Pioneer blacksmiths made and maintained crude agricultural tools. They set up shops in many rural villages where they built and repaired equipment needed by farm families.
Hubert and Alice Smith of Pop’s Old Forge near Marcelin, Saskatchewan, have tried to keep the pioneer art of blacksmithing alive. Set up with a forge in his large, heated shed, Hubert can often be found pounding out the iron.
“At one time, Marcelin had three full-time blacksmiths,” said Hubert. “They did everything from repairing wagons and agricultural equipment to making kitchen utensils.”
Hubert first became interested in the art when he watched a blacksmith demonstration and thought that it would complement his job of welding and metal fabrication. He took a Basic Blacksmithing course in 1994 and hasn’t looked back.
“It (the course) was well worth the effort and I would recommend that everyone interested in blacksmithing take a course to learn the basics,” says Hubert.
A forge consists of an open hearth made from a durable substance such as fire brick. The forge has an opening through which air is forced by a blower fan, and blacksmith coal known as coking coal, (not heating coal) is the fuel used in the forge.
“Coked coal is made by heating soft coal in an enclosed oven until the gases or impurities have been removed,” says Hubert. “Burning coked coal will then produce less smoke.”
Hubert has both electric and hand-crank forges that he welcomes everyone to try at the annual spring blacksmith workshop that he hosts. He says that many blacksmiths and farriers use propane forges because of the reduced emissions and smell, but, “Personally, I prefer the coal forges because the fire is hotter and more consistent, and I can heat only the portion of the iron I want to work on.”
Metal to be forged is heated in the fire until it is glowing red then beaten into shape on a metal anvil with sledges or hammers. The anvil Hubert uses is a Peter Wright made in England and estimated to be 120 to 140 years old.
Hubert makes all the tools or equipment he requires in order to complete a project. He has made a 50-ton hydraulic press which can be used to shape hot and cold metal, and he has made his own jigs (moulds/ patterns) to use when making a series of patterns on a project such as the scrolls on the seven-foot arbour he made.
Hubert also made a foot-operated hammer with a 70-pound head filled with lead. This treadle hammer is used for tooling, chiselling and punching and can be used with hot and cold iron. Tooling with the hammer allows the blacksmith to make details on the iron such as vein detail on a leaf.
Over the years Hubert has made and continues to produce a large selection of items — from tow chains and letter openers to decorative plant hangers and campfire utensils. He has also made chisels, centre punches, door knockers and dinner gongs. Each piece is finished with a coat of paint. Utensils used for food are treated with beeswax to prime and preserve the metal without rusting.
Pride in the pioneer era has driven Hubert’s passion of blacksmithing. Besides finding it therapeutic, he enjoys creating a useful piece from a discarded piece of iron. Hubert and Alice travel to many events to demonstrate the age-old art and take satisfaction in educating the public about the trade. They have also opened up their blacksmithing shop for a self-guided tour that takes place annually in July.
Pop’s Old Forge is located five km east of Marcelin, Saskatchewan off Highway 40. For more information phone the Smiths at 306- 226-4715.