Wednesday, June 06, 2012

'Ore to Axe' - a review

Ore to Axe
This documentary film details the process of smelting iron ore into metal and forging it into an eighteenth century-style axe. Follow blacksmiths with over 100 years collective experience as they demonstrate every step in the centuries-old bloomery smelting process. By combining earth, air, and fire, they create that "tool of necessity" used for generations.
Blacksmiths Shelton Browder, Ken Koons, Steve Mankowski, and Lee Sauder take you on the journey of finding ore, making charcoal. building a furnace, smelting the ore to iron, converting the iron to steel, and finally forging the axe. If you have ever wondered how the tools so important to our ancestors were made, watch and see skills almost lost to history.

Title #336053
Format: DVD-R 
Disc Price:
$29.95
Available from
or by searching on Amazon.

Anyone who has been following the current 'Early Iron' movement in North America can not fail to recognize the name Lee Sauder. Lee, working with his smelting partner Skip Williams, has had the single greatest impact on the re-discovery of lost bloomery iron smelting techniques of any other individual. You will see him mentioned frequently in my own writings, most certainly his example, sharing and friendship have had an immense impact on my own life in the decade since I first met the pair.

Shelton Browder and Steve Mankowski are known in historic blacksmithing circles from their prominent roles at Colonial Williamsburg. Each in turn has served as principle blacksmith there (Steve currently, Shelton just retired). They were more recent additions to the yearly 'Smeltfest' research group that Lee hosts, but I had first met them back in 1991. Their understanding and skills in Colonial era techniques and technologies is second to none.

I wanted to state my close working relationship and friendship to the primary characters in 'Ore to Axe' right up front. It is hard to give a truly unbiased review of something when you know the participants (and instigators!) so well.

The key to assessing 'Ore to Axe' is in understanding what it *is* - and so, what it is *not*.

What this 52 minute long production *is* - an excellent visual documentary showing an entire working  cycle of smelting iron to producing a working tool from that iron.

What the DVD is *not* - intended to be a concise training course on the illustrated techniques.

Film maker Ken Koons (Split Log Productions) has used a simple and clean visual style to document a complete cycle.
Timber is felled and converted to charcoal. Ore is gathered, roasted and broken. Clay is prepared, a form is built, and the long process of building a furnace is shown. Using the furnace, an iron bloom is created. The bloom is cut and compacted into a working bar. Part of the metal is converted from iron into steel using a re-melting hearth. Then this iron and steel is used to replicate a specific historic pattern axe. The film ends where it has begun, the new axe being used to cut another tree for the next batch of charcoal.

Koons has chosen to let the images tell the story.
Narration (by Browder in his role as story teller) is more of an overview than a set of technical descriptions. The sound of all the activities is 'live', but there is minimal conversation from the participants, certainly *not* a running explination of 'I'm doing this - because'.
There are some absolutely great detailed sequences of things like slag tapping, bloom forging and axe making. All of the action depicted is real time working processes, nothing has been 'staged' artificially for the camera.

Much information is there for the viewing - providing you have the patience to *observe*. In this the film maker, and participants, have chosen to utilize a traditional form of communicating skills information. In fact an older format that suits the whole look and feel of the production. Those willing to watch the video many times are sure to pick up new small details on every viewing. This is the instructional method (watch, watch, repeat) that was the core of the older apprenticeship learning system.

There are a few times that specific sequences might have not worked quite well as intended. When the camera was placed on the end of a log being chopped, so the vibration of the strokes shakes the image, specifically comes to mind. These small flaws are more than compensated by clear close ups of the step by step details of the various metal working processes.

The whole production has a kind of 'Boys in the Hollers' feel to it that most everyone I have viewed the DVD with has found quite charming. This is enriched by a simple soundtrack of original music played by Koons and Sauder themselves. Browder's voice has just enough of a Virginia drawl to lend colour, but still remains crystal clear in understanding.

At this point, I have watched 'Ore to Axe' three times, with three entirely different groups of people.
The first time was its premier showing, at Smeltfest 12 in March, with all the principles involved seeing the final production for the first time. Needless to say, this could be considered an expert (and overly familiar) audience. There was a lot of 'why did you do this that way', 'hey, that really worked' and 'Steve, get your thumb off the hammer'.
The second time was back at Wareham, with the members of the DARC iron smelt team (none of which had actually ever met the characters, but only knew them from my tales). There was a lot of 'did you see that?' and 'oh, now I get it'.
The third time was with one of my blacksmith friends / students. Her observations afterwords pretty much matched my own. 'There is a lot of meat there, but you have to watch and pay attention'.


I would clearly suggest anyone interested in historical blacksmithing process purchase a copy of 'Ore to Axe'. It will certainly outline the processes of iron smelting for you to give you an understanding of just how the process works. The sequence of forging the historic axe will be extremely interesting (just on its own) and may suggest a tip or two.

I would absolutely recommend anyone interested in bloomery iron smelting purchase a copy of 'Ore to Axe'. Although not a detailed step by step set of instructions, that kind of cookbook information is available if you look for it. What this video will give you is a clear visual reference to not only a long proven working sequence at the hands of experienced practitioners. Seeing the tools employed, and just how they are actually used, is alone worth the price.

I think the best evaluation came from something Kelly Probyn-Smith had said :
"This is something just like I would expect to see on TVO." 
(Ontario's educational channel, our version of PBS.)

ORE TO AXE
Available from

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February 15 - May 15, 2012 : Supported by a Crafts Projects - Creation and Development Grant

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