Northwest Blacksmith Association

Outreach in Chengdu

Chengdu Outreach 1Anvils ringing, exhaust fan roaring, and a half-dozen Chinese teenagers commenting on each other’s work and clamoring for advice from “Mr. Steve”:  To me, that made a perfect holiday.

Blacksmithng outreach — introducing new people to the craft — is as much fun as anything can be.  Outreach activities like spending a day with Boy Scouts at Camp Cowles, doing demos at the Interstate Fair, and helping home schoolers make their first leaf in my shop, are high points of my year.

Every Spring for the past 8 years I have enjoyed the hospitality of Philip Greening-Jackson, known on smithing forums as ‘Philip in China”.  Philip currently teaches economics and finance at Meishi International School in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China.  Philip has a blacksmith shop at the school, where he provides blacksmithing experience as an optional activity to high schoolers.  Another friend at the school is John Weller, an art teacher.  I go to Meishi School every year for one week in April or May, to make tools for Philip’s shop and teach the kids to make S-hooks, leaves, coat hooks, flowers, candle holders, or whatever else might be within range of their interest and ability.

Each year, more students sign up than the previous year.  This year John rounded up 30 students for me.  John made sure he had plenty of one-on-one shop time with me too, because he hopes to carry on the blacksmithing program after Philip retires in June, 2016.

It makes for a pretty intensive holiday!  I kept the smithy open from 8 am until 9 pm every day for four days; and the students rotated through in sessions of about two hours, four to six students at a time.

Lily, a 10th grader, working on a knife

Lily, a 10th grader, working on a knife

Here, Simon is forging a knife while another student serves as striker.

Here, Simon is forging a knife while another student serves as striker.

Several times, twice as many students showed up as had signed up for a session, so I had to ask some of them to come later in the evening.   The students were unfailingly polite and attentive, and thanked me profusely.  Their eagerness to learn, their persistence, and the rate at which they built their hammer skills was awesome!

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Despite the unending stream of students, I found time to make a few things for Philip: some S-hooks, some coat hooks, a couple of knives and an ash rake for his wood stove.

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Friday afternoon I relaxed.  Saturday morning, Philip and I were up at 6 am to start the fire for the pig roast that has become our tradition.  All the foreign teachers, their families, and the school security staff are invited. Even Sean, who keeps blacksmithing alive at Guangya School in Dujiangyan, brought his family 50 miles to attend the party.  Sean, by the way, has kept blacksmithing alive at Guangya school since I first met him in 2009, a year after the tragic Sichuan earthquake (


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Sean, Sean’s kids and, yours truly, Philip, and John

We tended the fire and turned the pig all day, surrounded by passers-by who stopped to watch and take photos of the roasting pig.

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At 5:00 sharp, people began bringing side dishes pot-luck style: vegetables, desserts, drinks.  we moved the pig to a table and stood back.  The delicious aroma of roast pork filled the air.  Over the next hour, the 200-lb pig was reduced to mere bones as waves of diners filled their plates and bellies.

At the pig roast, teachers (math, English, Western history, art –) told me that the kids had been excited about how much they had accomplished in the shop: “I never imagined that I could make anything like that myself!”; and “I didn’t think it would be so much fun!”.  The principal personally thanked me for volunteering at the school.

Of course blacksmithing was a common topic of conversation at the party, but topics ranged from the series of coincidences that brought each of us to a pig roast at a school in western China, to the best ways to capture and hold a student’s attention in the classroom.

So what does a pig roast have to do with blacksmithing?  More than one might think.  It represents the kind of community that can be built when a blacksmith shares his or her skills.

An item hammered from iron is an honest expression of the smith’s attitude toward life. A smith builds patience, persistence, confidence, practicality and strength with every hammer blow, every bend and every twist he or she applies to iron.  People attracted to the blacksmithing community tend to be honest, practical, confident, imaginative and sociable.  Iron speaks their language.  By sharing his or her skills freely, a blacksmith can catalyze the formation of a local blacksmithing community, helping introduce people to others whose language is that of forged iron.  Steve Howell once told me that he feels that the medium of fire and iron shapes a blacksmith’s character.  Maybe so.  I think of the blacksmith’s craft as a filter that concentrates people with a certain character.  Either way, the result is a community of people whom I am proud to call my friends!