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Sam Smith’s life has a way of circling back to deeper, ancestral roots. He is a blacksmith, like his ancestors many generations ago, who gave him his surname. He works in the same foundry in Portland that Maine blacksmiths forged iron in nearly 170 years ago – it is now Maine’s oldest working blacksmith shop. His craft is based on “nearly ten thousand years of trial and error.” It’s known as “the king of all crafts” because a blacksmith can make his or her own tools and he can make tools for any other craft.
Sam runs his shop, the Portland Forge, where he makes iron-based custom work and does repairs according to old traditions and standards. He also runs a local blacksmiths guild, teaching apprentices and taking on larger-scale blacksmith projects. It’s easy to say that visiting his foundry feels like going back in time: the soot, the clatter, the fire and the hand-wrought tools. But his profession is also a modern one: His shop is bustling and the interest for artistic, soulful, and hand-made metalwork is growing.
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR FAMILY HISTORY WITH METALWORK OR BLACKSMITHING.
My family’s been a family of farmers for the last four generations. My father was a produce wholesaler and a farmer, so I learned a lot about that. My mother comes from a line of farmers, from Maine actually, the Belgrade Lakes Ridge region. But the Smiths, my father’s side, haven’t been blacksmiths for about four generations. But that’s where the name comes from. About 600 or 700 years ago, when Queen Elizabeth I finally subjugated Ireland properly, it was taboo to have a Gaelic last name, so the “son of the smith” in Gaelic translates to just English Smith, so that’s why I have an English last name, but no English ancestry. And that’s where the tradition of blacksmithing comes from. Since before Queen Elizabeth I, my family’s been blacksmithing. I didn’t really inherit any of those talents from them, I had to self-learn, mainly when I became an apprentice in a traditional blacksmiths guild.
HOW DID THAT COME TO BE? HOW DID YOU BEGIN DOING THIS WORK?
I was fourteen years old and my mother brought me to a living history village called Allaire, near Farmingdale, New Jersey, where I grew up until I was 19 years old. I grew up on a farm on the Jersey Shore, which is pretty ironic for most people these days. I learned my trade in New Jersey and I brought it here. A lot of the techniques I have are incorporated are from that guild that was established in 1830. It’s called Howell Works Blacksmiths guild because Howell is the name of the area. Like the revolutionary war guy Howell. There’s a lot of revolutionary war history in New Jersey. So I’m from those traditions, but I’m really a child of both Maine and New Jersey. My mother and father separated when I was very young so I spent a lot of time in Maine, a lot of time in New Jersey. My mother eventually moved back up here, but she moved much farther north. Then I followed her and built my first shop twelve years ago on the Penobscot River.
MOST JOBS THESE DAYS DON’T HAVE GUILDS. TELL ME A LITTLE BIT MORE ABOUT YOUR WORK WITH THE GUILD AND HOW IT FACTORS INTO WHAT YOU DO.
The guild that I learned in, there was a system of oath: You kept your word, you belonged to the guild by participating in the guild. You would be accepted as an apprentice, then you’d enter as an apprentice and once you were an apprentice you would spend many years doing menial tasks like carrying the water, sifting coal, sweeping the floors, lighting the fires and pumping the bellows. These were your jobs. You would hold something for the Smith but you never got to work on your own iron right away. It was very rare to do so. Not even the son of a blacksmith or the daughter of a blacksmith…would be taught how to forge until they’ve put their time in, their due, because there’s a trade-off with the guild. The guild will invest its time to teach you if you’re willing to invest your time to help the guild. And the guild and the shop are almost synonymous, interchangeable, because the guild exists in the shop. This shop is where the guild is located. We have other shops that we oversee and those are also guild shops, but this is where we meet, this is where we work on new projects, this is the heart of it, and since I’m the guild master – usually the head of the guild is where the guild master is.
WHAT IS YOUR GUILD CALLED?
It’s called the Maine Blacksmiths Guild. It’s Maine’s first exclusive blacksmith organization. We have the Western Maine Blacksmiths but they only really take care of western Maine. They’re a really good group of people, they stick really close to traditions, but there’s other groups of blacksmiths out there and there are the things I have problems with, (namely) those organizations acknowledging the definition of words.
I’m a purist. I’m a purist because I believe that blacksmithing unto itself has its own set of skills which makes blacksmithing unique, its processes unique, its techniques unique. When you start aiding your processes in blacksmithing and you start lacing certain techniques and skills, you’re replacing parts of blacksmithing. There’s a point where you lobotomize it enough to where you’re no longer blacksmithing, while still calling yourself one.
Because of what movies say and what people actually promote themselves as has really replaced what blacksmiths really were. And because I grew up and learned my trade from my youth in a living history environment, I really know what a blacksmith can do. I know that with just my hands, with hand tools and a fire, I can build everything necessary to build civilization. And that’s not a lie. So if you stuck me in the woods, I could make civilization from nothing – if I had access to iron ore, for instance. It’d be that simple for me. It’d just take time.
TELL ME ABOUT THE ACTUAL WORK THAT YOU DO: WHAT IS AN AVERAGE DAY LIKE, WHAT ARE SOME OF THE THINGS THAT YOU MAKE?
I do custom ironwork. Someone comes to me with an idea, or half of an idea, or some sort of inspiration, and sometimes I have to fill in the blanks and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes engineers will come with plans and say, “It has to be this way.” Sometimes people will say, “Can you come up with an idea for me?” and I’ll do that as well. I do a vast array of custom work, but within the parameters that I only do 19th-century ironwork or earlier which means I use hand tools. I use 19th-century equipment. I believe it’s the pinnacle of technology that emphasizes the use of the human component versus replacing it.
The Industrial Revolution aided the human component to a certain point and then started to focus on replacing it. And that’s what my problem is: I believe that the human component is vital to this, and it’s where the artistry comes from. Any machine can make something that serves a function or purpose but does it have a soul? Does it have someone else’s energy in it? Does it have creative thought in it? Does it mean something more? It’d be like taking everything in the universe at face value. That kind of world, I think that’s a very shallow, grey world. I don’t want to like it. So I believe in emphasis of the human component.
TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THAT STRUGGLE YOU HAVE BETWEEN CALLING YOURSELF AN ARTIST OR A CRAFTSMAN
I would say the difficulty between it is some people want something to serve a function and purpose and some people want it to be beautiful or have a certain theme. Some people understand the potential and some people don’t. Again it circles back to society having the benefit of growing up around the blacksmith and truly understanding what they do. It’s not like when you’re growing up your parents say, “Let’s go to the blacksmith and get this done.” It’s not like going to the grocery store. It used to be that way, that’s why you find forges like this one in the middle of the city center. But ultimately the battle is in my mind – that division of art and function. If you focus purely on function, then you’re letting convenience win, but if you focus on beauty and aesthetics and creativity, you can build something beautiful and strong.
There’s like this mythic description when someone talks about a sword, like King Arthur’s sword. It’s mythical. Why is it mythical? Because it was made by a person with gifts, with creativity, with a soul to serve a greater purpose other than himself. He put his life energy into building that thing to protect King Arthur. Of course it’s going to be an amazing sword. But if you want to go back to Mallory, the English poet who quotes King Arthur, he says, “Whosoever pulleth this sword from this stone and anvil will henceforth be king of all England.” What does he mean by pull the sword from the stone? Think about that for a second. That’s actually a metallurgical reference, I believe. I believe that you know the idea, how to pull iron from the rock, because when the Romans showed up they knew how to mass produce iron to outfit their legions. So where I think that comes from ultimately is pulling the sword from the stone means you have the potential, you have the people in your service who can make implements, swords from rock and that will make you king of all England. That I think is the actual interpretation of that phrase, not someone actually pulling a sword from a rock.
FEW PEOPLE KNOW ABOUT MODERN BLACKSMITHS. HAVE YOU HAD TO MAKE A CASE AND ADVOCATE FOR THIS WORK?
I put about 50 percent of my effort into advocating and educating people about what we can do because there’s no market unless you educate that market. It’s that bad. The level of actually understanding what blacksmiths do is to the point where people completely think we just do horseshoes and swords. That’s just mind-boggling as a craftsman, to think that the society that we helped build from scratch no longer understands why we’re here. That’s a problem. It’s very shortsighted.
HOW DO YOU COMBAT THAT?
How I combat that is to defy them. I go out into the streets, I put up my portable forge and I show them. I force feed them what we do. You expose people to it, they have to walk by the fire, you have to walk by the smoke, you have to walk by me banging that anvil. I expose you even if you don’t want to be there.
IT SOUNDS LIKE YOU SEE THIS WORLD AS NOT ONLY A MISINTERPRETED WORLD BUT AS A SANITIZED WORLD. YOU WANT TO SHOW HOW THINGS ARE MADE, THAT THERE’S SMELL, THERE’S SOUND, THERE’S SMOKE TO MAKING THINGS.
Definitely sensory perceptions are very important and it helps with the whole experience, but truly what it is, it comes down to knowledge and understanding the world around you. Ultimately it’s a philosophical problem. If you don’t understand where you come from, how are you going to make wise choices in the future? There are entire lives of people that lived before us that wanted nothing but to make sure that we carried on that knowledge to use to make proper judgments and assess certain situations in our present day. With their dying breath they wanted us to have that information. But what did we do? We ignored them. And I think that’s wrong.
TELL ME ABOUT THE HISTORY OF THIS SPACE THAT YOU WORK IN.
This forge, this space, this shop, was built as a blacksmith’s shop on 1846 to help the Portland Company build smaller items. They had forging machines as the industrial revolution progressed and they built a variety of things, including axles for the cars on the rail, so we built a bunch of things. In 1850 they renovated it and made everything taller. The back wall of this shop is 30 feet underground. It’s the old seawall of Portland. It’s been there I think since 1825, when the world was a different place, a place that actually needed us. And I happen to be running this shop, which makes it the oldest still-working blacksmith shop in the state of Maine. They also worked brass in here after 1850 because they could still use a forge and anvils to work brass. You just have to heat it differently.
AND YOU’RE DOING JUST IRON?
I do iron and I do some non-ferrous – which means non-iron – metals but it’s small quantities. I’ll work a little bit of silver to add to the iron but essentially the majority of the work is iron.
WHERE DO YOU GET THINGS LIKE IRON?
I can get it from the steel yard, American Steel in South Portland, by the twenty-foot length. Or I can go to the junkyard and pick out what I want or go to the scrap dealers and get what I need and pick things out of old cars and make things. I have tools I made out of springs and things like that. It’s almost like found art in a way. I can take an object and completely change it so you don’t even recognize it the next day. That’s one power that blacksmithing has. There are so many things we can do. And the third place we can get iron is from the ground, from iron ore. We smelt our own iron when it calls for it. If someone wants something exactly produced (to a period) – like a traditional home needs to respect the pure iron. That would cost more money, of course, because then we’ve got to spend a day just making the iron.
ARE YOU ABLE TO MAKE YOUR WHOLE LIVING OFF THIS WORK?
Yes. It’s my full-time job. It’s very tough. Financially, it’s the life of an artist with its ups and downs. It’s not constant like a regular business or something. It’s not steady. Being a sole proprietor and being self-employed is really a challenge unto itself.
WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU?
My legacy would be the most important thing to me. Making sure that I leave something behind that survives the test of time and teaches somebody a value or a piece of wisdom or teaches them a trade or what have you. I think that it’s important to pass on that information, that knowledge, to the next generation. It’s important to make sure you take your time to understand that knowledge and make sure you’re also doing your duty to make sure you understand the knowledge before you. I think that’s just part of being a human being.
WHAT IS A LESSON THAT YOU’VE LEARNED IN YOUR LIFE RECENTLY OR A LESSON YOU’VE LEARNED IN YOUR LIFE IN GENERAL?
Handling stress. Stress I thought was a major problem 10 years ago, but I compare it to now and I realize that stress has only been amplified. I learned that stress can be amplified. Stress is a lot more burdensome, I’ve realized, so organization is key.
WHAT IS THE GREATEST GIFT OR BLESSING IN YOUR LIFE?
Knowing what I should be doing, knowing what I have to do. That’s the greatest blessing anyone could have. It’s almost equivalent to finding God because you feel like a great comfort has been made, so you can use that comfort to help balance that great stress…to grow and expand your business or something like that. That would be the most important thing: I realized what I want to do with myself.
WHAT IS THE GREATEST STRUGGLE IN YOUR LIFE RIGHT NOW?
Satisfaction. I’m happy with myself but I’m not exactly happy with my surroundings, the situation. I’d like to have a more stable, safer place to have a craft. Ownership would be a good thing and a cushion – not only socially, but financially. It’s good to have friends and the more of them the better.
WHAT IS THE BEST MOMENT OF AN AVERAGE DAY?
Getting the job done, getting that satisfaction. Making sure what someone had asked or ordered is to their satisfaction or even greater happiness than what you expected so it’s nice to get the job done.