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Advice from a Master Artist: Jeff Fetty’s Blacksmithing 101


For the first article in our new series Advice from a Master Artist, master blacksmith and photographer Jeff Fetty gives his tips for getting started with this creative practice.

Jeff Fetty working at his forge

Jeff Fetty working at his forge

Jeff is the owner of the blacksmithing business Jeff Fetty Designs where he produces fine craft and functional pieces, such as candleholders, furniture and fireplace tools, as well as offering custom work on commission. Working at his forge in Spencer, West Virginia, Jeff has been forging for nearly 40 years, coaxing hard, cold iron into delicately wrought objects. Jeff’s works abound with flowing organic forms and amazingly accurate renderings that are gently entwined with vines and flowers in such a subtle way that the casual observer may forget it is actually steel. 


Blacksmithing 101: Taking the Plunge into the Fire by Jeff Fetty

Getting Started

Table by the artist

Table by Jeff Fetty

I know of no other medium in which one can be as expressive as they can be with hot metal. I find it a constant adventure to manipulate a hot piece of steel as if it were clay and transform it into work that will last for generations.

One of the greatest advantages for blacksmiths is that we have the ability to make our own tools. With a way to heat the material (a Forge), a tool to shape the material (a Hammer), and a block on which to forge the material (an Anvil), anyone can make all the required hand tools needed such as tongs, flatters, swedges, punches, chisels, and many more. I know of no other craft in which this benefit is the case. For those interested in learning the art of blacksmithing, I strongly recommend acquiring these tools and start forging.

Organizations 

One of my favorite sayings is, “If you want to be good at something, associate yourself with the best.” To that end, it is imperative to connect with working professional blacksmiths. Fortunately, a number of excellent organizations exist in which to associate with fellow craftsmen.

Jeff working with his team

Jeff Fetty working with his team

On the state level for example, the Appalachian Blacksmiths Association (ABA) annually hosts two conferences featuring nationally acclaimed artist-blacksmiths. These events are usually held at the blacksmith shop at the Cedar Lakes Conference Center near Ripley. Also, throughout the year, the ABA hosts Hammer-ins at various members’ workshops. These occasions provide invaluable experience by showing how different smiths set up their workshops and by featuring various tooling methods of producing hand-forged iron through on-site demonstrations. Furthermore, Hammer-ins are great places to buy and sell tools. Annual dues of $10 include a quarterly newsletter.

In addition to this state level organization, The Artist-Blacksmith’s Association of North America (ABANA) organizes a world-class conference biannually in different locations across the United States.

This event features a fine art gallery showcasing members’ work, business seminars, vendors selling new and old tools and equipment, and the best demonstrators from the U.S. and around the world.

ABANA also produces a high-quality professional publication called The Anvil’s Ring. The magazine alone is worth the $45 annual membership fee, in my opinion.

Craft Schools

Another very important and effective way to gain experience and to gauge interest is to take a blacksmithing class.

A number of craft schools around the country have excellent blacksmithing classes with very skilled instructors. I have often said that in my earlier years, spending a week in this type of environment, learning from the best, was worth at least a year’s experience of trying to figure things out on my own. Some noteworthy craft schools include:

Also, many colleges and universities have great metalworking programs.

Tools

I love finding deals on cool tools at antique stores and flea markets, but often I need a specific tool immediately. Therefore, if I am not interested in making it or don’t have time to make it, I recommend these sources:

Books    

Commissioned piece created by Jeff Fetty and WV woodworker Jim Probst

Commissioned piece created by Jeff Fetty and West Virginia furniture-maker Jim Probst

When I started blacksmithing in 1973, Alex Bealer’s The Art of Blacksmithing was the only helpful book readily available. It was my bible for several years. By 1977, with the renaissance of blacksmithing in full swing, Dona Meilach published Decorative and Sculptural Ironwork. This book was the first modern blacksmith book on the market, and literally changed the course of my life and career.

Since that time, hundreds of books have been written and published. Among my favorite instructional books that I recommend to aspiring blacksmiths are:

Also, a few of my favorite inspirational books featuring world-class metalwork:

And additional sources for these books:

Useful Websites for the Blacksmith

I hope this information is helpful. Feel free to email me at jeff@jefffetty.com with any questions.