Too Young To Be A Blacksmith

You’re too young to be a blacksmith.

There is a certain amount of audacity that is required when one is about to embark on a career path that is better suited for medieval times. Although, looking back, that audacity was born more from a naïve innocence of the task ahead than of anything close to pride. I simply had a passion for blacksmithing. That passion was propelling me audaciously toward three main goals.

  1. To do my part to preserve and resurrect the art of blacksmithing.
  2. To become the best blacksmith that I could possibly be.
  3. To create things with the art of blacksmithing that no one had ever created before.

Paul Fort Steele 2And so it was with these clear goals in mind that I set forth from the village of Crawford Bay to Fort Steele Heritage Town where I became “The Village Smithy” at the tender age of 20. Fort Steele is a beautiful living history museum set at the edge of the Rocky Mountains in the southeastern corner of British Columbia. The town has many historical buildings some of which are open for visitors to explore with the help of museum staff who play the roles of townspeople from 1898. I was hired to be the interpreter of history in the blacksmith shop. The blacksmith shop had been vacant for seven years, so the museum was quite excited to finally have a blacksmith again. Blacksmithing was also one of those historical crafts along with the leather shop, the tinsmith, and the bakery, where museum visitors had the opportunity to see people practicing their skills without the use of electricity, using techniques that have been passed down for generations. These historic craftspeople supplemented the cost of running the museum by creating items that could be purchased by visitors.

Unfortunately I had no idea that I was going to be upsetting to the historical sensibilities of the visiting public. Most people, when they think of a blacksmith, think of some wizened old man who can barely stand hunched over an anvil making a horseshoe. I, on the other hand, was a handsome and charming young man (tongue-in-cheek) who was making handcrafted household items that were both functional and beautiful. Nearly every person who came into the shop was very confused. They would first exclaim, “you’re too young to be a blacksmith”, then they would proceed to ask me if I was making a horseshoe. The older generation was the most deeply offended. They could not believe that I had the audacity to not be old and to not be making horseshoes. Even though there were hundreds of items in my blacksmith shop that would have been made by almost any blacksmith in the 1890’s. The general public had (and still has) it firmly solidified in their mind that blacksmiths only make horseshoes. It even became very humorous when well-meaning parents would come into the shop, point at me and tell their children, “Now you see that man there – he’s making a horseshoe”. I was clearly not making anything that even remotely looked like a horseshoe – for example a Dinner Bell triangle. And so my first goal of resurrecting and preserving the art of blacksmithing began unexpectedly, by educating the public that blacksmiths make many things, most of which, are not horseshoes. This has continued to be one of my main goals in life – to educate the world that blacksmiths, for the most part, do not make horseshoes. I even have a wonderful bumper sticker that was made by my friend Mark Pearce who is also a blacksmith.

It’s says, “Yes I am a blacksmith …….. No I do not shoe horses”.

Paul Fort Steele

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NOT JUST ANOTHER JOHN SMITH

John Smith - B&W
John at Kootenay Forge.
Not just another John Smith

As I make my first tenuous steps into the world of blogging, I feel it would be appropriate to start at the beginning. My journey as an artist began for me when I was 15 years old. At the time I didn’t even know that I was becoming an artist. I was just looking for a summer job. A friend of my family, Anthony Arnold, had suggested that I go down to our neighbour’s blacksmith shop and ask if he needed any help for the summer cleaning up and doing other menial tasks. My neighbour was John Smith, who had founded Kootenay Forge 10 years earlier in Crawford Bay, British Columbia. And so began my first day as a blacksmith with John sending me home to change into some footwear that was more appropriate for working around hot pieces of heavy steel. It became an even more tenuous start when three days in I nearly cut off two of my fingers working in the shop! This required me to miss a week of work but John graciously gave me a third chance.

John began by teaching me how to cut steel and clean up, but one of the most important things he taught me on my very first day was how to make tea. At John’s shop we didn’t have a coffee break, we had teatime. Tea time came from John’s English heritage and it was my job, as the newest apprentice, to make the tea for everyone.  My first summer progressed, and I began to fall in love with the art of blacksmithing.  John began to teach me little blacksmithing techniques that he would not let me do during shop hours, but I was welcome to try them out on my own after work or on my lunch break. When the summer was over I couldn’t get enough of blacksmithing, so John let me work after school when he needed some extra help. I came back to work the next summer and the summer after that. When I graduated from high school, I turned down an opportunity to attend the University of Victoria on a sponsored scholarship to pursue my love of blacksmithing. I worked at Kootenay Forge under John Smith for a total of five years.

There are a number of things that I learned from John Smith that one would have difficulty obtaining by going to university. I obtained these things in a hands-on practical way. One of the most important was the meaning of craftsmanship. Under John Smith, I came to understand that anyone can make one thing – but only a craftsman can make ten things exactly the same. Hand-in-hand with craftsmanship came design.  John taught me that form must meet function and function must also meet form. If you created something that was exceptionally well made but wasn’t pleasing to the eye or enjoyable to use, the object would not be desirable.  I learned that design is the most essential ingredient that goes hand-in-hand with craftsmanship. John encouraged us to execute our own designs as well as watching him design new products for the business. The foundation for my life as an artist came from John Smith’s beautiful combination of craftsmanship and design.

Paul 1993 Kootenay Forge
Only after 4 years, was I allowed to touch John’s favourite Swedish anvil.

Through John, I also became well versed in the principles of how to run a business. This was not so much from John sitting down and teaching me how to do this, but rather by watching and absorbing the things he did that made him successful. John was masterful at making his employees feel like they were a part of the team. He was always encouraging us to innovate; to find more efficient ways of doing things. If that standard was not met, he would correct me in a way that made it clear that poor craftsmanship was unacceptable, and then teach me how to do it correctly. John would also show us the financial statements of the company and treat us like we all were part of its success. He would give me raises as my work became more efficient and give me greater responsibilities. John handled each one of his employees like he was part of the family. He dealt with us in ways that were gracious, generous, full of humility and a good sense of humour. He made working a pleasure and a joy every single day. But I would say the greatest quality that I have come to appreciate about how he ran his business was integrity. John strove to be fair and honest in every relationship, with every customer and employee, and in every endeavor that he undertook. The end result is that John has become known as the “ Grandfather of Blacksmithing” in Western Canada. Almost every person who practices the art of blacksmithing as a profession or a hobby in British Columbia and Alberta has been touched by his pioneering vision of resurrecting the art of blacksmithing. John Smith has left an indelible mark on the work of hundreds of blacksmiths today.  As his students pass on his standard of craftsmanship to their apprentices and those apprentices go on to teach others, John’s legacy will be evident for many years to come.

When John moved to the Kootenays in 1980 he was quite possibly the only artistic blacksmith in Western Canada. There are now close to 20 professional blacksmiths who can trace their lineage directly back to him. There is a blacksmithing program at The Kootenay School of the Arts on which he has had great influence and he is the founding member of the Kootenay Blacksmith Association.

When one, such as I, strives to reach higher and go farther in their life’s passion, this is done by standing on the shoulders of the ones who have gone before.  Without the mentorship of John Smith, all I have done in the art of blacksmithing and all that I hope to yet accomplish would not exist.

John Smith B&W-Old DT Shop