Welcome to spirit of the 7th Sea, an interview series with experts and enthusiasts who share a passion for early modern European history.
Our first interview is with Jacob Lefton, an artist blacksmith who divides his time between the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts and Germany. After graduating from Hampshire College in 2008, Jacob spent six months traveling Europe as a journeyman blacksmith. His work can be found in homes, businesses, and public spaces up and down the east coast of the Unites States and in Europe, and has been featured in galleries on both sides of the Atlantic.
Jacob shared wonderful insights with us about blacksmithing, both present and past. We hope these insights inspire your adventures!
Thanks for taking the time to share your expertise with us, Jacob! Blacksmithing is a frequent feature in 7th Sea—from the Blacksmith’s Guild to the elegantly forged hilt of a Montaigne Musketeer’s sword. I’m excited to learn which pieces of your smithing knowledge players can fold into their own 7th Sea games.
Q: First, what drew you to blacksmithing? How did you get your start and what was the apprenticeship process like?
Jacob: I’ve been surrounded by metalwork for my whole life—when I was really young, my father would go forging damascus (pattern welded) steel with friends, and he said it was too dangerous for me to come, so I think that embedded the idea in my mind. When I went to Hampshire College, I found out there was an intro to blacksmithing class, and I jumped at the chance to take it. I messed around with it a bit more in college, and thought I was heading in a different direction for a while. However, after working for several months after graduation, I was really unhappy and quit my job in order to go to an artistic blacksmithing festival in Ukraine.
From there, I hopped from workshop to workshop across Ukraine, Sweden, Finland, and England for six months, sucking up as much knowledge of metalworking as possible. Part of it was really hard, because the language and isolation from traveling alone was difficult, but part of it was great, because there’s a kind of universal language of craft—I found there’s a level of thinking and building with my hands that allows me to communicate with almost anyone. I came back to the States with the thought ‘use it or lose it,’ so I started selling forged work. In six short years, I went from struggling to feed myself to making some pretty big, nice pieces of functional work, as well as sculptural art.
This only thematically stacks up with a regular apprenticeship as one in the 17th century would look. Around 14, a kid would become an apprentice to a master. They would spend 3-4 years working in the shop, first doing menial tasks like cleaning and taking care of equipment, and slowly working up to more important tasks like making nails or tools or helping with the shop’s commissions. One guy I know had an apprenticeship back in the early 1960s, and spent his early years straightening metal, because they got one type of steel in large coils, another blacksmith who apprenticed in the early 1900’s spent some of his apprenticeship time forge-welding scraps back together, because the metal was expensive. Apprenticeships still happen in Germany for many trades, though they start at 16-17 now.
After an apprenticeship comes the journeymanship, which lasts for several years. During this time the journeyman works towards a master-piece, and may have the option to join a guild. Journeymanship is still a structure across Europe for some trades, but it’s far less pervasive than it was.
The journeyman leaves home with the clothes they’re wearing, a small bag of belongings (including personal tools like a hammer and tongs), and they’re not allowed to come within 50km of their hometown for the period of their journeymanship. They get a gold earring (the hole is punched with a small punch on the anvil), and the earring can be torn out by an angry master or used to pay for their coffin if they don’t make it back home. Photos on the wikipedia page show you the traditional clothes a Geselle (german for ‘companion’) would wear. I doubt these go back to the 1680’s, but definitely late 18th century/early 19th century. The bell-bottoms are so you don’t get scraps and shavings from the workshop in your shoes (woodworkers would have worn wooden clogs). I’ve met french compagnon and Danish journeymen carpenters, some women and some men. It was likely mostly men in our 17th century.
A note on women in the workshop: Many women practiced these crafts. Families often supported the workshops, and women were quite capable craftspeople. Especially in societies that would levy the able-bodied men for wartime, women would take over the craft-work on the homefront, and I’m sure they would help run the business side of the workshop during peacetime, which would require them having working knowledge of the craft… and there’s plenty of woodcuts and sketches of women working in these workshops.
Q: If I were to walk into a 17th century blacksmith’s shop, can you describe the scene I’d expect to see? I don’t have any specialized blacksmithing knowledge, so I’m picturing some coal, a fiery forge, an anvil, and…maybe an iron poker. Can you help me expand on that visual?
Jacob: If you walk into a 17th century blacksmith’s shop, you’re likely going to see something quite similar to what you imagine today. There’s a forge or fire of some kind in one part of the shop, anvils and metal bits, there will be benches for working on smaller stuff, as well as tools lining the walls. There will be all kinds of specialized tools depending on what kind of shop it is: devices for making tires for cartwheels, water and oil to quench material, a big fireplace to hang things over to put on a blackened linseed oil coating for weather protection, all kinds of specialized tongs and stakes… The anvil may or may not look like the horned shape you expect. Many anvils were trade-specific shapes, and might be a short squat square with a weird corner for specific applications, or a set of specific stakes. Depending on where you are in the world, you could have an anvil stone. And, there’s going to be a set of bellows to stoke the fire, that could be worked by the blacksmith, an apprentice, or a child.
Additionally, it’s probably really dim in there—a blacksmith often judges the temperature of the metal by the color of the glow, which is obscured by bright light. The floor might be made of small hardwood blocks on end, which take impact and wear pretty well and smoke when something hot falls on them, so one can find it easily. Plus, they’re softer than brick or stone, so it’s less punishing on one’s back.
Q: And what about a modern blacksmith’s shop? Have there been major technological advances in blacksmithing since the late 1600s, or have the materials and techniques remained more or less the same?
Jacob: When we think about pre-industrial revolution blacksmithing, we tend to think of people working with all hand tools and no power tools, which is right, in a sense. I’ve heard die-hard historical accuracy blacksmiths say that power tools make them feel sick, but it’s kind of a weird position to have. Workers have been trying to gain a mechanical advantage for as long as they’ve been working, and one generation’s primitive tool is a previous generation’s cutting-edge technological marvel. You won’t find electrical tools in a 17th century smithy, but you will find things that amount to power tools. (You can be sure that if you did let an angle-grinder or electric welder wander into one of those shops, it would be used in an instant).
Depending on the work they do and whether they’re near a river, a shop might have a waterwheel to power a water hammer (the one in the video below is much newer, probably 18th/19th century). There’s still a 13th/14th century water hammer running in Ukraine.
It takes two people to operate, one to control the hammer speed and one to move the steel. They make something like ten farm tools a day with the hammer. They don’t talk to each other when it runs —the master smith (the one holding the material) simply nods or shakes his head. One of the sites I came across while researching this has a roman-era waterwheel. Basically any source of energy people have been able to utilize, they have.
Don Dupuis from Hampshire told me about a knife-making town he visited in France that was organized around a river, and each shop specializing in a different part of the process was hooked up to a water wheel.
In other places, like forging anchors, you’ll find sledgehammer teams. Every group has their own way of keeping rhythm, but you can see how it is when they get going.
Because they don’t have power tools that can be pushed to the edge and used inappropriately to still attain decent results all their tools are going to be very specialized and valuable. For example, there will be files of all sizes—and I mean all sizes! You’ve probably seen and held little files for doing fine work, but some of these things are four feet long and have comparatively giant teeth. Because there’s no angle grinder or power sander, people would square things up by hand, using the weight of the tool to do the work.
In terms of being different from a modern shop, it’s hard to say. I think the details would be unfamiliar, but the structure would be familiar. There was a project from some US blacksmiths through a few decades between the 70’s and 90’s to collect photos of every blacksmith’s shop they visited in the States, to see how people worked. The thing was, after a while, they all start to look the same. There are patterns of craft work. Because the general techniques and workflow are similar, and people set their shops up in similar ways, you’ll find that blacksmith/fabricators today have similar shops across the world, and toolmakers and machinists are going to have some broad similarities across the decades and centuries. Certainly, some people are more or less clever or more or less organized, but overall, I think the craft space is going to be familiar.
Q: Before the industrial revolution, you were likely to find a smithy in every European town. What are some common household items that are now industrially produced, but would have required the work of a blacksmith back then?
Jacob: While it is true that you’re likely to find a smithy in every town, it’s not necessarily true that every town would have a blacksmith equipped to handle the necessary work, or that there’s enough work in a small town to support a full time smith. The village of Rixdorf is part of Neukölln in Berlin, and it has an old forge location. The Rixdorfer Schmiede has existed in one form or another since 1624, and back then, it wasn’t occupied all the time. A blacksmith would travel out from the city periodically to the various towns around Berlin, probably with some of his own equipment, and would stay for some time fixing and making things.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that there are so many different metal trades. Pre-industrial revolution, manufacturing was done by hand! Pretty much every single piece of metal good would have to pass through a blacksmith’s hands. Remember those specialists I keep mentioning—Das Ständebuch, a book of trades from 1568 lists and illustrates at least these: the Locksmith, the Spurrier (makes spurs), the Coppersmith, the Nailsmith, the Scythe-Smith, the Armorer, the Smith, the Basin-Maker, the (Mail) Armor-Maker, etc. There will be clockmakers, goldsmiths, silversmiths, casting specialists, anchor-makers… everything. So, pretty much every single piece of metal good is handmade! Cart tires and horseshoes are a big industry. Carriage bolts (really any bolts) are hand cut, and each nut is specific to the bolt it goes on—so don’t lose one!
Most blacksmiths were making these mundane everyday objects. Cowbells, hinges, nails, metal bowls, fittings of various kinds. Railings, gates, hooks, lots and lots of hardware, farm tools, workers tools, scissors…
Remember those files I mentioned earlier? There’s a specialist, a file-maker, whose job is to literally cut every one of those teeth by hand using specialized sets of punches that he likely makes himself. He’s probably going to have a bench by a window somewhere, and a fire where he can anneal, harden, and temper the steel.
The craft of ‘whitesmithing’ was equally important. This is the process of filing out all those ugly hammer and forge marks. Things for everyday use close to people, like candle holders, silverware, doorhandles, etc, would be sanded and filed and polished and waxed. For example, half of scissor making is taking the rough forged blanks and polishing them… The aesthetic we have today of liking the rough forged hammer texture definitely did not exist back then!
Q: How were blacksmiths regarded in early modern Europe? Did blacksmiths receive any special treatment or accolades?
Jacob: I think this is definitely a mixed bag! In some stories, the blacksmith is called the king of trades, because he can make his own tools, whereas any other trade that requires metal tools must go to the blacksmith. There’s a story about King Arthur deciding this after quizzing all the tradesmen.
However, blacksmiths were also linked to the devil, because of their association with fire. There’s a Russian or slavic story about the devil running through the blacksmith’s shop to get shined up again. I don’t really know the details of this one, only that someone made a sculpture of the story that I saw in the east Ukrainian city of Donetsk.
I do know that often blacksmith shops were positioned at the edge of town or near bodies of water. They had a tendency to burn down, and there was an effort to prevent them from taking the rest of the town with them.
Q: A blacksmith works with iron and steel. Would a 17th century blacksmith have worked with other metals as well, or would they have sought the help of a silver or goldsmith if a piece required precious metals?
Jacob: This isn’t something I can really speak to, but I think a blacksmith is going to do a little bit of copper work if he needs. However, most blacksmiths aren’t going to be collaborating too much. Unless it’s really high end or complicated work, I don’t think the average metalsmiths will be intermingling. More likely, the shop that’s producing the multiple-metal pieces (jewelry, specialized mechanisms, etc) will have the expertise to work the materials as necessary, or pieces of a larger operation will be subcontracted by an engineer/inventor, artist, or architect.
Q: And a followup question! Because so many pieces require mixed materials, what other artisans and craftspeople might a blacksmith work closely with? How often do you use mixed materials in your own work?
Jacob: I would expect blacksmiths to work with woodworkers and stonemasons. Much of their work is going to be making tools or fittings for others’ work. Coopers who make barrels need metal bands. Carts need cartwheels. Carpenters will have chisels. They can make handles for knives, though I assume a knifesmith is going to be equipped to make their own handles. Shipwrights will have dedicated blacksmiths. A boat at sea will have a blacksmith to make simple repairs in a safe place (what with the fire).
Q: Finally, can you share any blacksmithing terms or lingo that can be used to make smithing in 7th Sea feel more authentic?
- Forging — make or shape by heating an object in a fire or furnace and hammering it. Cold forging is a real thing. Copper alloys are often cold forged until they work-harden and then they are annealed.
- Annealing — the process of heating a metal object so the internal stresses relax.
- Hardening — the process of heating and quickly quenching a metal object to build up internal crystal structure and internal tension.
- Tempering — Heating hardened metal to relax it to a desired hardness. The simple description: tools and knives are annealed so they’re uniformly relaxed, then hardened all the way, and then tempered to reach the desired hardness of the cutting or working surface.
- Dies — the upper and lower forging surfaces. A hammer is a top die and the anvil is a bottom die.
- Swages — specially shaped forging dies for particular shapes.
- Jig — a device that holds a piece of work and guides the tool operating on it. ** IMPORTANT NOTE ** most things that a blacksmith makes regularly are going to have a set of swages and jigs for working and bending the form in repeated ways. Most of production blacksmithing is about figuring out the most efficient and usable jigs possible to repeat the making of objects as fast as possible. Even nail-making has special plates for preserving the point and forging the head flat.
- Blank — an unfinished/unpolished piece of work. A knife blank is the metal in the shape of the knife, no edge, unpolished. Hinge blanks might have no detail put in, and no holes for securing to the door.
- Drawing out – making the bar longer.
- Fullering – using something rounded to push the metal in controlled direction – think about the groove in the center of a sword, for example.
- Pointing – making a point.
- Upsetting – pushing the metal back into itself to thicken it up.
- Punching – using a blunt object with sharp edges to remove a slug from the bar.
- Slitting – cutting the metal using a sharp object.
- Welding – Sticking the metal together using heat to melt it to itself.
- Brazing – sticking the metal together with a lower heat to melt a binding material.
- Soldering – even lower heat joining of metal.
- Pattern welding – folding layers of different alloy steel together, which produces specific desired characteristics (strength, flexibility), and with an acid etch treatment the different metals show up as layers.
- “Damascus Steel” – what we often call pattern welding today. True damascus steel was traded from Damascus which was the Western interface of the silk road. The actual material came from a specific geography in India and is called “Wootz steel”, a completely different alloy from the carbon steel.
This was fantastic, Jacob! Thank you again for sharing your time and enthusiasm. Smooth sailing to you!
Want to follow Jacob’s work and adventures? Find him on Twitter @watermosaic.