What dictates when a forging is finished and who inspired you?
TL,DR: "Finished” varies based on the service of the item, and its exposure/surroundings. Minimal tooling smiths like Petrila, Ross, Aspery, Brazeal, Ahman, Taylor are inspiring.
I have more or less always considered myself a bit of a hack. I think this stems in large part from having been raised by perfectionists, one an amateur cabinetmaker, and the other a retired machinist. It’s daunting to look at some of the things you see made by experienced people at the peak of their skill, and it’s easy to think that you’ll never be able to get to that level of quality. The tooling and fixturing required (or at least collected) can make your head spin too (I can’t do that job without this special $$$ widget…)
Having been educated as an engineer can be also be ruinous, because you spend years learning how things fail, and spend a lot of time learning how to strip away what isn’t required in a design for strength and utility, and then adding back things to meet various codes and criteria that aren’t necessarily driven solely by function. Also, little or no attention is given to form. Function is mandatory, followed by cost and manufacturability, and form is a distant third concern. This is not to say that a spare, utilitarian design cannot be beautiful, it can. It just doesn’t often happen.
So, anyway, I did become a marginally competent metal and woodworker, though I am no toolroom machinist, nor cabinetmaker. I never will be either, as that’s not my trade.
Blacksmithing, though, is not something that I grew up with. I did see a lot of wrought iron growing up outside of NYC, and in various museums. What excites me about wrought work is that depending on the job, the finish level varies greatly, and so does the skill level required. There is a banded chest in the Chicago art museum from the 1500’s that looks just terrible. But, for the job it needed to do, someone thought it was finished. Seeing something like this venerated in an art museum is encouraging to a lot of newer smiths. You think, “I could make that.” And you’re probably right. It doesn’t take too much practice to make a decently fair curve, and penny scrolls and leaves aren’t too onerous either.
Now skip ahead a few centuries to the 17th. Same Chicago Museum. This work is inconceivable. Forged, filed, sawn, engraved, pierced, sanded, polished. Oh, and a ton of springs and small items heat treated, then polished. This isn’t a door lock, it’s a functional sculpture made by someone(s) who did nothing else. I’ll never get here. Not only could I not get to this level, I don’t care to. I can’t devote enough hours over a long enough period of time to learn how to do this level of work competently. Additionally, there are probably only a handful of people on the Earth who would pay someone a living wage to make something like this. What I’m saying is, this is not something that should be held up as the ideal standard for a forged product in the 21st century.
Here’s a staircase and a pair of grilles (same museum; can you tell I’ve been to Chicago recently?) Late 19th-early 20th centuries. Though under some paint, you can tell that they’re all hand made, and well. You can see no two pairs of the components are exactly alike, but this is up close. From the intended viewing distance of several feet, you cannot tell. The parts form a pleasing whole, and any flaws disappear.
The white grille spent its life outside, and you can see some signs of that. The black grille and the staircase, though, they’re inside, and always have been, so they look as they did when they left the shop. You can see the welds on the stair rail scrolls, and you can also see the differences from element to element, probably as they were tweaked to fill the available cell at final fit-up and assembly. I think that’s OK, though. The slight irregularities, as viewed by the user, form a more organic form, giving some life to the metal. Look at a grille that was laser cut sometime with what should be an organic pattern to it. Unless done quite well, you’ll feel something isn’t quite right. It’s static, no sense of movement…
These are items that I, a first-year learning smith, do not have the ability to make right now. But, I think I could make them with a bit of practice and a little bit more learning. This level of fit and finish is accessible by the mere mortal backyard tinkerer, without massive tooling and expense, nor a lifetime of practice. Some patience and planning, to be sure. I think this level of work is pretty close to optimal in terms of finish and consistency. It is "good enough". Recall that in Islamic art, for example, it considered an affront to make a perfect pattern. Signs of the human hand and imperfections are included deliberately by the artist.
I guess one of the points I’m trying to make, is that “finished” is subjective and qualitative. All the things pictured here were bought and paid for, by presumably happy customers, and have been appreciated for centuries. Different things, different jobs, different standards. All finished, though.
For me personally, as a blacksmith, the items that I find most inspirational are the ones that are “accessible” in the sense that I can understand how they were made, and that “I” could make them, with a reasonable amount of time and patience. Your work, Peter Ross’, Mark Apery’s, Brian Brazeal's, Torbjorn Ahman's, and Rowan Taylor's are very inspirational. You’re all working at a very high level of skill, but there is no really good reason preventing me from working at the same level of quality if I choose to put in the time. Also heartening to the beginning smith is the fact that most of the listed smiths do amazing work with a minimal number of tools; very important to the person just getting going.
In the meantime, at my own skill level, I can make useful things, though they will have scale marks and errant hammer dings. For most common forged items, it’s not like a machined part where it’s within tolerance or it is scrap. There's a lot more leeway if you're willing to accept less than perfection in your own work. I'll also accidentally produce something nice looking from time to time as I learn and improve...
Regarding your door handles, the large one would be splendid on the front door of a colonial Cape, and the small one would be very appropriate on an outbuilding, or a less visible door or cabinet. You know, pride of place, commensurate with skill required and effort invested. That Suffolk latch just wouldn't make any sense on a chicken coop or a toolshed, even if you were unusually wealthy.
As for the hammers, there isn’t any reason in the world Big Blu (and other manufacturers…) couldn’t have used a flatter on the finishing pass and cleaned up the vast majority of the tooling marks. I don’t find it appealing; it looks unfinished to me. Other people will go out of their way to seek out such a finish. No accounting for taste. That said though, I forged a hold-fast for the spare tire under a friend’s car. It’s not pretty, it’s not filed, it’s not painted. It’s covered in fire scale. But, nobody is likely to see it between now and when it gets chewed up to be made into a new car. I thought it was an appropriate level of finish for the job and exposure (and compensation: none).