FOR centuries the blacksmith has been a prominent person, and it is natural he should have been, when we consider the variety of work he had to do. From the heavy axle and tire, down to the smallest rivet in the wagon, they were all made by the smith. Bells and bits as well as the ornamental parts of the harness, they were all made by the smith. From the crowbar and spade down to the butcher and pocket knife, they were all made by the smith. The carpenter’s tools, from the broadax and adz down to the divider and carving steel, they were all made by the smith. From the heavy irons in the fireplace down to the frying-pan and locks on the kitchen doors; knives and forks on the dining-table, they were all made by the smith. From the gun on the shoulder of the soldier and the saber in the hands of the officer, the spurs and pistol for the commander, they were all made by the smith. From the heavy anchor and its chain to the smallest pulley in the rigging of the ship, they were all made by the smith.

From the weather vane on the church spire, and the clock in the tower down to the lock of the doors and the artistic iron cross over the graves in the thurch yard, they were all made by the smith. No wonder, then, that the smith was respected. Vulgar people swear by the devil, religious by the saints, but the Swedes (the makers of the best iron) prefer to swear by the smith. The smith was a well-liked person in society, respected and even admired for his skill, his gentlemanly behavior and good language. His stories and wit were the sole entertainment in many a social gathering. Things have changed in the last few decades. Most of the articles formerly made by the smith are now manufactured by machinery, and the respect for the smith is diminished in the same proportion. Not because there is not enough of the trade left to command respect—there is yet more left than any man can successfully learn in a short lifetime. But it has made it possible for men with less training and ability to enter the trade and consequently lower the standing of the smith. The result is, that there is a complaint that the smith is not esteemed as formerly, and I have been inclined to join in the lamentation. But instead of doing this I shall ask my brother smiths to unite with me in an effort to elevate the craft.


I have had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with a great number of intelligent and respected smiths. People that did not know them would ask: "What is he?" and when informed that he is a blacksmith would say: "He doesn’t look it; I thought he was a business man"; another, "He looks like a lawyer or a minister." From this you will understand how, in many cases, the blacksmith looks. A great preacher was announced to preach in a neighboring town, and I went to hear him. Just as I sat down in the pew one of the local smiths walked up to me and sat down by my side. He was a blacksmith and he "looked it." Under his eyes was a half moon in black; on both sides of his nose was a black stripe that had been there since his first day in the shop. His ears, well, you have seen a clogged-up tuyer iron. His clothes were shabby and his breath a strong mixture of tobacco and whisky, which made wrinkles on the nose of the lady in front of us. I was somewhat embarrassed, but the sermon began. As the congregation arose, I opened the hymnbook and my brother smith joined, and with a hand that looked like the paw of a black bear, he took hold of the book.

After service I was invited by the smith to dinner. Between a number of empty beer kegs we managed to reach the door of the house and everything inside looked the color of his trade. I looked around for books and other articles of culture and found a hand organ and a pack of cards. The only book or reading matter to be found was a weekly of the kind that tells of prize fights, train robberies and murder. I had a fair dinner and told my host that I had to start for home. By this time I was sick of his language—profanity, mixed with a few other words—and I started to leave. On my way to the livery stable I passed my friend's shop, and he said it would not be fair to leave before I had seen his shop. "I have," said he, "a very good shop." The shop was a building of rough boards 18x20 —the average farmer has a better wood shed. A big wood block like the chopping block in a butcher shop, was placed so close to the forge that he could only get edgewise between. On this block was to be found, anvil and all his tools, the latter were few and primitive, and would have been an honor to our father Cain, the first mechanic and blacksmith. What thinkest thou, my brother smith? Having spent years to learn the trade you must submit to a comparison with smiths of this caliber. Their work being inferior they must work cheap, and in some, perhaps many, cases set the price on your work. Smiths of this kind cannot expect to be respected. There might be some show for them in Dawson City or among the natives in that vicinity, but not in civilized America.


ONE of the chief reasons why the blacksmith is not so successful nor respected as before is his intemperance. The danger for the smith becoming a drunkard is greater than for any other mechanic. It is often the case that when a customer pays a bill the smith is requested to treat. This is a bad habit and quite a tax on the smith.

Just think of it—fifteen cents a day spent for liquor, will, in twenty-five years, amount to $9,000. Then add to this fifteen cents a day for cigars, which will, in twenty-five years, amount to $9,000 at ten per cent compound interest. If these two items would be saved, it will give a man a farm worth $18,000 in twenty-five years. How many smiths are there who ever think of this? I would advise every one to put aside just as much as he spends for liquor and tobacco; that is, when you buy cigars or tobacco for twenty-five cents put aside as much. When you buy liquor for one dollar put aside one dollar. Try this for one year and it will stimulate to continual effort in that direction. The best thing to do is to "swear off" at once, and if you must have it, take it out of business hours. Politely inform your friends that you must stop, or it will ruin you. If you drink with one you must drink with another, and the opportunity comes too often. When you have finished some difficult work you are to be treated; when you trust you are to be treated; when you accommodate one before another you are to be treated; when you order the stock from the traveling man you are to be.treated. Some smiths keep a bottle in a corner to draw customers by; others tap a keg of beer every Saturday for the same purpose. No smith will ever gain anything by this bad practice. He will only get undesirable customers, and strictly temperance people will shun him for it. What he gains on one side he will lose on another. Besides this he will in the long run ruin himself physically and financially. Let the old smith quit and the apprentice never begin this dangerous habit. A smith that is drunk or half drunk cannot do his duty to his customers, and they know it, and prefer to patronize a sober smith.


TRUE religion is also an uplifting factor, and must, if accepted, elevate the man. I cannot too strongly emphasize this truth. Every smith should connect himself with some branch of the church and be punctual in attendance to the same. There is a great deal of difference between families that enjoy the Christianizing, civilizing and uplifting influence of the church and those outside of these influences. The smith outside of the church, or he who is not a member thereof will, in many cases, be found on Sundays in his shop or loafing about in his everyday clothes, his wife and children very much like him. The church member— his wife and children, are different. Sunday is a great day to them. The smith puts on his best clothes, wife and children the same. Everything in and about the house has a holiday appearance and the effect on them of good music and singing, eloquent preaching, and the meeting of friends is manifested in their language, in their lofty aims, and benevolent acts. Sunday is rest and strength to them.

Brother smiths, six days a week are enough for work. Keep the Sabbath and you will live longer and better.


Another reason the smith of to-day is not respected is his incompetency.

When a young man has worked a few months in a shop, he will succeed in welding a toe calk on a horseshoe that sometimes will stay, and at once he begins to think he knows it all. There will always be some fool ready to flatter him, and the young man believes that he is now competent to start on his own hook. The result is, he hangs out his shingle, begins to practice horse-shoeing and general blacksmithing, and he knows nothing about either. Let me state here that horse-shoeing is a trade by itself, and so is blacksmithing. In the large cities there are blacksmiths who know nothing about horse-shoeing, as well as horse-shoers who know nothing about blacksmithing, except welding on toe calks, and in many instances even that is very poorly done. In small places it is different. There the blacksmith is both blacksmith and horse-shoer. Sometimes you will find a blacksmith that is a good horse-shoer, but you will never find a horse-shoer that is a good blacksmith. This is not generally understood. To many blacksmithing seems to mean only horse-shoeing, and our trade journals are not much better posted. Whenever a blacksmith is alluded to, or pictured you will always find a horse-shoe in connection with it. Yet there are thousands of blacksmiths that never made a horse-shoe in all their lives. Horse-shoeing has developed to be quite a trade, and if a man can learn it in a few years he will do well. I would not advise any young man to start out for himself with less than three or four years’ experience. Every horse-shoer should make an effort to learn blacksmithing. He will be expected to know it, people don’t know the difference; besides this, it will, in smaller cities, be hard to succeed with horseshoeing alone. On the other hand, every blacksmith should learn horse-shoeing, for the same reasons. Therefore, seven or even ten years is a short time to learn it in. But, who has patience and good sense enough to persevere for such a course, in our times, when everybody wants to get to the front at once? Let every young man remember that the reputation you get in the start will stick to you. Therefore be careful not to start before you know your business, and the years spent in learning it will not be lost, but a foundation for your success. Remember, that if a thing is not worth being well done it is not worth being done at all. It is better to be a first-class bootblack or chimney sweep, than be a third-class of anything else.

Don’t be satisfied by simply being able to do the work so as to pass, let it be first class. Thousands of mechanics are turning out work just as others are doing it, but you should not be satisfied to do the work as others are doing it, but do it right.


The blacksmiths and horse-shoers have at last put the thinking cap on, for the purpose of bettering their condition. So far nothing has been accomplished, but I am sure it will, in the long run, if they only keep at it. We are now living in the license craze age. From the saloon keeper down to the street peddler, they all howl for license, and unreasonable as it is, thousands of sensible men will cling to it in hopes that it will help.

We are, more or less, one-idea men, with fads and whims. Nations and organizations are just like individuals, ready to fall into a craze and we see it often. It is natural when we consider that nations and organizations are simple one man repeated so many times.

Simply look at the hero-worshiping craze went through at the close of the Spanish war. First, Lieutenant Hobson was the idol, and great was he, far off in Cuba. But, coming home, he made himself obnoxious on a tour through the country, and the worshipers were ashamed of their idol, as well as of themselves. Admiral Dewey was the next hero to be idolized, and he, too, was found wanting.

Physicians have their favorite prescriptions, ministers their favorite sermons. Politicians have their tariff and free trade whims, their gold or silver craze. Mechanics have their one ideal way of doing their work. I know horse-shoers that have such faith in bar shoes that they believe it will cure everything from contraction to heaves. Others have such a faith in toe weight that they will guarantee that in a horse shod this way the front quarters will run so fast that they must put wheels under the hind feet to enable them to keep up with the front feet; and in a three-mile race the front quarters will reach the stables in time to feed on a peck of oats before the hind quarters catch up.

In some States there is a union craze. All that these schemes will do is to prepare the legislatures for the legislation that will some day be asked of them. Unions have been organized and the objections are the same. I object to all these schemes because they fall short of their purpose.

Two years ago the horse-shoers of Minnesota asked the legislature to give them a license law. I wrote to a prominent member of the house of representatives and asked him to put his influence against the measure. He did so, with the result that the bill was killed so far as the counties and smaller towns were concerned. Such a law will only provide for an extra tax on the poor smiths and horse-shoers, and his chances of making a living will not be bettered, because no one will be shut out, no matter how incompetent.


It deprives him of the means whereby to raise himself. Such a law will only create offices to grease the machinery for the political party in power.

THE only thing that will ever elevate the standard of workmanship is education, education and nothing but education. Give us a law that will provide for a certain degree of education before a boy is allowed to serve as an apprentice; and that he will not be allowed to start out for himself until he has served the full term, both as an apprentice and journeyman. And if intemperate, no diploma shall be issued to him. I see now that I was right when I opposed this law. The horse-shoers of Minnesota are now kicking and cursing the examining board. The National Convention of horse-shoers which was held in Cincinnati passed resolutions which were ordered transmitted to the governor of Illinois, requesting that the board of examiners now authorized to grant licenses to horse-shoers in that State, be changed, as "The board has failed to accomplish the purpose for which it was instituted—the elevating of the standard of workmanship of horse-shoers of that State." Unions are all right in every place where there is only one smith, let that smith unite with himself to charge a living price for his work and he is all right. Where there are more than one smith unions will only help the dishonest fellow. Such unions live but for a short time and then the smiths knife each other worse than ever.

In hard times (and hard times are now like the poor, "always with us,") a lot of tinkers start in the shoeing and blacksmith business. If they could make a dollar a day in something else they would stay out, but this being impossible, they think it better to try at the anvil. For them to get anything to do without cutting prices is out of the question, and so the cutting business begins, and ends when the regular smith has come down to the tinker’s price. To remedy this we must go to the root of the evil. First, political agitation against a system whereby labor is debased.

This is a fact, in spite of all prosperity howling. Whenever there is trouble between labor and capital we will always find the whole machinery of the government ready to protect capital. The laboring men will not even be allowed to meet, but will be dispersed like so many dogs. They are the mob! But the capitalists, they are gentlemen! When the government wants a tailor for instructor in our Indian schools, or a blacksmith for the reservation, they get about $6oo.oo per year. But, when a ward-heeler wants office he must have $5,000 per year. What inducement is it, under such conditions, for a young man to learn a trade? Laboring men, wake up!

But, as this will bring us into politics I shall leave this side of the question, for it would do no good. Thomas Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence said: "Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while the evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed." The laboring people will, in my judgment, suffer quite a while yet. In the meantime let us build up a fraternity on the ruins of the ancient guilds. Between the twelfth and the fifteenth centuries mechanics of all kinds prospered as never before, nor have they done it since. The reason for this was not a high protective tariff, or anything in that line, but simply the fruit of the guilds and the privilege they enjoyed from the state.

What we now need is a modern guild. I anticipate there would be some difficulty in securing the legislation necessary, but we will not ask more than the doctors now have. I cannot now go into detail; that would take more room and time than I can spare in this book.

ONE thing is certain, we have a hard row to hoe, because, this is a government of injunctions, and any law on the statute book is in danger of being declared unconstitutional, according to the biddings of the money power, or the whim of the judges. One tyrant is bad, but many are worse.

I am no prophet, but will judge the future from the past. History will repeat itself, and Christ’s teachings will be found true: "A house divided against itself cannot stand."

I will say so much, however, that no man should be allowed to start out for himself before he has served three years as an apprentice and two or three years as a journeyman. This should be proved by a certificate from the master for whom he has worked. This certificate to be sworn to by his master, one uninterested master and himself. No apprentice to be accepted without a certificate from the school superintendent that he has a certain knowledge in language and arithmetic and other branches as may be required. It shall not be enough to have worked a few days each year, but the whole time. With these papers he shall appear before three commissioners, elected by the fraternity and appointed by the governor of the State. He shall pay not less than ten and not more than twenty-five dollars for his diploma. All complaint shall be submitted to these commissioners, and they shall have full power to act. If a practitioner acts unbecoming, runs down his competitor, charges prices below the price fixed by the fraternity, or defrauds his customers, such shall be reported to the commissioners, and, if they see fit, they can repeal or call in his diploma and he shall not be allowed to practice in the State. These are a few hints on the nature of the modern guild we ought to establish. The fraternity should have a journal edited by one editor on literature and one on mechanics, the editor on mechanics to be a practical blacksmith with not less than fifteen years’ experience. The editors are to be elected by the fraternity. This is all possible if we can get the legislation that the doctors have in many States. And why not?

Mechanics of to-day have a vague and abstract idea of what is meant by journeyman and aprenticeship. In Europe there is yet a shadow left of the guilds where these were in existence.

When I learned my trade I worked some time with my father in Sweden, then I went over to Norway and worked as an apprentice in Mathison & Johnson’s machine, file and lock factory of Christiania. I was requested to sign a contract for four years. In this contract was set forth the wages I was to receive, and what I was to learn each year. Everything was specified so that there would be no room for misunderstanding. The first two weeks I worked, they simply drilled me. I was given, a good file and a piece of iron, this iron I filed square, round, triangle, hexagon and octagon I wore out files and pieces of iron one after another, the master giving instructions how to stand, hold the file, about the pressure and strokes of same, etc. The same careful instructions were given in blacksmithing. The apprentice was given some work, and he had to forge it out himself, no matter what time it took, nor did it make any difference if the job, when done, was of any use, the apprentice was simply practicing and accustoming himself to the use of tools. Thus the elementary rules were learned in a few weeks, and the apprentice made capable of doing useful service that would repay for the time lost in the start.


HAVING thoroughly learned the trade, it is important to keep posted in this matter by reading books and trade journals. As far as books are concerned, we have a few treating on horse-shoeing, with both good and bad ideas. As to blacksmithing, this book, "Modern Blacksmithing," is the first in that line, written by a practical blacksmith and horse-shoer.

Our trade journals must be read with discrimination. They are mostly edited by men having no practical experience in the trade, and are therefore not responsible for the articles these papers contain. Many articles are entirely misleading. Blacksmiths having more experience with the pen than the hammer, and anxious to have their names appear in print, write for these journals.

Prize articles are also doing more harm than good, the judges giving the prizes to men with ideas like their own, not being broad-minded enough to consider anything they don’t practice themselves, and the result is a premium on old and foolish ideas.

But we should not stop at this. We should read much. Anything, except bloody novels, will help to elevate the man. No smith should think it idle to read and study. "Every kind of knowledge," observes a writer, "comes into play some time or other, not only systematic study, but fragmentary, even the odds and ends, the merest rag-tags of information." Some fact, or experience, and sometimes an anecdote, recur to the mind, by the power of association, just in the right time and place. A carpenter was observed to be very particular and painstaking in repairing an old chair of a magistrate, and when asked why, said: "I want this chair to be easy for me to sit in some time." He lived long enough to sit in it.

Hugh Miller found time while pursuing the trade of a stone mason, not only to read, but to write, cultivating his style till he became one of the most facile and brilliant authors of the day. Elihu Burritt acquired a mastery of eighteen languages and twenty-two dialects, not by rare genius, which he disclaimed, but by improving the bits and fragments of time which he had to spare from his occupation as a blacksmith.

Let it be a practice or a habit, if you will, to buy at least one book every year, and to read the same, once, twice, thrice, or until its contents are indelibly impressed upon your mind. It will come back to your mind and be useful when you expect it the least.

Chapter 2
Return to Main Page

© 2000, 2001 by Lynn Waterman