Friday, January 20, 2023

“The Sculpture” by Jeff Heal


I was nine years old when my father and grandfather took me to Steam Era, a weekend show of old farm equipment and technologies that were primarily steam-driven.

I still remember the smell of wood burning, heating the water to a boil inside the tanks of these large machines to power the movement of the traction engines, later replaced by the modern tractor on the family farm.

But the one memory that still stands out today while the others are fading away is of a man striking a hot piece of steel on a large anvil, the sparks flying with every hammer blow.

He mesmerized me. This man shaped a piece of steel into a tool. This was the coolest thing I had ever seen, and I knew this was something I wanted to do.

Thirty years later in Sept 2012, my wife Colleen and I went to the International Plowing Match in Roseville, Ontario. While there, we came across a small booth in the middle of the field with two blacksmiths - one running the forge, the other working the steel on the anvil into the shape he wanted.

The smell of burning wood and coal, the pinging sound of the hammer striking hot steel on an anvil’s surface, transported me back to when I was nine years old.

I looked over at Colleen and noticed she was as focused as I was, watching the man work on the piece of hot steel.

“You like blacksmithing?” I asked.

Without taking her eyes off the blacksmith she said, “I’ve always wanted to try blacksmithing.”

We’d been married for twenty-three years and neither one of us knew the other wanted to try our hand at this trade.

The gentleman working on the anvil that day was Mick Smith.  He came up to us and introduced himself, then said, “I overheard you saying you were interested in trying blacksmithing,” and handed me his card for the Ontario Artisan Blacksmith Association.  He let us know that there was a meeting in a few weeks.  

We went, and after that first meeting we left as members.

From that point on we picked up tools and equipment of the trade from swap meets and flea markets around southern Ontario and started our journey in the blacksmithing hobby.

We received our first membership newsletter from the blacksmithing association. They were looking for volunteers to help forge a Love Lock sculpture in Fergus Ontario.  Fergus is blessed with bits of iron work around town. They have iron railings across bridges and iron works around businesses and homes in the town.

Locals had taken to snapping love locks on random pieces of ironwork-in imitation of Europe. In cities such as Paris, lovers write their initials on locks, snap the lock to the ironwork of a bridge railing, then toss the key in the river, to symbolize they’d be joined forever.

Fergus town council decided they liked this custom but asked the Blacksmiths Association to please build an appropriate sculpture in the park, for love-locking. We were there to oblige.

Colleen and I were both reluctant to volunteer due to our lack of experience compared to the other members of the club. But the other members who were arranging the event were happy we wanted to help, so we said yes and jumped in with both feet.

On a Saturday morning in August 2015, we loaded our equipment and supplies for the days demonstration of forging the Love Lock sculpture in Fergus Ontario.

It was a beautiful drive and as we arrived at the site in Fergus there were several blacksmiths already there getting set up. We set our equipment up nearest the road and got the coal heating up in our portable forge.

Our forge is equipped with a hand-cranked blower that forces air up through the opening in the base of the forge and into the burning coal, super-heating it. You place the metal into the coal, to bring it to the proper temperature so you can shape it on the anvil, but if you’re not careful you can overheat and melt the metal, making it no good for anything.

With anvil and hammer at the ready we all gathered around Mick (the gentleman who designed and set up the blacksmithing demonstration of the Love Lock sculpture.) Mick handed out assignments to all the Blacksmiths there, and as Colleen and I were the least experienced in the group we got one of the easier pieces to do, to our relief.

The sculpture would be a silhouette of a man and a woman facing each other holding a heart up between them with a gate just below. I expect the gate had some symbolism, but what struck me about design was that it resembled the ironwork of a bridge railing-the sort of thing you’d see in Paris decorated with love locks. 

The part of the silhouette we were assigned was the woman’s pony tail. It didn’t sound like much and I figured we would be done in under an hour and get on to the next piece. To my surprise it took us the whole day to complete, but we learned a lot.

Through out the day one of the master blacksmiths present, (named Larry) would go from anvil to anvil helping and teaching the younger blacksmiths new techniques to move the metal more efficiently.  The technique he was showing us was flattening, this gives the smooth finish on steel after it has been hammered into the shape you want.

 While teaching the technique, Larry explained, that at the beginning of his blacksmithing career back in the early 1900’s machine production of parts and hardware was new and was what everyone wanted, so the blacksmith and his trade was slowly being replaced. The blacksmith came up with ways to clean their pieces up so they looked like a machine produced the product and not hand made.

The product now a days is normally produced by machine so this flattening technique is rarely used by the artisan blacksmith anymore, because people want to see the hammer marks so they know it was hand made.

At the end of the day all pieces for the sculpture were completed and ready for Mick to take back to his shop in town and finish up the assembly. With assembly complete a few weeks later, Mick brought the sculpture back and mounted it on the base in James Square, in Fergus ready for the first love locks to be fastened to it.

It still feels like a dream being able to do what I watched being done at nine years old by a master blacksmith.

Every once in while I look out into the crowd when demonstrating at a show and see my nine-year-old self mesmerized watching a blacksmith move metal into whatever shape he wants.


Jeff Heal has been a diesel mechanic for over 33 years with pretty much all his hobbies leaning to the mechanical trade. He has been focusing more on blacksmithing for the past few years now and has seen some improvements in his steel shaping – as long as he can get the fire lit in the forge. He has been writing for some time now, what is new to him is trying to get it so more then just his eyes see it. Short stories and Poems have been his focus now he is diving into writing his first middle grade novel. 

See Brian Henry’s upcoming weekly writing classes, one-day workshops, and weekend retreats here.



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