Sam Smith and the Maine Blacksmith's Guild are forging ahead.
By Virginia M. Wright Photograph by Mark Fleming
He labors alone on a cold morning, his leather apron stained with soot, his workspace illuminated by a bed of glowing coals, hammering and refusing to bend with the times as cars whiz past his small roadside forge in East Waterboro.
Sam Smith is descended from a line of blacksmiths going back to the 13th century, but his parents and grandparents were farmers. He was 14, on a visit to a living-history museum, the first time he saw a smithy pound red-hot iron into nails, hooks, and other tools. “There was an instant connection, something deep inside me,” he recalls. “It’s almost magic — something a human can do with his hands, but also forbidden, because you can’t touch it directly.”
The very next day, Smith started as an apprentice, and he spent five years learning from masters. By the end, his soul was so enmeshed with blacksmithing that he took a portable forge to University of Maine at Machias. He majored in world history and minored in theater, disciplines that serve him well today as one of roughly a dozen blacksmiths using traditional techniques in Maine. “No modern tools, only tools that we make ourselves or that encourage the use of your hands,” Smith says. “Hammering is the technique. There’s no welding or other fabrication.”
Smith, 35, is the founder of the Maine Blacksmith’s Guild, whose members operate this forge, as well as ones in Bridgton, Wells, and Winn. It’s a business with an educational mission. “All of our profits go back into keeping these shops open as places for the public to interact with blacksmiths and for people to learn the trade,” Smith says.
Smoke from the coal fire streams into the Sokokis Forge chimney; a red-hot knife in the making; Sam Smith dips the knife back into the coals to soften it for additional sculpting.
A few years ago, the organization lost its flagship forge in the 19th-century Portland Company Complex after the building was sold to a developer, and it’s looking for another location with good foot traffic. Smith, meanwhile, stays visible with his portable forge at Portland-area farmers markets and brewery events, where he produces tokens like bottle openers and expounds on blacksmithing’s role in civilization’s birth (it’s the crucible that made all other trades possible, he believes).
Here, at Sokokis Forge, he pounds salvaged and new wrought iron and steel into fireplace screens and pokers, rotisseries and barbecue tongs, door knockers and handrails, harpoons and axes, earrings and bracelets. Today, he’s making a puukko, a traditional Finnish knife that should fetch $600. He’s a big man, yet he moves with an easy, practiced rhythm, his long-handled tongs plucking a small, glowing metal cuboid from the coals and securing it atop an anvil where he whacks it several times with a heavy hammer, flattening, thinning, lengthening. As the piece’s orange light dims, he slips it back into the fire to soften it up for another round.
Tell us more Sam Smith
You just got back from a month in Germany. What were you doing there?
In 2012, I did a tour of Germany and found a very open-minded manager of a 12th-century castle in Bacharach, on the Rhine River. I have a workshop there, and I try to go once or twice a year with students. We work on UNESCO World Heritage sites — castles, churches, cathedrals. The locals call me das burgschmiede von Bacharach — “the castle smith of Bacharach.”
So the guild hires apprentices?
Yes. There are dozens of do-it-yourself videos online, but I believe in mentorship — a guru, so to speak, to take out the speed bumps and to explain why we do it this way, so you don’t spend an inane amount of time trying to figure out a better way when there isn’t one. Ninety percent of our apprentices drop out once they realize what it takes. In four years, you learn to make all the tools, then you become a journey worker.
There are more efficient ways to shape metal. Why keep this tradition alive?
It’d be a shame to see something that mankind has relied on for so long be extinguished in a moment just because of convenience. It’d be a betrayal of everyone who’s carried on that tradition. It’d be like deleting everything that took place in theater before modern cinema.
What sets a traditionally forged item apart from one made with machines?
The telltale sign is hammer marks. If you use machines, it’s pretty smooth — a factory finish. Modern techniques can’t duplicate the feel or aesthetic of traditional work. I can make something exactly the way the Celts did, or the way the Romans did, or the medieval Germans or classical Chinese. Machines can’t do that. When you start putting modern fixes on an ancient thing, it takes away from its look and feel. Yes, it’s functional, but it detracts from what you’re trying to protect.