Blacksmiths don’t keep trade secrets. They can’t afford to. The craft all but died out after the Industrial Revolution. Those who survived into the twentieth century found that after World War II, Americans developed a taste for cheap, mass-produced items. There was no room for the hammer wielding masters of hot metal in post-war America.
Marcus Engler, 49, makes his living today as a blacksmith in Bozeman, operating a small forge on the east end of town. He started playing with metal as a farrier in 1981, making horseshoes and shoeing tools, but the work never interested him much, he said. It was too much of the same thing every day–not enough chances to work the creative side of his brain.
In 1997, he quit what he called a “good job” at the Forest Service and started blacksmithing full-time. He took over a shop from a friend who had recently passed away and started crafting wrought-iron railings, gates, fittings and fireplace screens. It was work that engaged him, he said, and rewarded him for his ideas, something he said all craftsmen aspire to.
A tall, skinny man, Engler looks as little like a blacksmith as possible, apart from his black hands. He runs marathons in his spare time–Boston twice, but there is less and less of that free time these days. The Gallatin Valley’s construction market is hot, and people want original, hand-crafted items in their homes, Engler said, not the kind of thing you can buy at Home Depot.
Unfortunately, he still gets people “shopping” him. They come to his shop, glance through his portfolio, and wonder if the welding shop up the street can do it cheaper. Others, he said, look through his portfolio like it was the Sears catalog, thinking they can pick and choose exactly what they want and take it home in a box. Engler, who even strives to make the rivets in his designs somehow unique, chuckles to himself.
Few people understand the process, Engler said. They don’t understand that when it comes to metal, they can have whatever they want. It’s a function of imagination, not catalog searching ability. Oh, and it certainly is not an “instant gratification” sort of trade.
How can it be, when a piece of iron or steel has to be heated to around 1,800 degrees before it can be worked with? Watching Engler work at a demonstration for the Northern Rockies Blacksmiths Association, you can see why some projects take hundreds of hours to complete.
The metal comes from the forge glowing red, dripping sparks. Steel loses 50 degrees a minute, Engler said, so after only a few hammer taps, the metal goes back into the fire. Slowly but surely, the form takes shape.
The national association of blacksmiths, ABANA, lists 5,000 members from several nations. About 20 turned up for the conference in Bozeman on Friday morning. At the two shops I visited in Bozeman, the maximum number of employees was two. Competition is not a problem. In fact, Engler said, the Bozeman smiths are constantly referring customers to the best guy for the job.
If this seems altruistic, that’s probably because it is. These are guys who practice a lost art, who have to rediscover centuries-old techniques on their own because no one is left to teach them. If they carry a little honor and pride in their work, it’s understandable.