Road trip: Mancos, Colorado

In which our web host takes out his hostilities on hot metal

The Wild West conjures up many things in our imaginations: sunsets behind tall red mesas, tumbleweeds, rough mining towns where folks are parted from their wages. For John Cassel, rugged individualist and DIYer who hosts our website, a trip to the Durango, Colorado area included hiking, the historic train to Silverton, and… a day under the tutelage of a blacksmith at The Cowboy Forge.

Steve Williams, who welcomed John and his friend Lee to enjoy a day at the forge, has worked for twenty years as a smith with seven as a teacher. While Steve’s own work is largely making decorative items like rustic door hinges and handles, custom wrought iron fencing and furniture parts, he indulges his students who want to learn how to make all sorts of medieval weapons as well.

While blacksmithing may seem dangerous, it is arguably less so than welding… you don’t have to worry so much about damaging your vision or being electrocuted. It is, however, quite dirty if you are using a traditional coal forge. In fact, once John and Lee had watched Steve get one of three forges going (a 15 minute process) they got to start by cleaning soot out their own forges before firing them up. Once their furnaces were heating nicely, they returned to watch Steve demonstrate hammer technique. The hammers themselves weren’t special… the two beginners were given nine dollar specimens from a well-known discount hardware chain. But John quickly found the tasks their instructor achieved in seven hammer strikes, he still struggled with ten minutes later. Steve noted that trying to crush the metal into the desired shape was not going to work. “What you want to do is get it to flow.” That was the tip that got the day going and John went on to create a chisel to use for future metal shaping, a punch, and even a hook with a graceful leaf on top. Satisfyingly, the punch John had made earlier and allowed to cool evenly in a bed of lime, was then used to drive the hole in the top of his hook for future anchoring.

Return trips to the Cowboy Forge could include learning to make a narrow edge for a blade (for this, Steve would use a gas forge) and using an automatic hammer for items that require repeated folding and hitting. A wide array of tongs and other types of hammers were available for every project under the sun.

If you’ve thought before that this would be a fun hobby, it is not terribly expensive to get going. A coal forge can be set up for under $500.00, and the local junk yard is a great source for inexpensive steel of various grades to practice on. (The punch Steve had John make was once part of a spring from a car’s suspension.) Metal is also very forgiving and doesn’t care how many times you heat it up to try and get the shape you want. OVERHEAT your project, however, and you can lose the work of several hours. Sadly, the blade of Lee’s otherwise very artful dagger melted when he trying to apply finishing touches.

John and Lee display their first efforts.

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Safety concerns include proper protective attire: leather shoes, leather gloves, safety glasses, NO synthetic fiber clothing. If you are going to be burning coal (assuming your town allows this) ­­­you also need to open a line of communication with your local fire department!

If you go: Steve runs several classes a month as well as intermittent open forge days, the latter costing $20/hr. Classes are kept quite small to allow for maximum student/teacher interaction. John reports that it is better than Disneyworld. However, there is no need to travel that far given blacksmithing is alive and well as close as Loudon, NH, where Sanborn Mills Farm will be offering classes again in April. Also check out New England Blacksmiths which run classes at their teaching facility in Brentwood, NH.

MakingMatters regrets that a forge is unlikely to be included in our initial shop offerings… but never say never!

One Comment on “Road trip: Mancos, Colorado”

  1. Thank you for such a nice write up on your trip to the my shop!
    That was a fun day, I was as disappointed as Lee was when he burned up his knife, but believe me I have burned up my share of projects. It is all part of the learning process. It was a pleasure to meet both of you and I hope you can visit again soon.
    Wishing you the best on your makers space!

    Take care

    Steve

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