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Hammer and Anvil 2: a landfill methane gas powered forge

Posted by TuckGiles, 21 January 2011 · 273 views


DILLSBORO –– Blacksmith’s class got scuttled by the weather these past two weeks. David Burress, our teacher, lives high up on Balsam, and his driveway has been through three stages of slippery this month: snow, ice, mud.

Without a firsthand experience to feed the Hammer and Anvil blog, I went in search of the secondhand kind. In Jackson County, we’re blessed to have a burgeoning smithing community, in part because of our proximity to the John C. Campbell Folk School, in part because of the public methane-powered forge at the Jackson County Green Energy Park, and in part because of people like David Burress, who do it themselves.

Communities come together around people. David Burress, who lives high on the hill, uses tools his father foraged and a coal forge he designed. Cullowhee blacksmith William Rogers, who helped put together the landfill methane-powered gas forge at the JCGEP, has made an art out of forging non-ferrous metals into steel forms.

Blacksmiths John Burtner and Brock Martin have had the benefit of learning their trade from masters using the tools and forge at the JCGEP. The forge, believed to be the only one of its kind, has been specially modified by Rogers and JCGEP Director Timm Muth to burn landfill methane at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

I had met Burtner before, covering events at the park, but we connected again after he saw my post on the iforgeiron.com blacksmith’s forum, which said I was taking a Damascus knife-making class from Burress.

I caught up with him last week while he was working on the details of a firescreen at the JCGEP.

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Burtner has been smithing for just a few years, and he attributes his ability to start a blacksmithing business to the facility at the JCGEP.

“I started here,” Burtner said. ” Who has $10,000 to get all this equipment? I would have had to go into debt to start my business. The beauty of all this is that I wrote the county a rent check and I was in business, literally. I made profit in the first month.”

Burtner learned the craft by taking two classes from Rogers at the park, but he believes hot metal is in his blood.

“I came from a steel family. My dad was from Western Pennsylvania. I’ve worked with my hands my whole life, but I never had the opportunity to do this,” Burtner said. “I couldn’t tell you where to find a blacksmith in New Jersey.”

Blacksmithing nearly died out as an art after World War II, largely because the people who practiced it as a trade shifted over to welding. It was a growth economy and it wasn’t a tad sentimental. Luckily, though, the heart of Appalachia beats strong, and in the late 1960s, blackmithing schools began to pop up to preserve the craft.

The Appalachian Blacksmith’s Association is a good resource for the history of the craft and also publishes a list of schools where you can learn.

In Jackson County, you can learn from a variety of smiths working at different levels of the craft. Burtner teaches intro classes at the JCGEP. Brock Martin teaches knife-making there and at Calerin Forge, where I’m learning.

For Burtner, the chance to tap into his own cultural legacy and operate a small business is a calling.

“Some people say it’s genetic, that you’re a hot metal man or you’re not,” Burtner said. “I guess I am. I’ve never been especially afraid of heat. Yeah, I’ve burned myself, of course. I don’t know… maybe it’s in my blood.”

As for me… I guess I’m an interloper for now, trying to smash some steel together to make a knife with an organic pattern in the blade. If you want to see what Damascus knives look like when executed by a master, check out some of these images at the Canadian Knifemakers Guild.