Blacksmithing: "Master with a Hammer"

Photo Essay, Carroll County Times, December 5, 2004

By Ken Koons

Kenneth Schwarz
Kenneth Schwarz has spent over 30 years forging iron and steel into copies of colonial iron ware. He started the trade at the Carroll County Farm Museum in Westminster, Maryland before moving to Colonial Williamsburg’s Anderson Blacksmith Shop in Virginia. There, his love of history and his years of forging helped him to discover how things were made before the industrial revolution.

A soft coal fire
A soft coal fire and blown air keeps the fire hot enough to soften iron and steel.

collection of old ironware
Ken uses his collection of old ironware to unlock
manufacturing secrets of the past.

the smallest details
Identifying the smallest details helps Ken reproduce
18th century iron work.

blacksmith class
Ken teaches a blacksmith class in the early 1990’s
at the Carroll County Farm Museum for the Blacksmith
Guild of Central Maryland. He has returned to his blacksmithing roots several times to teach classes since his move to Williamsburg.

Leaning out the window of the Anderson Forge in Colonial Williamsburg, Ken uses a basket as a sifter to remove the dust and clinker from the coke left by the preceeding day’s forging.

flint and steel
Working in a time period before matches, Ken uses
flint and steel to light a candle and he uses the candle to light his forge fire.

starting the fire
Master Smith Kenneth Schwarz starts the fire in the forge at Colonial Williamsburg, beginning his
work day.

Sparks fly
Sparks fly from the hot metal as he uses the hammer to shape the softened metal.

Documentary Multi-media Piece,
Carroll County Times, December 5, 2004

By Ken Koons

Watch it on Youtube.

Carroll County Times, December 5, 2004

by Marisa Navarro, Times Staff Writer

Kenneth Schwarz knew he wanted to be a blacksmith when, as a teen in 1977, he signed up for a class at the Carroll County Farm Museum in Westminster. "When I first picked up the hammer and started working on the metal, I knew this is what I wanted to do," Schwarz said.

"There's nothing like taking something rigid and making it malleable."

Class instructor Randy McDaniel gave Schwarz, who was then a student at a Westminster High School, a flat piece of mild steel. With a forge, anvil and hammer, Schwarz then stretched and pounded the metal to create an old-fashioned hook to hang pots over a stove. Schwarz, who had moved recently to Carroll County from Louisiana, joined the class so he could make friends. He quickly discovered a strong interest in working with his hands, he said.

Now he's a professional blacksmith and creates metal pieces for some of the country's most historically significant structures.

When the Thomas Jefferson Foundation that oversees the former president's Monticello home wanted to renovate the kitchen, for instance, they called on Schwarz to make door locks.

His next project is to make a plow similar in style and function to the one George Washington used at his Mount Vernon estate in Virginia.

To create these objects, Schwarz has done historical research to see how blacksmiths in the 1700s created them, he said.

People call on Schwarz because he's a blacksmith at Colonial Williamsburg, a living history museum in Virginia where people talk, dress and work as they would have in the 1700s. Colonial Williamsburg is one of the few institutions in the country that creates metal objects in the same style and techniques as blacksmiths did in the 18th century.

Schwarz has worked there since 1982, performing demonstrations for visitors and creating objects for historical groups. Soon, he'll be the lead journeyman, or supervisor, of the museum's blacksmith shop. McDaniel taught Schwarz's first blacksmith class and later had Schwarz work at his blacksmith business in Silver Run.

Eventually, Schwarz owned a blacksmith business in Taylorsville, but McDaniel knew Schwarz would like a job at Colonial Williamsburg, where he could blend his interest in hand crafts and history. He also wrote a letter of recommendation to employers at Colonial Williamsburg for Schwarz.

"It's a very prestigious thing to have under your belt," McDaniel said. "The work they do there is of the highest tradition in colonial arts."

Despite his work commitments, Schwarz returns to the Farm Museum nearly every year to teach classes.

In mid-November, Schwarz showed eight men - the Farm Museum limits enrollment to eight, the same number of forges it has for students to work on - how to make colonial kitchen utensils such as a fork, tasting spoon and spatula.

After an initial demonstration, Schwarz left the men alone to create. As the men worked on iron from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., the smell of coal used to heat the forge in the room grew stronger, and the pounding of iron became more frequent.

Ted McNett oversees blacksmith classes for the Farm Museum and the Westminster-based Blacksmith Guild of Central Maryland, which promotes blacksmithing by offering events and courses to help people learn new techniques and styles. McNett said he never has trouble filling the blacksmith classes and Schwarz's class had a six-person waiting list.

In general, blacksmithing has had a resurgence in popularity locally and nationally because it gives people who work in an office all day a chance to work with their hands, McNett said.

But when a Colonial Williamsburg blacksmith is a guest instructor, slots fill up more quickly, McNett said. McNett said he already had Schwarz agree to teach another class in the spring.

Schwarz likes to return to Carroll County to repay the Farm Museum for helping him start his career and keep the blacksmith tradition alive, he said.

"I try to support efforts like this," Schwarz said. "When I was young, there wasn't a lot of things like this."

If it weren't for the class, Schwarz might not have been a blacksmith, he said.

The Farm Museum originally didn't have blacksmith courses and only started offering them because its current group of blacksmith demonstrators were aging and starting to work less, said Jean Scott, the Farm Museum's former special events coordinator.

"We needed to get young people interested again," Scott said.

When the museum first started offering the classes, they only had six spots, and they quickly were filled, Scott said.

Schwarz was able to take the class after he was put on a waiting list and someone dropped out, Schwarz said. "I've always wondered what would have happened [if I hadn't taken the class]," Schwarz said. "I have many other interests and enjoyed history and economics, so there were many paths I could have taken, but I like the path I took."