Asked how it feels to forge iron, Robert Thomas has to pause for a moment and envision themselves in a description of what, for him, is as much a passion as a livelihood.
“Forging is a way of taking hold of you until it becomes a part of who you are,” Thomas says. “It is not only connects us with the thousands of years of blacksmiths who came before us, but in this era of Silicon Valley and computers, and it is a thing that machines are not really, at least easily anyway.”
“The work of a blacksmith is not limited to the Renaissance fairs,” he continues. “It is very much alive today.”
In his new book, ‘The Art and the Craft of the Blacksmith: Techniques for the Modern Smith” (Quarto Publishing Group USA, 2018), Thomas explains the tools of the trade, and offers a history of decorative iron, and discusses techniques for everyone, from the beginner to the accomplished blacksmith.
His love for the ancient craft is palpable as he describes the feeling of hammering heated metal until it can be molded, like clay, are becoming stronger and stronger in the process.
“The forge is completely addictive,” says Thomas, who runs a studio in Charleston, South Carolina, which combines the restoration work with a more modern, artistic pieces. “The best is when I have a friend or craftsman in any other discipline that is to try it. The first time she the form of hot metal, you can see it in their face. If you see that steel squish as PlayDoh, the whole experience is fleeting.”
Try a smith, he says, and “you’ll never look at metal the same way. And if you look at bridges differently.”
The sustainability of the work is also a part of the attraction, ” he says. “When we install a beautiful wrought fence in front of someone’s home, we know that it will take more time than absolutely anything else.”
JoAnn Bentley, an administrator for the Artist Blacksmith Association of North America, says that many of the organization’s estimated 4,000 members are young, and also some women.
“It is a thriving craft and is really coming back to life these days,” she says. She partly credits of the tv show “Forged in Fire” on the History Channel.
Thomas had tried a career in the financial world, but was not happy. “So, at 24, I decided I had to do something different. … I knew that I loved working with my hands, and I loved art, and when I tried forging, I sure it was for me,” he says.
He went on to the study of the craft — long known as “the master trading” because of how essential it is in traditional life in the village — what he calls the “Harvard of the forge,” Hereford College of Arts in Hereford, England. He was one of a handful of Americans inducted as a certified journeyman in Britain, the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths, a guild that dates back to the 1300s.
There are places close to home that a would-be blacksmith you can study. The American College of the Building Arts, in Charleston, where Thomas is based, has a program, ” he says, like several other institutions across the country. But they are rare.
His studio, Robert Thomas Iron Design , contains five other blacksmiths, and a part-time engineer and designer. It is one of only about 30 studios such as the in the United States, ” he says.
“It’s great to work side by side with other blacksmiths. That great camaraderie and the forging all over the world is one of the truly great things in this field,” he says.
Thomas hopes that his book exudes a feeling of community. “It is also intended as a primer for those who may have had a taste of basic forging and wants to take it to the next level,” he says.
“The goal is to present to forge a modern, professional context and offer a perspective on how to make a contribution to the world of the design using forging techniques to create large and small pieces of functional art,” he says.
Projects described in the book are bookends, a coaster, a door handle and a fireplace tool set.
In addition to historic restoration, his studio creates furniture and a range of shelf brackets, which, he says, is their most popular item.