Wild Iron

Wild Iron: Smelting from the ground up with Lee Sauder (assisted by Nick Tomlin)

Session 12 September 5 through 16

Lee Sauder will guide the participants in this workshop through every aspect of the bloomery smelting process and subsequent consolidation of the smelted blooms into usable bars. This workshop is designed especially for folks who have some experience in smelting and want to deepen their understanding of both theory and practice by exploring several different types of ore from both Montana and Virginia. Workshop participants will spend several days visiting different sites where ore is found in the state, as well as the refractory clays and sands used in the process. We’ll make our own charcoal in the school’s sizable retort, and build the bloomery furnaces from scratch. Expect to actually operated the smelting furnaces for two to three days and still have time to make bars into functional objects.

The Blacksmith today is precariously perched between a behemoth industrial present and a past where the individual craftsman was genuinely needed and appreciated. Between a globally centralized economy and a time when regional resources were applied to regional needs. It is a difficult position to occupy, for we depend almost entirely on the faceless multinational production of our precious material, iron, while we labor relentlessly to make our lives and products particular and meaningful.

Collecting special rocks, clays, and sands and transforming them into forgeable iron is unlikely to fuel a vibrant new local economy any time soon. Industrial iron is so widely available and inexpensive as compared to its down-home cousin of bloomery iron, that resistance is essentially futile.

That is, unless the practice of your craft includes an insatiable hunger for historical context and authenticity. Bloomery smelting may be limited in its practical consequence for making iron objects today, but it provides a very tangible way to connect to the fiery origins of our craft. It is a ritual both spiritual and physical that makes an essential contribution to the ongoing project of creating our collective story.

In Wild Iron we will indulge in the very earthly sources of our materials, and work as a team to coax at least some of the iron present in our ores to free itself from the oxygen to which it is intimately bound, and consolidate it into forgeable bars. It is a process that is at once chemical and alchemical. While carefully considering the interplay between iron, carbon, and oxygen, we also must admit that, ultimately, this work is magical. The iron we wrest from the rocks will embody the mystery we explore in making it.

This class will aim to consider bloomery iron smelting from its material roots. We will travel through the mountains of Montana and glean rich ores from mostly abandoned mines. We will make our charcoal to energize the smelts from wood harvested within sight of the school. We will dig clays from a site where clay was mined for smelting copper in the early years of the Anaconda Copper Company. And we will work together to construct the furnaces and make iron through their careful tending.

This workshop will be led by Lee Sauder who has not only pioneered a revival in interest in traditional bloomery smelting, but also made great contributions to the understanding and practice over a period of more than twenty years of very practical research. It is safe to say that virtually everyone interested in smelting in America today has been inspired and informed at least in part by Lee’s work in the field. In this workshop Lee will guide us in exploring several varieties of ore, and experimenting with different clays and sands in the furnace construction to further illuminate the subtleties involved in this ancient art.

Important Notes for Wild Iron participants:

This class involves work that is physically demanding, and participants need to be in good physical condition to be safe and successful. The field trip which is central to this class will involve tent camping at campgrounds in the National Forest off of the school campus, so participants will need to provide their own camping gear including at the very least a tent and sleeping bag. We will eat a few meals at restaurants, but students will be responsible for some of the meals while we are on the road and camping.

To get to one of the mines involves a fairly strenuous three mile hike on a rough trail up Elkhorn Mountain. This trip is challenging, and some participants may want to sit it out at the trailhead. If you plan to hike to this mine (an experience that everyone so far has delighted in, despite the physical challenge), you will need a small day pack, sturdy hiking boots (no tennis shoes please), a water bottle, snack, and a realistic assessment of your hiking abilities.

Final plans for the transportation during the field trip are still in the works, but expect to contribute to the costs of fuel and transportation. We will aim to use one or two passenger vans, one with a trailer for hauling ore and clay. If any participant has a four-wheel drive pickup and wants to make that available for the field trip, please inform Jeffrey.

The logistics for the field trip are a bit involved, but by collecting the ore from their parent geological deposits provides the real foundation for this class. It’s worth the effort and is a lot of fun as well.