the Master strike the blow that directs the powerful strokes. White sparks fill the shop again. The sledges are huge! They look to be as big as half an anvil! You wonder how the Journeymen keep from hitting each other when the sledges seem to fall immediately after one and other? Now the second lump is welded and is returned to the Journeyman forge. You keep pumping the bellows. The pieces are each taken out of the forges and hammered some more. "Scarfing" says one of the Journeymen. While this is going on the other Journeymen have been hammering some smaller pieces and now those are back in the fire too. The Master sends you for more charcoal saying, "Don't stop to break it up."

When you come back everyone is in a hurry for more charcoal, "Don't want to lose the heat", they say. You wonder if there could be more heat in the fires of hell than there was in this place!

Suddenly you are bumped out the way, the pieces are at welding heat. The two huge pieces are brought out of the forges, stacked on top of each other and bam, bam, bam, bam! And bam,bam, bam, bam again as the huge sledges strike! The white hot lump is starting to dwarf the Masters anvil! As the pounding continues the Master says , "More heat!" Something you've NEVER heard when there was no iron in the fire.

Now two Journeymen are holding the piece and two more are doing what looks like punching a hole with a square handled punch, striking it with a sledge hammer. Then they turn the piece over and do it again. Now they insert two long bars in the holes and lift the piece back into the forge. HANDLES! They had made places for handles! As you pump the bellows the Master dumps what's left of the charcoal on top of the piece, and says "Pump faster!" You are getting tired, what time is it? Seems like you have been at it ALL day and the Master says "faster" again.

The fire is huge now and too hot to look into. When the piece is up to welding heat the two Journeymen with the bars lift the piece and instead of putting it on the anvil set it on the floor. Almost before they are out of the way a broom is swept across the white hot surface to remove the flakes of burnt iron and another conical piece is set on and hammered from two sides at one time! What's THAT? You can't believe it. An anvil! They are making an ANVIL!

The anvil is still white hot when it is put back into the forge and one of the Journeymen dumps a load of charcoal on top while you pump the bellows. They had NEVER done THAT before! You were ALWAYS the one that had to get the charcoal.

Moments later the anvil is being pulled back out of the fire and the Master motions for you to stop pumping. Another thin piece is brought out of the other forge and laid on the NEW white hot anvil. This time smaller sledges are used and a thing one of the Journeymen call a "flatter" is moved across the surface as one of the men strike it lightly.

Now the bars called "porters or porter bars" as you learn later, are inserted into the anvil and it is lifted back onto the Masters anvil and set face down. One Journeyman holds a square punch with a handle as the Master pounds it nearly through the underside of the anvil. Then they step back as the anvil is lifted and set face up on the floor. The punch is lined up with a dark (cool) spot on the face of the anvil and it is driven through. The anvil is below a yellow heat now as the Master and the head Journeyman each hammer on the sides and edges of the anvil cleaning up nicks and dings from the heavy sledges.

With nothing to do you come over to look and lean on the Master's anvil. Ouch! Steam comes off your arm! Its as hot as if IT had been in the fire! - Now the Journeyman are clearing a path at the back door. The NEW anvil is still a bright orange though the point of the horn and some of the corners appear to be cool.

On the Master's command two of the Journeymen lift the anvil with the porter bars and head out the door. What are they going to do outside with a red hot anvil! Now they shuffle down the creek bank to the grist mill next door and wade into the pond below the great wheel WITH THE ANVIL! Then they sit it on a stone under the water falling off the wheel and great clouds of steam start to rise from the pond and wheel! The Journeymen step back and then with a yell jump into the cold water for an impromptu swim. It is then that you notice that you and the Master and other Journeymen are soaked with sweat. The day had started out a cool October morning. Then you realize that the sun is low and it is cooling off. Where had the day gone?

As you head back to the shop to clean up you find yourself walking with the Master. He volunteers the longest statement you will ever hear from him during the next seven years of your apprenticeship.
Don't forget the things you have seen this day.    You may never see the like again in your lifetime.

Paul's time as an apprentice is over
(you had always thought he was one of the younger Journeymen) and he wanted an ANVIL! He could have had his whole kit of Journeyman's tools but HE wanted it all in one lump! The new Irish Journeyman had worked for a while in a shop back in England where they made anvils and vises and HE said it could be done.

Now don't YOU get any ideas. That's probably the FIRST anvil made in America and the LAST one I make! Now take the rest of the day and go for a swim if you want.

The next day was back to business as usual. Except Paul and his NEW anvil were gone, the Journeymen seemed to say at least two words instead of the usual one and the dark blacksmith shop now seemed to sparkle with interesting things. Now you KNOW you will happily be a blacksmith forever.

Colonial Era style anvil

Student - If you copy this work without a credit and my copyright notice YOU WILL get an F on your project or maybe worse for cheating! Teachers can now check anything from single sentences and paragraphs on Internet anti-plagiarism sites. If you use part of this, put it in quotes and use a proper footnote.

Find the book A Diary of an Early American Boy - Noah Blake by Eric Sloane. It will explain the charcoaling process as will the article on our FAQ's page. One of Eric Sloane's other books A Museum of Early American Tools will give you an idea of the products produced in the blacksmith shop of the period including some blacksmith tools. If you are REALLY interested in blacksmithing find a copy of The Art of Blacksmithing by Alex Bealer. This focuses on a slightly later period but most of blacksmithing hasn't changed since the beginning of the iron age (about 1000-1500BC).

-- guru

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