A Weekend of Blacksmithing in White Salmon, WA
Updated: Oct 29, 2019
I started writing this when I had just gotten back from Bermuda mid-July, and am finishing it now after getting back from Italy. I think the shock of going from vacation to work has put me in a very nostalgic mood. Even though it’s the height of summer, all I want is for October to roll around and bring the chill and damp and beauty back with it. Today, after weeks of gorgeous clear sunny days we woke up to a completely gloomy gray sky and wet misty streets and for some reason I’m ecstatic. I guess after so many years I have Stockholm Syndrome for the Seattle winters - it’s a love-hate thing. Regardless, it immediately reminded me of that weekend four months ago when my boyfriend Jacob and I went blacksmithing.
The idea came from a conversation we’d had almost a year before - I think when we were driving back from the Annual Hot Air Balloon Festival in Winthrop. We were talking about jobs (it comes up way too often in conversations, even now) and I’d asked Jacob, who was at the time still looking for a job in the gaming industry, what he would be if for some reason he didn’t want to continue down this path.
His answer was immediate: “Blacksmither!”
I asked, (What, no, how, that’s not a realistic profession Jacob!) “Have you ever tried it?”
“Nope,” he replied, (sigh) “but I’d love it, and I’d be great, I’m sure.” He’s very confident in himself - it’s a nice trait. The boy knows what he wants.
So fine, blacksmithing it was. The seed was planted. I looked up some places in the area to see what was available. Confidence be damned, you can’t have your hypothetical backup career be something you’ve never tried, and as a supportive girlfriend I was willing to make an investment in the future (also fire and metal - let’s be honest, I was giddy to try!)
There were only a handful of options in the whole state, and from those I narrowed it down to two: a one-day class in Spokane where we could make knives from railroad spikes, or a three-day weekend retreat to White Salmon (a picturesque little town on the border of Washington and Oregon) that would offer a more in-depth tutorial of the basics.
I obviously went with the railroad spike class. I mean, seriously, who doesn’t want a spike-knife?! (But wait, I hear you murmur, the title says ‘weekend’ and ‘White Salmon’ - that’s false advertising!) Well, I called them up and the classes just didn’t fit with our schedule at the time. I thought about wrangling them and somehow making it work, but then I sat down and thought of the drive, and the destination, and how I’d have to take a vacation day to make it feasible anyways... and then the pretty pictures I had seen of White Salmon snuck into my thoughts, and how cool the name “Old West Forge” sounds (I’m a sucker), and my plans changed. I figured, it’s not as instantly-gratifying as a spike-knife, but if you’re gonna be a blacksmither, you’ve got to learn the basics right. (Right?)
I called up Old West Forge - turns out their schedule was even worse. “I can get you in next month for the 4th of July weekend,” the owner, Tim, said, “Otherwise we’re booked until next April.” Ugh. April was so far. We weren’t even sure we’d still be in the state by that time - Jacob was itching to find a job in Cali if he could, since it’s a gaming hub and - as he maintains - it’s the greatest place in the world. At this point my will and reluctance to move alone was the driving force to remaining in Washington.
But wait a second, I thought, that actually might work. The class in April was right before my sister’s birthday - even if we moved away, it was the perfect excuse to come back. Plans solidified in my mind quickly, as they often do, and about 30 seconds later I was convinced.
“We’re doing this,” I told Jacob that afternoon. He took very little convincing.
“What? OMG that’s so awesome you’re the best girlfriend ever! Thanks for doing all this research and setting it all up!” is what he (should have) said. (I think the actual response was along the lines of “Oh, that sounds pretty cool.” - high praise, coming from him.)
Good, it was decided.
Almost a year later we packed our bags, and headed out on the 4.5-hour drive down to Oregon. It was Friday evening; the class would start bright and early at around 7:30am the next day and would finish on Monday, after which we’d head back. White Salmon, as mentioned before, is on the state border - in fact, the two states are separated by Columbia River at that point, with the town of Hood River on one side of an old, narrow tolled bridge (the Hood River Bridge) and White Salmon on the other end.
We hadn’t been able to find a place to stay on the Washington side, so we made our way to the Hood River Hotel in Oregon, arriving just around midnight. (“You may have heard the hotel is haunted, but I wouldn’t worry too much; I’ve never seen anything!” the cheerful hotel clerk mentioned when we checked in. Thanks, buddy, I hadn’t heard but I’ll definitely be thinking about that now.) Our room was cozy, with a big bed and too-small bathroom and a view of a pizzeria parking lot with the river just beyond. We fell asleep almost instantly, drained by the drive and the thought of waking up in just a few hours.
By the time 6am rolled around I actually felt pretty rested. The alarm went off, and we rolled out of bed to see a sliver of light coming through a hole in the window drapes. It looked like the start of a good day! We got ready quickly and were on our way early through the brisk morning, taking heed of Tim’s warning that it was easy to get lost on the back roads to the smithy.
From Hood River to the back-end of White Salmon where the smithy was situated it would take about half an hour to drive. We made it there with little trouble, paying $1 at the toll bridge (it really was narrow, and the type with metal grid flooring that made cars skid a bit to the side when moving - just, you know, to make sure you were paying attention while driving) and only getting lost twice on the way. Tim had warned us not to use Google, but we are millenials who work in tech so obviously that’s what we did, and it worked well until just outside of his property.
Tim owns about 40 acres of hilly land bordering some forest patches. The last stretch of the drive was bumpy and wet, with us rolling along a potholed dirt road and having to stop and wait for a huge fluffy white dog to quit barking at us from the middle of the road just before the turnoff. We drove past the dog (after it moved) and a few minutes later we were there.
The smithy was situated just past a giant half-collapsed barn pointed downwards at 45 degrees as if waiting to engulf someone on its imminent collapse, and Tim stood to welcome us. He wore a black leather apron over thick cozy clothes and looked like an older, shorter Dermot Mulroney. Three other students were there - mostly wearing denim ensembles and big belt buckles - and one more was late (“I bet he used the Google,” Tim grumbled, “I told you all - don’t trust technology up here.”). We started without him.
Right away he had us help set up. The whole smithy was a maze of anvils, hammers, water buckets and a conglomeration of finished and in-progress work hanging from the ceiling or stacked on the floors. Everything was placed in such a way as to create a few work hubs surrounding the three forges in the room. The floor was buried under a few inches of ash and metal shavings from bygone projects. We fumbled our way through the setup, with us not knowing the names of different tools and Tim floundering for more basic descriptors (he was a man of few words, seeming to prefer to show rather than say), but finally we got it set up, the 6th guy arrived, and we situated some plastic chairs awkwardly in the cramped available area to listen to Tim talk about the class and watch him demonstrate what we would do.
I won’t go into extreme detail here - suffice it to say, he made everything look very easy. That man has been pounding metal for 20-some years, and he’d built muscles on top of muscles I’m pretty sure I don’t even possess.
The first order of business for the day - make the tools we would be using for the rest of the weekend. These included a walking chisel, punch, drift, 3/8" and 1/2" bending forks.
“It’s like this,” Tim said as he pulled an inch-thick orange-glowing cylinder out of the forge and prepared to make a punch. “You wanna hammer the tip until it’s 5/16th of an inch. Make it square and pull it out.” And that’s what he’d do, with a few swift smacks of the hammer. First one side, then the opposite, then the two adjacent. After a minute the metal would cool down to a dark orange instead - the color of autumn leaves falling off the trees - and back into the fire it would go with visible dents on the ends. A new cylinder came out - because blacksmithing is about multitasking - and on Tim went to the next tool. It took only about 5 or 6 heats for him - maybe 20 minutes - to finish completely. After it was sufficiently long and thin, he’d round it out - first banging on the 4 edges of the square until it was octagon-shaped, and then finishing it off to smoothness. It was the same story for the walking chisel, except you want to hammer only on two sides until you get it flat and twice as wide as you started out. This is later used for making lines in metal or even cutting through. The drift is the same story as the punch but smaller (used for widening holes, whereas the punch is used for….punching them), and the two bending forks are just U-shaped lengths of metal in different sizes - used for bending metal (by placing it between the two sporks and pushing to the side).
And then it was our turn - we started at about 9am, and it took us until lunchtime to get halfway done. By us I mean me and Jacob - everyone goes at their own rate and our rate was city-slicker slow. Two of the cowboy types sharing our forge were amazingly fast, and Tim looked very pleased at their progress, offering them extra projects. That’s the cool thing about blacksmithing in this class - there was a set itinerary but it’s up to you how much you can do. Tim might have judged our progress internally, but he didn’t let on what he was thinking and didn’t push anyone to do more than they could. He was on his own schedule - it was up to us to keep up, or not.
We had a hard-earned lunch with black-stained fingers after a few hours and I compared blisters with Jacob (I had him beat - my first only took 20 minutes to develop on the side of my hammer hand, and more followed on my fingers, palm, and hand - we learned to tape early and often to prevent them getting worse). Inside the smithy it was blazing hot but outside on the small porch it was freezing; mist overtook most of the hills, fading the green away to whiteness. It was serene and beautiful but I was glad to go back to the warmth of the forges, even as I wondered to myself what the hell I was doing.
With that brief rest my arm muscles had seized and were fully throbbing now - I could barely grasp the hammer, which weighed at least 20 pounds (“It’s only 3,” Tim said on the second day - a bold-faced liar. “And the sledgehammers are probably….5? Maybe 7.” he continued, nodding towards the probable 50-pound monstrosities I could only hold with both hands. Such lies, Tim.) But I was determined to get through this - I’d paid, damnit, taken work off! (And also I wanted to beat Jacob). I wasn’t going to quit - and I didn’t.
We finished the tools shortly after (Tim might have taken mercy on us and hammered out a heat for us - he makes more progress in one than I did in 5) and moved on to the cool stuff - hooks and loops and fire pokers!
4:30 came around and we ended the day there - both Jacob and I were a sore dirty mess, but we were also hungry so we headed back to the hotel, peeled the tape off our hands, tried to wash away the dirt (then gave up) and went out for dinner at the local Chinese restaurant. We ravenously ordered three entrees and an appetizer and barely finished a third of the food, leaving happy and stuffed with an excess of leftovers for our fridge-less room. We passed out unashamedly at around 7pm into an exhausted bone-weary sleep and didn’t stir until morning. I don’t think anything would have woken us up before that alarm went off - we barely had the strength to reach up and turn it off.
We made our way back to class, which started at 7am this time, and continued the work from the day before. I made few loops in a strip of metal - practice for making a handle for the fire poker - and then moved on to the real thing. I loved that fire poker. It started out as a long square strip of metal, perhaps half an inch thick. I was in my zone - that’s about the max thickness that I can hammer out relatively effectively and actually see progress - and man, did I smack that thing. I made a perfect point, stretching the tip out a few inches, and then used the anvil to mold it into a hook shape. Then the other side - this time flattening out a bit at the edge to form a bit of a lip, then making a closed loop for the handle and putting some decorative twists in the shaft for good measure. It was awesome, and I was proud. While I was doing that I was also working on some wall hooks - the same idea, but even more decorative with tiny little swirls at the ends.
And then Tim introduced us to a new project - a leaf. He gave us a long rectangular strip and showed us how to add a two-inch leaf at the end, and then twist it around into a large loop. It was beautiful. On we went to try the same thing; we banged notches perpendicularly into the sides to make a ‘neck’, then used the walking chisel to cut off the corners and create a point for the leaf. Then we banged the metal flat (“But not too flat, you just wanna kinda take it out at the edges, else the vines will cut through your leaf when you chisel them in” - wise words, recalled only after Jacob chiselled through his leaf) then put the vines in, and then finally used an inverted half circle and ball to shape the leaf a bit and give it some character, so it didn’t just lay there flat. It was much harder than he made it look, and my leaf paled in comparison to his.
Then Tim started showing us drawings - it took us a while to catch on that we were actually expected to make what he was showing - of a giant triangular pot-hanger; the type you attach to a wall in the garden and hang flower pots from. It was a giant monstrosity - 18 inches by 28 - involving the leaf in the center with swirls of metal filling in the triangle and a giant half-inch-by-two frame that would take two people to bang out and shape. I looked at Jacob and his mangled leaf, then at my own withering pathetic leaf, and I knew, in that moment, we were pretty fucked.
Tim knew it too. “Let’s chat,” he said to us as he herded us outside. “Now, this is a big project. It’s gonna take up the rest of the class time” he said, eying our taped up hands. “Perhaps, if you work together, you might be able to finish one amongst the two of you. Or, we can try and do something different for you two, something special (and smaller).” And he held up a thing
I don’t really know how better to describe it. It didn’t look very special. It was the same idea - a pot-hanger - but instead of a beautiful triangle with swirls and leaves and shit it was just….a wave. It started as a big half-arc from the bottom going up - the bottom having an unassuming but subtly ornate scroll on it - and then another smaller half arc coming out and going in the opposite direction. This is where the pot would hang from. It ended in a small spiral. It kind of reminded me of the outline of Aladdin’s lamp, almost, but dull. It was maybe two feet long with the arcs.
“You two can still work together on these,” Tim added. He waited expectantly. Jacob finally said, “Ok. We can do that instead.”
I wanted to argue, then, but I looked inside, where even the model students were struggling to make progress, and I knew it made sense. We likely wouldn’t finish even one of those fancy hangers, even with us together. And there was still one more project to do after this - an even fancier, more ornate fire poker. I had seen it the day before and I was very excited. So I relented, giving in to reason and reality with a small grumble. The magnificent triangle wouldn't have fit in our apartment, anyways, with that size. At least that's what I told myself for the next day and a half.
We switched up the design a bit - I wanted more detail on the scroll, and Jacob wanted his to be inverted instead, to look almost like a claw. Tim helped us with this, showing us how to work the metal to get what we wanted, and how to work together to bang it out. One person - the leader - will stand at the anvil and give the signal (three small knocks of the hammer on the anvil) and then hit the hot metal. The other person standing opposite will use a sledgehammer to try to hit the same exact spot. And so it went until the leader gave the signal to end (a tap of the hammer on the anvil once more) and then shape the metal a bit to make sure the work is even. Then back in the forge it goes, and the other comes out. The point of this all was to elongate the metal - a good 20 inches or so - and thin it out into a point.
We got into a groove doing this, and it was really fun to work together. Jacob totally owned that sledgehammer and I loved being the leader so we made a good team, but man was it hard work. After a bit the metal heated all the way through even with only the tip in the forge, so it burned our gloves when we tried to hold it, and we’d have to use tongs instead. We made slow progress through the end of the day and gained a new appreciation for this simple-looking project. By the time we went home it was only half the length we wanted - the pressure was on to finish it up tomorrow on the last half-day of the class.
We went out to town for dinner, exploring a bit more than the day before. By this time we had been living in pain for two days, and it was just an inevitable part of life. We found a cool wood-fire pizza place and got their special - bacon and dried cherry pizza - and some mac and cheese and wood-fired s'mores. (A quote from dinner-Jacob after one drink: "This marshmallow is like me - soooo toasted!" Yep.) We were living the high life, and had a well-deserved feast.
We were back to the grind on the next and final day after checking out of our hotel at an ungodly early hour. We were determined to finish, and finish we did! We started at 7am and eagerly worked; we only had until 2:30 today. It took most of the morning but we finally finished around lunch-time; we shaped the tip into a little swirl and folded the metal into an arch (and I’m rather on the hefty side, but let me tell you, I put the damn metal through the bending fork and literally grabbed on and let myself fall backwards putting all my weight, force, and gravity into trying to bend the sucker, and it still barely arched. It took a few tries.) And, finally, we were done.
I’d asked Tim for the metal rod for the fire poker in the morning but it took him a while to get back with it - he was busy that day - but I finally got it with a few hours to spare. I didn’t have time to finish, sadly, but I did half - the awesome double-twist handle with a beautiful loop at the end. I didn’t get to the poker side, which would have involved banging the metal out (and it was an inch-thick square rod, it would have taken a good long while), cutting it in two, and twisting each one into a different point. Next time.
We finished off by waxing all our finished projects except for the tools; I ended up with two hooks, a random stick with loops on each end, a fire poker, a rod with a wicked-cool handle, our ‘special’ pot-hangers, and a sort-of hot-plate with a misshapen leaf at the center (It may be misshapen but it’s my leaf, damnit, and I was hella proud of it!)
I don’t think I’ve ever experienced as much physical pain as I had that weekend, and I definitely wasn’t going to try again for a while, but honestly, I’d had a lot of fun at this class. Blacksmithing is hard as hell, but it’s really heckin cool. I liked Tim, even for his lack of words and tough-love no-nonsense attitude. One day, I’ll try it again - after all, I still want that frickin spike-knife!
As we walked out of the warm embrace of the smithy and into the cold fog I turned to Jacob and asked, “So? Blacksmithing in your future?”
“Nope,” he said. “It was awesome, but, man, it was hard.” He picked off the hand tape and contemplated his blisters.
“So what’s your fall-back career then?” I asked, now that this one had been debunked.
“Rockstar, definitely!” Was the immediate reply. “It’s fun and I’d be great at it!” Jacob said confidently.