Tuesday, June 15, 2021

'Sticking to It' - a clay mix for Icelandic?

 Part of our ongoing experimental series investigating a possible bloomery iron smelting furnace, as suggested by the archaeology of the site at Hals, Iceland. ( 1 )

The clay mix being tested was based on an 'in team' analysis of materials gathered by Michelle Hayeur-Smith from a natural deposit 'fairly close' to Hals. (Noting that it remains unknown if this was the clay material actually utilized for the furnace builds there). ( 2 ). Team member Marcus Burnham suggested a set of components available at Pottery Supply House, which would in combination approximate at least the chemistry of the Icelandic sample. ( 3 )

These individual components were dry mixed by hand, giving roughly 50 kg of the clay powder (hopefully enough for two builds with reduced wall thickness). ( 4 )

I made up a total of four small batches for next step testing :
- clay mix with water
- wet clay mix plus powdered slag (66 / 33 slag) - this 'copper shot' sand blast slag ( 5 )
- wet clay mix plus fine sand (50 / 50 by weight)
- dry mix / fine sand / shredded horse manure by volume (ie our current proportions using the EPK clay base)

In each case, the various mixtures of materials holds together well, without being too 'sticky', and all are nicely plastic.
It is not expected to have any physical problems building a furnace wall structure with any of these mixes.

The individual mixtures were pressed into small cylinders, filling a standard toilet paper cardboard tube. Each 4 cm diameter by 10 cm long.

- These were placed in a toaster oven set (very roughly) for 90C, over a duration of about 4 hours total.
I'm not sure that temperature was actually reached, because when I pulled them out, I could still handle each with bare (blacksmith's!) hands.
The centre part of the paper cylinders could be depressed - suggesting there was still water remaining. This thought to be the effect of the paper not easily passing moisture (?) .
- The cylinders were then placed in the rear section of my gas forge on a metal tray. (At top operating adjustment, this forge has been found to produce temperatures into the 1100 C range) The forge was lit, with a flow at a greatly reduced level.

Showing results of first (shortened) heat cycle.
Number 1 to left, through to number 4 to right

The material was heated enough to burn off the paper on the upper surface, but this remained solid and attached on the lower side. This suggests the the top had to reach at least 230 C, but the bottom surface (furthest from flame) did not get that hot.
You can see clearly that cylinder 1 - the straight Icelandic mix, has already crumbled.
Cylinder 2 - wet mix plus slag, has also become brittle.
Cylinder 3 (wet / sand) is showing cracking - but remains whole
Cylinder 4 (dry/sand/manure) remains unaffected (that lower crack seen was from
the initial packing of the material)
As it turned out, the forge propane ran out after a short time (20 minutes?). So in this it is hard to estimate just how hot the forge interior would have gotten.
The cylinders were allowed to sit in place inside the forge (so slow cool), overnight.

The following day I refilled all my propane cylinders, then repeated the test.
Again the tray was placed at the very rear of the forge as it was lit. A low propane rate to start. The material was left in place for about 30 minutes (until the forge interior was at full heat) then the tray moved forward to the centre, under the gas jets (where I normally would place metal to heat). ( 6 )

Temperature probe was inserted into the gap between # 3 and #4 (to right).

After 55 minutes total, a temperature reading was taken, the probe wire between the cylinders, tucked slightly underneath. Reading was 980 C.
At that point, you can see that cylinder 1 is composed of crumbled pieces.

The forge was then adjusted for higher temperature (increased gas flow and air combination).
The materials were subjected to another 85 minutes at this temperature, which was measured again to 1070C.

At end of second heating period (open door for image has cooled interior slightly).

You can see that the surface of cylinder 1 has slumped and started to fuse.
Cylinder 2 has developed some serious breaks.

The forge was turned off - and left overnight with the door closed to slowly cool. 

Cylinder 1 (dry mix with water) - has melted
Cylinder 2 (wet / 33% slag) has badly cracked
Cylinder 3 (wet / 50% sand) has developed a number of cracks, but mainly towards the surface. A bit of surface fusing (point directly under the gas jet)
Cylinder 4 (dry mix / sand / manure) shows no significant effects (again, bottom piece was separate at the start)

I took each of # 2 / # 3 / # 4, and applied pressure by flexing between my hands. I attempted to keep the force as close as possible - and applied to what I judged a 'reasonable expectation' level of pressure.

( Cylinder 1 - only the small disk seen earlier could be handled, the result was it easily crumbled )
Cylinder 2 - not much force was required to break along the large cracks - you can see from the dark coloured interior, this crack had broken completely through during the firing.
Cylinder 3 - held together effectively, despite surface cracks
Cylinder 4 - no effect to reasonable force (earlier separated piece shows internal texture)

The conclusion I draw :

Sample #1, our potential Icelandic clay mix alone, is not able to survive temperatures even at the lower end of expected iron smelting range. Combined with it's relative fragility even during the early heating cycle of a furnace, this material on its own is not deemed suitable for furnace construction (without modifications).

Sample #2, with 2/3 wet clay / 1/3 slag (by weight), was considered highly speculative at best. (Included mainly because I had the material!) This offering one possible version of 'Where did the silica come from?'. Iron rich slag could have been on hand (at least after a first smelt attempt). In the test, this mix proved relatively fragile. It might be possible functionally to use this mix, with greater care in mixing, construction and drying. Generally, this is considered quite unlikely to have been used.

Sample #3, with 50% wet clay / 50% fine sand, certainly would be an effective build material. First note is that the sand used here is of unknown composition, but likely Ontario granite based at about 70% silica (higher than Icelandic basalt based). It has been well demonstrated (Sauder) that high sand mixes can better withstand iron furnace temperatures, but at the same time do require more care during the construction phase to eliminate just the kind of surface cracking seen in the test sample. This is considered a possible effective mixture for the Hals build.

Sample #4, using our developed standard of equal dry volumes of clay mix / fine sand / shredded horse manure, was clearly provided the best properties of the four mixes tested. As proven in the past, the sand provides heat resistance and stability at temperature, the horse manure re-enforcement during the build and drying phases. Even with what is demonstrated as a significantly lower point clay material, this is considered the 'best possible' mixture to use for the upcoming full build test.

1) The original description of the Viking Age, 'industrial' level iron smelting site at Hals was provided by Kevin P. Smith in his 'Ore, Fire, Hammer, Sickle : Iron Production in Viking Age and Early Medieval Iceland' The earliest evaluation towards evolving a working system can be found in 'Working Towards a Viking Age Icelandic Smelt'.
Currently Smith, Peterson and myself are preparing a detailed description of the 2007 - 2016 experimental series, to flesh out our recent presentation 'Now with 70% Less Clay' which was delivered at the 2021 EAC12 Conference.

2) Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, an actual analysis of the any of the clay furnace walls recovered during excavations is available. Such tests were not undertaken at the time, not being within the scope of the original project there. At this point (after some 20 years!) is is quite unlikely to be able to arrange for this currently

3) With the kind financial assistance of Neil Peterson, who donated funds to cover the purchase of the clay materials indicated, plus charcoal to supply the next three full smelts in the current experimental series. 

4) Sorry. Due to problems experienced over the last several years of hard won information derived from the DARC team experimental work, I am intentionally holding back on listing the exact details here. A further paper is under construction, describing our newest interpretation of the excavations at Hals, and how this applies to our current experimental series over 2021 - 2022.

5) This material is composed of 'medium' sized particles, primary components are 53-60% (Iron Oxide), 32-37% (Silicon Dioxide). 

6) Readers need to remember that the camera records light and colour of heated surfaces differently from the human eye. See an earlier blog post.

Wednesday, June 02, 2021

Elora Sculpture Project - 2021


Need a break from COVID containment?

Consider a couple of hours walking around downtown Elora, with a visit to the 'River Walk' in Fergus!

 My own contribution 

An Undiscovered Plant containing a cure for cancer

Is found at site 16 - Fergus River Walk

Tuesday, June 01, 2021

'Evidence of Absence' - Erosion of Furnce walls

Group of aging furnaces at Wareham

Evidence of Absence
Erosion of Bloomery Furnaces

This report is an overview of an ongoing process of observing a number of clay built furnaces as they weather over time, started in 2004 and added to over the years.
This includes some observations that relate back to the continuing experimental series based on the Viking Age furnaces excavated at Hals, Iceland. : Prepared May 2021

Continue to : Evidence of Absence

This commentary is part of the ongoing work related to the Hals / Iceland experimental series. All that background to the current full scale replica build and test smelt set for June 19 at Wareham.

Note to Readers : The 'improvements' made to Blogger (to 'Idiot Proof' submissions) have made any attempt to correctly format complex 'table' contents EXTREMELY frustrating (to anyone who actually knows HTML)! 

After well over four hours attempting to lay out the table of data and images as a blog post, I gave up entirely and moved over to an addition to my primary research web site.

Saturday, May 08, 2021

'An Undiscovered Plant - with a cure for cancer.'

Elora Sculpture Project - 2021
‘My. how peculiar! Just what is this? It’s not like any plant I’ve seen before. It’s so BIG. - and so strange looking…’
This sculpture is in the form of a huge jungle (?) plant. A cluster of arching stems each hold individual frosted glass ‘flowers’. Towering above these are a group of huge and complex ’seed pods’. Bundled at the base are long blade shaped leaves.

... In truth it is the title that conveys the meaning to the piece, beyond creation of the fantastic. I also wanted to be less obvious that last year’s ‘Last to Sea’, and ‘Legacy’ in 2018. The starting point here was suggested by the 1992 film ‘Medicine Man’, about an isolated scientist in the Amazon, pursuing a plant based cure for cancer, and battling the destruction of the same rain forest where the rare plant can be found.  
(from the full description, published earlier)

On Friday, with the assistance of Kelly Probyn-Smith of Elfworks Studios, I installed the completed sculpture :
Overall view, from the walkway, towards the north east with the river behind.

Looking towards the south east

'With the Artist' - gives a better idea of scale *

One of the concepts I have developed in earlier work is contrasting colour against the natural appearance of forged steel. 
In the fire, steel will take on a flat, dark grey colour, with various textures depending on the hammering process. (It is not 'black', within the modern perception of colour.) Many of the past works presented at Elora have worked directly with how various metals oxidize with time ('Layers' - 2013 / 2016) or with the use of subtle colours against surface rusting ('Spears of Summer' - 2014). 
Modern steel alloys will rust on exposure to weather, if not protected by some coating system. Most typical is the use of industrial enamel, either a flat, or most commonly a glossy black paint. This actually bears little resemblance to the natural colour and texture of the freshly forged surfaces. To my mind, a bright, shiny, fire engine red is just as 'honest' a protective coating!

Given the overall 'fantasy of nature' intent to 'Undiscovered Plant', I chose to use a base coat of a bright gloss green. You can see that it is not that much different than the leaves of the early tulips planted already around the presentation space. The leaves have a wash of a darker green on their outside surfaces, with a highlight of a florescent green applied where they wrap into their stems.

The tendril like 'stamens' that form the core of each 'seed pod' element were dip painted to a yellow. These were then highlighted using two more florescent spray paints, with a bright yellow from below, then an orange downwards from the very tips of the element. The leaves making up the exterior of each bundle were painted a darker green than used elsewhere. (As you can see, it was overcast when the images were taken, the full impact of these bright colours is not as apparent as they are in life!)
Although it is harder to see in the images, each of the top ends of the bell flowers merges to a darker green. There is a slight hint of blue in the interior of the tendrils that hold the glass bells. 

Showing one of the 'seed pods', with the glass 'bell flowers' behind.

Close up of one of the seed pod elements, showing colour variations.

The physical dynamic of forging such long / heavy elements I have found pretty punishing over the last month. The weather over the last week had been uniformly cold and wet (night times about 4 C, days up to only about 12 - 15 - with rain almost every day). This seriously effected the application of the many layers of paint required for the effects I wanted. 


Taken altogether, I am extremely pleased with this sculpture. It is visually striking, and with consideration of the title, still conveys the subtle (but extremely important) message. 

* Image by Kelly Probyn-Smith

Friday, May 07, 2021

'Wave Action' - Paisley Street Scupture Project

The Elora Sculpture Project has inspired a number of similar public art presentations (1). The original Elora project (from 2010) was expanded into nearby Fergus (under the same umbrella) in 2016 (2). The town of Haliburton would start its own version in 2018 (3) (reduced in scale for 2021 to five sculptures). 

This year, Paisley has launched its first Paisley Street Sculpture Project. They are starting with only three installations.

COVID has put a clamp on all arts work over the last year. One direct result has been the narrowing of published 'calls for entry' to submission deadlines. I had known that Paisley had been considering an artist 'loan' on fixed base mounts at least potentially in 2021, back in January. This through my close friend David Robertson, who had been asked to consult on some of the practical aspects.  At the time, I did have a flash of inspiration - but foolishly, never made any scratch drawings or notes of the idea. 

So when the actual call for entry was published, I had totally forgotten what ever brilliant idea I had...

Fortunately, my partner Kelly Probyn-Smith (who operates her own Elfworks Studios) had a great concept. We kicked this around in conversation, she providing the inspiration, me providing the 'nuts and bolts'. This resulted in a joint submission :

Wave Action

Framed by bright waves, fish jump and ducks dive, while paddlers cruise on by. Who wouldn’t enjoy a day on the river, here in Paisley!


Original (rough!) concept drawing


As our submission for the Paisley Street Sculpture Project we propose making a mobile piece powered directly by community interaction with it. The longstanding relationship that Paisley has with their unique position on the confluence of the Saugeen and Teeswater rivers, and the aspects of the community’s long standing environmental interplay with the waters, would be showcased by this work.

The sculpture is framed by a box which represents the river. Contained within the box are a number of formed metal pieces – both forged and cut sheet of varying materials, some brightly painted . These are variously attached to a protectively hidden internal gear track, with motion driven by the cranking of a central handle. Proposed potential moving elements include : waves, canoe and kayak, various fish, a turtle, ducks and geese, cattails or reeds, possibly even a swimmer. Driven by the handle, The main ‘boat’ elements travel across the top, some pieces back and forth, and some to rotate in and out of the ‘water’.

This is a collaborative effort by emerging artist Kelly Probyn-Smith, and long experienced artisan Darrell Markewitz (who has participated in the Elora Sculpture Project since 2013). An additional ‘ecological’ element will be that the gearing will be built from various discarded bicycle parts.

It is hoped that the jury can assess the general concept of the sculpture, as the exact details of the gearing will largely determine the final number and position of the final moving elements.

Scaled proposal drawing
Technical :

- The basic framing will be of welded structural angle. The ideal placement for the crank handle should be about 30 inches above ground level. This would also place the top (moving) parts at at least 40 inches high, which should keep these out of the range of vary small children. Additionally, the tip of the handle would be best placed to the same line as the mounting stone block (to keep it from projecting out towards passers by) As the exact size of the anchor block and the position of the mounting bolts is unknown at this point, the exact details of the framing will need to be adjusted.

- The enclosing ‘box’ will be made of 20 gage stainless steel sheet. This is basically weather proof, and will additionally have decorative enamel paint applied to it.

- The individual figures will be created from stainless steel sheet, forged mild steel and forged copper. Some of these will again have protective / decorative paint, while some will be left to naturally oxidize.

- All of the gearing and bicycle chain drive will be enclosed inside the framing box. The top line of the chain will run over the top of the box (but protected at front and rear by the scalloped line of the box as illustrated). The gearing will be constructed so that multiple rotations of the driving handle are required to create motion of the various elements. This will both reduce wear in the components, but also reduce any ‘inertia effect’ should anyone attempt to over rotate the system.

- Individual small figures will be attached to thin rods, to lift up and out of the box as they rotate.

1) I have contributed sculptures to the Elora Sculpture Project annually from 2013.

2) For the first year of expansion into Fergus, I was asked to contribute my 2013 piece 'Layers'

3) I contributed 'Layers' to the first year of the Haliburton project.

Friday, April 30, 2021

"... item may not be exactly as illustrated."

 'Undiscovered Plant' for 2021 Elora Sculpture project.

Over the majority of April, the shop work has been on creating my contribution for this year's ESP. I freely admit that I'm running late, as the installation date was for May 1 - which I am not going to be ready for. *

Originally submitted design.

As they say : 'No plan survives contact with the enemy'. 

As part of my initial design work, I had been inspired by a specific photograph, and had at least made a first prototype element :

As often is the case on the transformation of a drawing into a physical object, there were some problems encountered during the forging process. The major one was the raw difficulty of generating a twist in the bundled angle iron that formed the inner core of this 'seed pod' element. 

I decided for the sculpture, I would use a group of five pieces of 3/8 inch round rod, each drawn to a tapered point. These would be cut long enough to allow the upper ends to curve back down as tendrils over the outside of the outer wraps. 

So the underlined decisions themselves create their own potential problems. 

FIVE : To get an even twist of five rods around a central core, I had to make a special tool. This consisted of a set of cut pipe sections, grouped around a central. All sized to allow easy passage of the previously tapered rods. These then supported by an outside wrap, with tabs that allowed for attachment of a pair of long handles. In retrospect, four rods would have served as well - but in the overall design, I had been working with odd numbers for the other elements (3 / 5).

3/8 : As it turned out, five pieces of 3/8 take a LOT of force to twist. And the whole assembled element got pretty heavy. Remember I had to haul this whole thing out of the gas forge, swing it over to the vice, positioned vertically, then crank on that tool to create the twisting. I found I could only effectively heat and effect about a four inch section each time. The location of the vice also had limited the length of the tool handles, so also limiting the amount of effective force I could apply. In practice, each core bundle took five 'heats' to complete, each heat taking roughly 10 minutes total to complete. (times 3 elements = 15 x 10 = 2 1/2 hours **) In retrospect, use of 1/4 diameter rod would have both made this so much easier, and might also have worked better visually (?)

Long : Again, I had pretty much guessed on the length required for the core rods, which I cut ranging from about 20 through 24 inches. I was not certain how much of this length would be required for the twisting. The outer wraps had started at 18 inches, but the prototype had already indicated the final bundle would reduce to about 12 + inches. In retrospect, there was not as much loss top the twisting as I was suspecting, so overall there ended up with a lot of length remaining for the tendril forming. The rods could have easily been shortened by about 4 inches each.

In the completed elements, the tendril parts now over dominate the whole form. Although the lines are not necessarily bad, this does shift the visual balance from the core wrap to the final tendrils. Colour will help this somewhat, with the darker green on the outer wraps giving these more visual weight. 


The lower base, was not really illustrated in the submitted concept drawing.

The 'basket' of wide leaves are individually welded to a thick plate, which in turn anchors the entire sculpture to the fixed bases placed for individual sculptures. The main upright elements, each ranging from about five to seven feet long, are bolted in place through this plate. This plate is octagonal, roughly 24 inches across.

These are forged from flattened 1 1/2 web angle iron. Even at this roughly 3 inch width, and with 10 of these elements, these leaves don't create the same tight ball imagined in the design concept. 

The plate (composed of three sections - material I have on hand), is reinforced with angle (top) and T section (underneath). It is framed with 3/4 wide angle on the edges, again to help with rigidity. The edge framing will also help to keep a layer of rounded beach stones in place, which will both hide the mounting system and provide a finished looking base to the sculpture when installed. 

One of the problems of 'forging on the fly' is fitting such a large set of individual elements (10 lower leaves, 3 long seed pods, five flower 'bells') so the overall lines work visually. 

The shapes of the individual leaves were intentionally fairly random, perhaps a bit too much (??). These were placed in a circle around the edge of the base plate, with some consideration of the eventual mounting position of the 8 major upright elements to be added later. I still had to do a bit a additional shaping to ensure clearance for the uprights. In the image above, you can see the element marked moves off too far from the base cluster. This will have to be torch heated, likely just below the location marked, and folded back into the centre. 

Right now the overall sweep to the combination is to one side. I feel this combines to suggest the motion of the wind. This will suit the mounting location, in Fergus and backed against the river ravine (so mainly will be viewed from one side.) When I place the individual uprights, themselves formed into curves, I will continue with this line of motion.

The next work will be creating the baskets that will eventually hold the individual glass bell 'flowers' in place. There are five pieces of 1/4 round in each, drawn to points and ends tendril wrapped first (25 pieces x 8 - 10 heat cycles each to complete)

The heavy stems for all the individual uprights (8 in total) need to be forged to shape from 1/2 x 1 1/2 x 18 web channel. This takes two forging steps, roughly four inches at a time, with a total of 40 feet to shape (So 240 heat cycles total). Each end has been cut back into three segments averaging about three inches long, two of which are drawn to points, then all of those then forged to curves (add another estimated 70+ heats total)


Combined materials cost is about $500

Price for the completed sculpture is $4100

*    Paint! I keep forgetting paint. 

The bundle elements require primer, then two colour coats with central core in bright yellow, the outer wraps in green. The core portion will need to either completely dipped, or more likely (size!) have the yellow poured to reach the interior spaces. The green will have to be carefully hand applied (those tendril wraps!). Each of the three coats should have at least a full day between to dry. Ideally good weather for at least three to four days to allow the final paint surface to fully harden. Another week.

**     I ain't getting any younger! Honestly, these days I'm finding a single two to two and a half hour working session is all I can effectively manage. At the end of this, I have an extremely sharp drop off in capability. (Like starting to drop tools and trip over cords). Most often followed by a several hour nap on the couch. (Laugh all you want - your turn will come!)

Monday, April 19, 2021

Revisting the Smelting Area

Casting around for a direction to take in future experimental iron smelts...

Considerable work was undertaken over January through March, leading up to the EAC12 Conference. April 1 was the presentation date of 'Now with 70% less clay! Experiments with Viking Age Icelandic Turf walled Iron Smelting Furnaces' with co-authors Kevin P. Smith and Neil Peterson. (1) This included the writing of the full 73 page formal paper. 

Considering the body of work involved, a number of conclusions suggested there was still aspects of the turf stack system still to be investigated by future experiments. Primary was testing multiple firings of the full build structure. 

To that end, I will be undertaking a full construction of the 'turf cone in a frame' furnace for the 2021 smelting season. (2)

Tentative build plan (north would be to the left of lower image)

The first step is taking a look at the existing smelt working area. Typically the majority of our past smelts have taken place with at least the working crew under the cover of the pole framed metal roof. As this space itself is about 3 x 3 m, the Hals build is simply too large to fit. The previous experiments had the individual furnaces placed along one edge of the roughly 60 cm tall earth bank, with it's block retaining wall, that makes the west boundary of our normal working area. Right now the furnace base remains of our last series (Icelandic stone block) is still in place from the last smelt (November 2020). 

At this point I have already spend several sessions re-arranging and marking out areas for designated purposes : 

April 18, view towards roughly SW

The edge of the overhead is roughly at the extreme left edge of this image.

You can see the remains of the furnace base and lower stones from the last smelt, at the left front of the image. These have been photographed (scaled grid). And may be retained for recording erosion into at least the near future.

The area immediately behind this (so mid ground, left) is a disorganized pile of smaller flat stones and other rocks. My intent is to actually pull these up, sort those useful against future constructions, an collect small pieces for use as fill (south end of the pond).

To the left rear is the 8 x 8 foot deck plate. 

I have measured off the required 2 x 2 m area that will be covered with the Hals build. (also framed with red lines on this image). The pail seen marks roughly the centre, where the furnace shaft will be positioned. As it turned out, I had one piece of 'aged beyond construction use' timber that was just the exact size to help with laying out. I will be lifting all the grass sod in this area, and filling the gap created with clean sand. (The first part of this you can see in the far right corner.) This will both help gather the considerable amount of cut turf I need, and also create an obvious visual base against future examination of the working area.

The 'front' of the furnace, for possible placement of the bellow, and certainly for slag management or potential bottom extraction, will be the side closest to our view here (the north side)

Those familiar with the normal working process at Wareham will note that I have slightly re-positioned the concrete slabs (which had been underneath the sand box area created for the June 2020 'Bones' experiment. The existing slabs have been shifted slightly and re-leveled on a new sand base. There is now a north to south axis, 4 feet wide and extending six feet (use of existing 2 x 2 foot square slabs). You can see the spacing here is a bit tight, the slabs will be running right against one timber wall of the Hals build. Normally this is where the breaking frame for charcoal is positioned. On a typical weekend, usually there is a tarp on poles overhead put up to shield from sun or weather.

To the far right rear, you can see a rebuilt sand pad. This will be used to contain a new 'standard' clay cob build furnace. The intent here is to leave this furnace, within it's clear area, as a long term erosion effect experiment. The hope is for at least 10 years of annual observations.

You can also see the wooden stump that has been used for initial compaction of the hot blooms for the last several years. This stump is still in fairly good condition, and has enough clearance around it with the new stations to still allow for 3 or 4 workers.

There are a number of main purposes for undertaking this build here at Wareham :

a) By undertaking this build over some extended time, it will be possible to make detailed records (measurements, scaled drawings, photographs) of this entire process. 

b) The slower pace of work should allow for more careful control of the process. Additionally more time for contemplation, discussion and possible modifications as the build progresses.

c) Part of the experimental series being proposed includes not only multiple uses of the same furnace, but also some observation of the impact of weathering on the structure over time. Retaining the structure for at least an over winter is required.


Expect further discussion of the contributing elements towards this build and the iron smelt itself, over the next weeks...


1) The 15 minute narrated slide presentation version now available on YouTube: https://youtu.be/obHOjxkNBCU

2) COVID isolation requirements remain in full force in Ontario as I write, at this point there are basically NO private gatherings allowed, through to at least mid May, under the current Government guidelines. Although this certainly shifts the bulk of all the preparation work on to my (getting worn) shoulders, I will be endeavoring to have the furnace built for my originally proposed Saturday June 20 date.

Friday, April 09, 2021

Death of the Expert


Death of the Expert

(a bit ? of a rant !)

This is a slightly reduced / edited version of a commentary piece prepared for the current issue of the Ontario Artisan Blacksmith Association quarterly newsletter, the Iron Trillium.This segment follows directly from 'Life on a 3 x 6 inch screen'. If you have not done so, also read the initial background piece in a previous blog posting.


As Artisan Blacksmiths, Just who are we?

And what exactly is it that we do?

There are a number of reasons, personally, why this all has been at the forefront of my mind over the last couple of months. With the restrictions imposed by COVID, coupled with my own individual risk factors, the ability to (safely!) offer workshop courses at the Wareham Forge had simply ended. I turned 65 in November 2020, so have entered some kind of fuzzy ‘retirement’, (with at least OAS coming in to keep the lights on). Increasingly, I find myself looking back on to over 40 years at a forge at this point: from student, to hobbyist, to ‘artisan interpreter’, into a full time business (over 30 years).

I do appreciate that there will be a wide range of perspectives held by those reading this commentary (sorry, but mostly based on generational age).

So here are some things I’ve seen over March 2021 (!!) and why they concern me:


The spark (that set me off) was this. Honestly, not so much what this is - but how it was reported, and spread around.

This is a video, with no commentary, of some guy (from Sweden it turns out) who forged out a (not very good) Viking Age styled bearded axe. All working on a stone block and using hand held stones as hammers.

For why would you do this?

This video was distributed through a number of topic specific groups over Facebook that I see : Axes, Hatchets / Viking Blacksmithing / Viking News / Iron Smelters. Every time with a description like ‘Look! So Cool!!’. That last bit was the final straw for me. My comment to the Iron Smelters of the World group :

Look at ME! I did something!!' : Sorry, there is just too much historical distortion going on here. NEVER would have actually happened. (Please do not quote Africa) There is easily 1500 years of iron making and use in North Europe before the Bearded Axe. “

Here is the link to that video - go take a look and come back…


  • He starts with what looks like a roughly two foot long piece, of mild steel, a 1 x 1” bar. (As if this was available historically?)

  • It certainly looks to me like he has metallurgical coke as his forge fuel (Not used in the same time period as the axe.)

  • It also is clear he has an electric blower air source. (Electric blower - and rocks??)

It was pointed out to me : ‘He is just having fun.’ 

Ok - that is true, perhaps.

But that at core is not my problem here. It is the way this bit of silliness has been promoted, both from himself and most certainly by others. On quick examination, this fellow has over a dozen similar content videos (steel forged with stones) posted since November 2019.

This kind of presentation is entirely about a ‘cult of personality’. There is no information presented about What or Why, the details of How obscured. (1)


About two years back, there had been some discussions inside the OABA Executive about expanding our visibility on Facebook. This partially in light of the level of activity on this group Canadian Blacksmiths and Bladesmiths, which started in 2015. I do regularly check the additions there, and try (??) to be a ‘wise voice’ contributor.

Now, I have every reason to support the original intent of those who undertook the effort of starting this open 'discussion' group. Over the last two years however, I have seen a dramatic shift in both the offered content, and the level of discourse, exhibited there.

The joint impact of ‘Forged in Fire’ and the effect of COVID derived free time is clear. The group has become totally dominated by knife grinders. Deliberately chosen to distinguish those who cut and grind alloy bars and put handles on them. At this point about 50% of the contributions are illustrating this kind of work. (2) Further, more and more of the ‘contributions’ are little more than thinly disguised advertisements for direct selling.

This image was presented with the caption ‘One day’s production’. (2)

Think on this.

One. Day.

  • There is absolutely no black smithing involved.

  • There is almost no blade smithing involved. The only application of heat (implied) is through the heat treating cycle, which is suggested will be undertaken by the maker (at least not sent off to a commercial company).

  • There is clearly considerable knife making (grinding) involved.

  • But what is the *scale* of production? Where is the line that crosses between *hand* and *machine* made?

Is there any significant difference between a single person using industrial methods, or a larger factory with dozens of workers employing larger, but essentially the same, machines? Especially when the end product is a series of virtually identical objects? (Yes, I do understand there will be variations in handle materials, although those profiles are likely to be identical as well.)

Back to my starting premise : ‘The Death of Expertise’

I point you to a commentary by Tom Nichols, dated January 17, 2021. This posted to ‘the Federalist’, obviously a Right Wing slanted publication out of the USA. (bias in this article noted, ok?)


The main thrust of this piece is related to, admittedly, American democracy. But take this statement :

To reject the notion of expertise, and to replace it with a sanctimonious insistence that every person has a right to his or her own opinion, is silly.”

When I first made reference to that article, I happily got back a link to another commentary - one that points exactly to a shared involvement in blacksmithing. This is a video presentation by Allen ’Ronin’ Rozon, of Lames Original / Origin Blades from Saint Patrice de Beaurivage Quebec, a blacksmith and bladesmith. (3)


Here is a discussion of roughly the same topic, but nicely broken down to : ‘those that watch from a distance’ (armchair expert), ‘those who directly experience’ (via demonstrations or courses), and ‘those who know’ (skills developed through massive repetition).

Now as blacksmiths ourselves, we all know (or should know) the difference between the ‘doer and the thinker’. How often have we all seen someone demonstrate a technique or an object, yet when attempting this ourselves suddenly realize just how difficult it is to accomplish? (Honestly, this has become an important guide for me. Any time I see someone doing something that looks ‘easy’, I attribute this to long hours spent acquiring skills - NOT to the simplicity of the task!)

Or is what is seen on YouTube (increasingly) just good video editing?

I’m going to follow this up with a trend I see increasingly with web sites recently : All Flash - No Substance.

The most recent trend on web sites is to bend entirely to the whims of the ‘lowest common denominator’.

  • Minimalist layouts.

  • Virtually no text.

  • Obviously designed for that 3 x 6 inch phone screen.

  • Business names, but the individual not identified (or name buried down into the site someplace at best).

  • Lack of any description of related experience

Additionally, I see the use of a few, admittedly professionally photographed, objects being presented, instead of any attempt at detailing a large body of work.

I see ‘courses’ defined as being not teaching, but as ‘experiences’, with little description of the content, no mention of the facilities used, or who the instructor even is, much less what background they might have.

I personally have enough experience that I can see the huge distortions from what is intentionally not being made clear, allowing viewers to draw conclusions that do not represent the truth.

Look, I do understand I am a dinosaur (or at least remember seeing them). My concept of the internet comes from the period of it’s birth and development, when the fledgling web sites were mainly text with few (poor quality) images. When the intent of the whole thing was about sharing information. Before it all became about driving sales, or even worse, data mining personal details to allow individually targeted marketing. Increasingly it is clear that those endless ’SEO Specialists’ are driving the whole internet into mindless commercialism.

Just who are we?

And what exactly is it that we do?

And how do we explain this? 

 It is clear that the public perception of ‘value’ has become determined by effective visuals, and ‘authority’ by volume as indicated either ‘number of views’ or ‘frequency of posting’. It is also apparent that this perception has extended beyond the superficial glance of the general public, increasingly to those who have a more direct interest in our specific topic and area of work.

I’m going to suggest, from the perspective of 30 years involvement in the ‘Arts and Crafts’ sector, that this dumbing down of presenting work, a drive to ‘capture market’, is going to result in the general public also devaluing the work we all undertake.

What can we all, individually or as members of an Artisan Community, do about this?

Is it far too late to have any impact?

Or, do we even care?

Note : Many of the viewpoints here are presented in a dramatic fashion. This done intentionally to spark discussion. Feel free to criticize and offer alternatives.

The images seen here were pulled directly off open public postings on Facebook, Identifying names have been removed - for obvious reasons.

Notes / References

1) A deeper search revealed that this is all part of a doctoral thesis at the University of Gothenburg :


In my ongoing research, I make blacksmith tools; start with the tools given by nature, my own hands, stones and sticks, and then use the tools to make other tools, use those to make others etc. in four generations. “

He describes his experience as ‘making objects professionally for 10 years’.

Although I well understand the concept of what is now called ‘sole authorship’ in Fine Arts, I suggest that this kind of mixing of modern and ancient process as if this was some kind of valuable research is self indulgent (at best). The stated premise for this study is so full of holes, I can’t realistically understand how it was ever accepted as a formal thesis.

2) A (small) apology to the owner of this image. This intentionally un-named individual actually also does also create his own layered steel billets (via hydraulic press) and forge those (power hammer) into blade blanks, which he then finishes into knives. This is all top quality work, with excellent attention to detail.

3) Like an increasing number of people ‘Ronin’ choses to separate his Facebook identity from his professional / business identity.




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

COPYRIGHT NOTICE - All posted text and images @ Darrell Markewitz.
No duplication, in whole or in part, is permitted without the author's expressed written permission.
For a detailed copyright statement : go HERE