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Business and Economy

Maine Blacksmith, ‘Conjurer Of Sorts,’ One Of Few Left In State

Nick Woodward
Maine Public
The smithy is usually kept dim, to make it easier for the blacksmith to see the color of the steel he's working on.

If you’re in the market for a length of steel chain, a hatchet or a decorative wrought iron fence, you just head over to the hardware store. But there was a time when crafted metal pieces could only be ordered at a dimly lit, blazing hot workroom known as the blacksmith’s shop — and a few real blacksmiths still exist in Maine.

Once Upon a Job” is a series looking at some of the uncommon skills that are still being put to good use. In this installment, a man in Saco made the very hammer he uses.

Joel Tripp has been blacksmithing since 1991 — and he looks the part, too. Tall, bearded and built like a man accustomed to wielding a five-pound hammer, Tripp has always preferred to work with his hands.

“I grew up here on this farm, and we were always using old equipment,” he says. “A lot of it was my grandfather’s tools.”

Tripp says his fascination with tools started then. He took to replacing the worn out wooden handles on axes, shovels and hammers, and from there developed an interest in creating the rest of the tool.

Credit Nick Woodward / Maine Public
Some newly forged implements cooling on the table. Although gray in color and cool in appearance, they may still be 700 degrees and hot enough to burn. Tripp says nothing in a blacksmith's shop is safe to grab without careful testing first.

But finding someone who could teach him the craft of smithing proved impossible. Instead he enrolled at the University of Maine to pursue a career in forestry.

“And several years later when I was working for a local paper company, I was sent out to meet with a landowner in Brownfield, and after looking at his woodlot we ended up back at his workshop and it turns out he was a blacksmith, and that’s how I met the master that I trained with,” Tripp says.

In a year, he had set up his first smithy. He has been balancing forestry and blacksmithing ever since.

Blacksmiths throughout history have been regarded as both important and a little frightening. Celtic fairy lore has it that the seventh in a family line of blacksmiths is imbued with special powers, and that the water from any blacksmith’s trough has magical properties.

Blacksmith gods are mentioned in the ancient religions of India and Japan, as well as ancient Greek and Celtic mythology. There’s also a blacksmith in the Old Testament, a descendant of the fratricidal Cain.

Credit Nick Woodward / Maine Public
Tripp transforms molten steel by striking the metal with hammers he forged himself, ranging in weight from one to five pounds, on a 400 pound anvil.

Tripp says it’s true that blacksmiths throughout the ages have commanded a certain, spooky awe.

“You can make something really hard and brittle or you can make it soft, and that magic — only by using fire and water — imparted secret powers to the blacksmith. He was known as a conjurer of sorts,” he says.

But it’s really just science and know-how, says Tripp. Blacksmithing is essentially the craft of manipulating steel by heating, striking and cooling metal.

He goes to the forge, where a pile of bituminous coal is already blazing away on top. A 100-year-old, hand-cranked blower has been retrofitted with an electric motor, although Tripp often cranks it old school. The blower forces air up under the forge to keep the coal blazing hot — at one time, the forge would have used a bellows apparatus.

Tripp then puts a rod of steel into the molten pile of coal and waits for it to begin to glow. When the metal just starts to turn red, it’s about 800 degrees.

The workshop is dim inside. Blacksmiths traditionally work that way, he says. says.

“The reason we keep the shops dark is so that we can see the color of the steel. Because the steel comes out of the fire hot, it’s luminescent, and if there’s low ambient light we can see the color of the steel better,” Tripp says.

And color matters. Different types of work require different temperature colors. And there’s a safety aspect too. A piece of steel that looks gray and cool in bright light may in fact be 700 degrees and emitting a low-level glow that can only be seen in a darker setting.

Credit Nick Woodward / Maine Public
Joel Tripp tends to the coal-fueled forge, which will heat metal to temperatures of 2600 degrees.

Tripp will let this piece of metal reach white hot temperatures of 2,600 degrees before he works it. There are seven basic things a blacksmith can do to steel, he explains.

“The first one is the easiest. We can ‘draw out,’ which means anytime we reduce the dimension of the steel. We can ‘upset’ it, which is any time we increase the dimension of the steel. That’s actually the hardest thing that we do,” he says.

Then there’s bending, twisting, cutting, punching and welding.

“If you can do those seven things with some proficiency, you can make anything,” Tripp says.

He takes the glowing rod to the anvil, where he begins to shape it with his hammer. When it begins to cool off, he sticks it back into the fire and works it again until what started out as a straight steel stick has suddenly become a dainty little leaf. Then into the cooling trough it goes.

At one time, there would have been at least one blacksmith in every village. Now, says Tripp there are about six or eight in the entire state, and all of them have a second job.

Some things haven’t changed though. The techniques are pretty much the same as they were centuries ago. Tripp is still called upon to create practical gear for farms that use oxen and draft horses. Custom-made tools like hatchets and axes are also still popular.

While blacksmithing in the past was largely functional, many modern blacksmiths now focus on purely artistic and decorative items. Others embrace both.

“And that’s where I find myself. Almost everything I make, it may be decorative, but it’s functional,” Tripp says.

His current project? A custom set of barbecue tongs with little hands on the ends.