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IronFest was an exceptional bi-annual event in Texas recently completed in 2004. Many HABA members were present. Reynolds Cushman sent in this excellent report:

An Interview with a British classically trained Blacksmith

by Reynolds Cushman

Average is not a word that comes to mind when excellence is involved, nor is it a fitting adjective to describe Brit turned Canadian, Mark Pearce. At about 6’ 4’’ and a lean 275 lbs., he tends to dwarf the anvil he leans over to work on as he forges out steel with the deliberateness he has acquired over 20 years of smithing.

Many North American smiths have acquired great skill and talent in forging steel, but only a handful of the estimated 10,000 hobbyist and full-time blacksmiths in the U.S. and Canada have received extensive training through a pedigreed state or private institution. Mark Pearce is such a smith. The benefit of such an education and apprenticeship such as he received is apparent to even the casual observer. Every hammer blow is purposeful, every tumble well timed, every finished product exactly as originally envisioned.

Pearce began his formal apprenticeship as a teenager in 1983. Later, he interviewed for a highly prized and equally competitive slot in the COSIRA program in Britain. He was one of five blacksmith apprentices already employed with a master blacksmith selected for that year. COSIRA is the acronym for the government funded Council For Small Industry In Rural Areas. It trains many trades in jeopardy of being lost, from roof thatcher to wheelwright to blacksmith.

COSIRA stresses traditional smithing skills in its 2-year blacksmith program. Students spend one month is the teaching shop, then go back to work for two months with their master, before returning for another month. Hand hammering is mastered in the program as well as forging on the power hammer. When a student successfully completes his two-year stint, he returns to work with his master full-time until he himself obtains his master certification.

Pearce was recruited to jump the pond to go play American Football in a Nova Scotia university and this began a 6-year foray into catching, blocking and tackling – skills not taught at COSIRA. After completing several years with various Canadian Football League teams, Pearce settled in Calgary and retired there.
He confesses he wasn’t hearing siren voices calling him back to the anvil, but the reality of finding a career after pro football led him back to what he said he enjoyed and “could make a living at.”

He looked around Calgary in his last season on the gridiron and saw that there was not a single company doing traditional forging in blacksmithing. Quick to seize upon an opportunity to carve out a niche, he began approaching designers, architects and builders with his portfolio. Granted, he hadn’t been in the fire much for years, but he was confident his skills would quickly return, and he was proved right.
Calgary is a vibrant city and growing fast. It was a propitious choice he made to plant roots there. The oil and gas industry pumps big money into the coffers of many local players, and they like to build mansions. Sixty to seventy percent of our clients are related to oil and gas, he points out. There is lots of railing work, and he gets the lion’s share of the high-end work.
His business, Mystic Forge, has blossomed over its seven years in existence and his 4-blacksmith business is now booked out seven months in advance.

Pearce confides that making it in this business is tough if your quality of craftsmanship is not sufficient to separate you from the metal fabrication shops. Now, however, he has designers whispering in clients ears, “I’ve got the guy for you….I’m the only one who has him.”

While that claim is a stretch of the truth, it is true that making it in blacksmithing has a lot to do with gaining the confidence of these designers and builders, he says.

These same builders, designers and architects all have had to be educated to the options they enjoy when specifying steel elements in their designs. Some frankly were unaware that they didn’t have to use just square stock, that tapering and flaring was still possible.

Today, most of his business is forged railing, but they also execute the gamut from fire gates, lighting fixtures, window grills and courtyard gates to hinges. While they do have some individual clients approaching them about work, eight to 10 companies are responsible for most of their backlog.

While there is no substitute for good clients willing to pay for quality work, Pearce points out a few pitfalls apt to doom a forging operation if attention is not given them. Necessary pre-work is critical. Taking the time to make the right tools, jigs or other helps to aid rapidity of manufacture is imperative. He also talks about charging a fair price. He has heard one competitor brag about getting $16,000 for a $10,000 job. But these same people are soon out of business as they have no referral or repeat business. “They show again under another name,” he adds.

“We invite high-end customers to shop,” he says. After they come in he thinks they’ll see the difference in what the competition does and what they do. “We put on a little show for them,” he smiles. They watch us sweat and we show them we are the only ones who can to what they want, he explains.

The Show

While at Ironfest in 2003, Pearce put on a day and a half of demonstrations for the blacksmiths on hand to observe. Few had seen forge welding done without use of a fluxing material, and he walked through the paces methodically.

He took two, ½” square bars and prepared them for forge welding by first upsetting both surfaces to be joined to about 5/8”. Next he laid the upset end on the near edge of the anvil at about a 30-degree angle, with the opposite end down from the face of the anvil. He began hammering the ¼” overlapped portion, creating a shearing action on this crossection. As the metal began to separate from the bar, he lowered the angle to about 45 degrees and continued this motion with each hammer blow, reaching about 60 degrees.

The scarf was now roughed in but needed to be cleaned up and made dimensional in the off sides. So, while the scarf was bulged in the plane of the tongue of the scarf, it was forged back to near dimensional size in the other two faces of the stock. The scarf could be said to resemble a duck head. With both ends to be joined forged in like scarfs now ready, he buried the two in the coke forge for a soaking, head up if you will. Once a forging temperature of near 2800 F was reached he was ready for the next step.

While still in the forge, he put tongs on the opposite ends from the scarfs. The next step all occurs in about two or three seconds: he pulled both bars out simultaneously, shook them straight down once, causing the scale formed to fly off. Rotating the left hand to bring the scarf head down, he then pressed the two scarfs into their yen and yang positions, he dropped the tongs us was using to hold the piece to his right, picked up his hammer and gave the joint a series of fast strikes, sending sparks flying. It was now forge welded together. Before more seconds passed he reinserted the bar into the forge and brought it up to forging temperature again, but not up to 2800 F as before. Once the steel could be seen to be molten on the surface while peering into the forge, it was pulled out and more rapid, short stroke blows given, tumbling the piece. This “wash weld” served to erase any remnant of a forge weld line still visible. Essentially, the molecules of the two pieces were now intermingled such that no forge line was visible because it didn’t exist any longer! Voila! Forge weld without flux and without a forge line. It was not necessarily remarkable, but most smiths present had never seen it accomplished before.

Several smiths looked at the piece attempting to discern where the weld was, but in vain. You’d need an electron microscope to see the union point now.

Mark Pearce has agreed to return to Texas for a one-week hands-on forging class in early April 2004. Details are not nailed down as to city, shop, cost or curriculum. Input is welcome and if you can host this event, please raise your hand high. If you are interested in participating in this 12 person class, please contact Reynolds Cushman at 281-630-2874 or rmcushmanxiii@excite.com .

An Interview with John Crouchet

by Reynolds Cushman

In March 2002 HABA conducted a treadle hammer building workshop and successfully completed 30, Clay Spencer styled #80 hammers. A little over one year later HABA followed up on the that successful event with a 2-day workshop on tool making for treadle hammer (TH) and flypress (FP) at the shop of Robert Killbuck, outside Magnolia, Texas.

John Crouchet (Crew-Shay) was gracious enough to venture away from his comfortable ranch near Marble Falls, Texas to join and lead HABA members as they forged, welded and ground some 200 plus tools.

Crouchet began the workshop with general comments about the use, misuse and general misconceptions surrounding THs and FPs. He has a 30-year background in metals, specifically precious metals, having worked as a diamond expert and jewelry manufacturer in Austin. As FPs are commonly used in the making of jewelry, Crouchet has long been familiar with the finer points of using a FP.

In the late 70s Crouchet first saw blacksmithing done at the Texas Renaissance Festival while Joe Pohaska of Salado was set up forging hinges there. “I thought all hinges came from the hardware store,” he chuckled. He said he became intrigued but didn’t actually pick up a hammer until about six years ago when he enrolled in blacksmithing classes at Austin Community College, where he met his boss Larry Crawford. The teacher-student relationship developed and the 53-year-old Crouchet now puts in 3 to 4 days a week in Crawford’s Hammerfest Forge in Marble Falls.

Crawford, keep in mind, has several decades of forging experience and is a self-proclaimed traditionalist Crouchet noted. He would prefer to forge everything on the anvil if he had his choice and efficiency was not an object. But for a shop facing deadlines and labor constraints, efficiency is critical. And Crawford and Crouchet know using the right tool is a must to remain competitive.

But using a TH is not always the tool of choice Crouchet quickly added. For producing components such as leaves and tenons the FP is unrivaled in its ability to make a smith more efficient, he said. “I talk to people about FPs and they tell me FPs are expensive. But fact is, they are cheap. For what it does, its probably the cheapest thing in your shop.”

Crouchet is accustomed to long hours over a jeweler’s bench, and he has transferred that same work ethic into blacksmithing. Years of experience making a living grading and setting fine diamonds has made him keenly aware of productivity, as well as creativity. And he drives home his message about FPs.

Staring over bifocal classes, the salt and pepper-haired Crouchet made his point. “If you are doing professional work, the FP will pay for itself the first week,” he said. “The issue of FP over TH comes up all the time,” he added. Some smiths mistakenly believe that a treadle hammer is all they need to become efficient in their shop. He explained that a TH is not a substitute for a FP, and a FP is not a substitute for a TH. “They are not interchangeable and they do not replace each other,” he emphasized. Each of these tools is uniquely suited to execute certain forging functions with superiority over other options. Crouchet pointed out that a noticeable difference is that the FP has no percussion and that there are no double strikes. A FP will also drive a stamp deeper than a TH, he added.

Control of a treadle hammer is also an issue confronting every user. Crouchet gave the example of forging a seedpod on a TH versus forging it on a FP. “On a TH you will cut through a seedpod sooner or later,” forcing the smith to scrap that item and loose valuable time. “We never run a vein on a treadle,” he quipped. Another benefit to FP use is the skill requirement. The skill necessary to successfully complete work is less on a FP when compared to a TH. “A chimpanzee can do it on a flypress,” he grinned.

“Larry likes to do (veining and stamping) on a TH, so if he could find an excuse, he would,” Crouchet said with a laugh.” But again, using the right tool sometimes leads one to give up a favorite way in favor of the way that will put dollars in your pocket quicker. “If you are a little guy ( in a one or two-man shop) and you are not efficient, you are out of business. That is just how it is,” Crouchet stated.

Crouchet summed up his discussion of tools in one statement. “If you are trying to make a living at forging, the FP is the way to go.”

While Hammerfest Forge does primarily architectural items such as balconies, rails and courtyard gates, Crouchet manages to stick to smaller jobs in his own forge, with his trusty assistant Ruth.

To continue the FP over TH debate, or to get his full name so you can include him in your will, please contact John via email at jac@sycamorecreekranch.net or for those who can’t type while yelling, at 830-798-3710.

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Last updates were on June 22, 2003

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