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I Forge Iron

Taking over a demonstration shop. Questions to be asked...

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Apologies for the rambling first post. I am not sure how to ask this quesiton, so i figure itd be better to provide as much info as i know up front to help you answer my questions, and also help me figure out things that im not even aware of to ask about or relay.

For the last couple years ive been volunteering at a local Historical/heritage farm that has a functioning blacksmith shop. A forge, couple anvils, some leg vises, etc; the tools necessary to run a blacksmith shop. The purpose of the heritage farm, and by extension the blacksmith shop, is to showcase life and farming at the turn of the 20th century. The focus being life on a farm between the years of 1890 thru 1940s, with greater emphasis on dairy farming and the transition of farming equipment throughout the years. The farm itself was a family farm; the family well known in the local community. About 15 years ago or so, the family farm was converted into a local community heritage farm, and since then, the powers that be have been using the site to help preserve local farming history.

After the site was established, a couple of guys (who's names i dont remember) decided that having a blacksmith shop on the premise would help contribute to the furtherance of historical knowledge and instruction. They started up the shop, in keeping with the scope of the heritage farm itself and the year setting. A new guy came along, name's Al, who helped build up and increase the size of the blacksmith shop. He used his own money to purchase forges, anvils, tools, accessories to ensure the success of the shop.

Two years ago, i happened to be driving past the place, saw the "open" sign, and decided to stop and check things out. (Played a prank on Al and the other smith who was forging by asking if i could try "that hammer thingy". They let me, and two minutes after swinging the hammer they called me on it. we had a good laugh). Talked to Al, and he invited me to start hammering with them on friday's during the summer time. I agreed and started showing up. 

Speed up to last month. Al asks me "Hey, I'm getting old and i want you to take over the shop. Want to do it?"

I told Al that i would take over....

but now i am sitting here trying to figure out what i just got myself into.

I understand why he asked me. Im young, i have an active interest in blacksmithing, i own my own shop, and most importantly, i can swing the hammer without hurting myself.

Now that we're in the process of closing up the shop for the winter, i am starting to give thought to next year when we can open the heritage shop again. The realization that i have agreed to run a shop that is a part of a historical site is starting to set in. And it dawns on me that i have no idea on how to do this. Sure, i have my own shop. But im not at the point where i even sell anything. I just make stuff for my family and friends, with the idea that one day i will be good enough to sell items. But running a heritage shop? i dont know.

So here is the point where i do two things: 1) i posit my understanding of the situation, what i consider to be goals for the shop, ask questions and 2) you, the helpful reader, respond, give advice, and ask me questions to help me figure some things out.

Here's what i know: The shop is designed to "replicate" the time frame between 1890s to 1940s. Granted, we do use electricity for indoor lighting and some power tools (band saw, bench grinder, a welder), for the most part, it's still human powered. We have a few anvils, a couple small and a large 200lb arm and hammer anvil that was donated by one of the board members. We have tongs of various types, couple large coal forges and several rivet forges. Some hand cranked blowers...i think im just rambling. you get the idea. it is set up, and runs.

We are in the process of getting a new building that will be turned into a new blacksmith shop, as the current shop is an old granary building that the board wishes to convert back to a granary. The "new" building is 26x40ft, and is being moved from one old farm about 2 miles down the road to the heritage farm property in the next couple weeks. Since I took over the shop, I am the guy who get's to design the floor layout of the new shop, but also plan for an eventual woodshop to be housed in the same building.

The shop doesnt make any money. Well, i shouldnt say that. The shop doesnt turn a profit. We do receive donations from the random people who stop and watch us work, and sometimes we will get up to $40 for our efforts. I know this is something that needs to change, and will be discussed further down.

Al provided 90% of all the items in the shop, and has officially donated all items to the shop and the farm. 

Thoughts and concerns:

one of the concerns that i have is properly running a historical blacksmith shop. I'm not going to try to say that this is a super-awesome-historically accurate blacksmith shop, similar in style to the Colonial Williamsburg shop. But for the most part, from my perspective, it's there. But, since ive never done this before, are there some things I need to be aware of that, well, im not aware of LOL. I know we arent going to play dress up and wear period accurate clothing; beyond that, im not sure what to consider.

Making money: I got into a conversation with another blacksmith who volunteers at another historical site in the next county over. He has posited the following for me "Is the shop going to be self sustaining, or will it rely upon the main farm for monies to keep it operational?" i understand what he means, will the shop make its own product, and provide classes, making money so that it can be self-reliant, or will it have to rely upon the main farm for money to keep the shop running. And, i am not sure of how to go about figuring this out so that i can make a case to the heritage board for one way or the other.

projects: Should i be doing a seasonal project that involves all the smiths, or just leave it to each individual smith to do his own thing? for the record, it's just me, and another guy who really just shows up for the camaraderie and the ability to get out of the house. 

Demonstrations: Im the one who ends up doing the demonstrations when we have the random visitor, so i talk to people and am able to give a decent demonstration. But when i do the demonstration, i always feel like it's lacking something. That i am winging it. Should i have some sort of routine that i show people? or something else? 


i know there is more, but i dont know enough about this topic to properly ask. Please feel free to ask me questions to help me figure out a scope and task for this shop.


Thanks for the help.

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How far was that farm from the nearest commercial blacksmith's shop?  My wife was involved with an 1860's-1880's historical farm in Ohio.  They had a small forge for DIY repairs but the farm used to take everything big to the blacksmith's shop 2 miles down the road.  This was a substantial farm too!

Now sources: You have to have a copy of Practical Blacksmithing by Richardson, ed;  it is a collection of articles from a blacksmithing journal from 1889, 1890, 1891,  Give you a good idea about what smiths were doing and how at that time period.

I'd also suggest one of the old manuals like "Farm Shop Practice" Mack M Jones published 1939.   Books are out there telling you how it was done and how it was *supposed* to be done.

I'd get a set of the Sears Roebuck catalogs from back then; (I currently have the 1897, 1905 and 1908 reprints; you can rapidly see where a farm might not need a smith like they used to  earlier! )

DO YOUR RESEARCH!   Winter is a good time to go through your sources TAKE NOTES!  What did they expect a farm shop to handle and what was more commercial?  Now during the Great Depression a farm shop might expand into doing more as folks might not be able to pay for things to be made and repaired---(or pay might be in kind; My great grandfather was the smith in a small rural ozark hill town; probably a couple of hundred people, during the Great Depression. Well when he died he owned 960  acres of land.  I suspect a lot of that was payment in kind that he consolidated.  I have 13 acres of it through my Mother!)

One of the big issues with historical stuff is people wanting too much stuff making it ahistorical in the long run. (I have way more anvils than a rural commercial shop would 100 years ago!)

As for demos: one type is actually making things for the farm in a historical manner.  Another is making things on commission in a historical manner.  A third is making modern things for yourself or others and lastly making trinkets and items to sell to support the smithy.  What is the goal of the smithy?  Will you be wearing bib overalls and a traditional work shirt---(Look at what Sears  Roebuck was selling!)  Will you be wearing what you wear working in your shop nowadays?

Will you be presenting in first person or third?

Might check out "Time machines : the world of living history" / Jay Anderson.  Your local public library can ILL it if they don't have a copy.

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A couple of thoughts:

First, how closely tied to the farm museum is the blacksmith shop?  Is it part of the operations of the museum or is it independent and just co-located on the property?  If the latter, what agreement is there?  If the former, what are the expectations of the museum director for this part of his or her operation.

Second, how is your budget handled?  Do you have a budget from the museum to pay for things like coal and other supplies or does it come out of your pocket?

Third, what about insurance?  Who is responsible if you, another museum employee/volunteer, or a visitor gets hurt? This is not a minor consideration.  A kid getting a spark in his or her eye during a demonstration could result in some serous consequences. 

Fourth, who gets to make decisions about the shop such as acquisition or sale of tools or equipment?  You? The museum director? The museum board?  The county or town if the museum is owned by them? 

You need to know if the museum expects you to produce items for sale in the gift shop if there is one and who gets profits from the sale?  You? The shop? The museum?  If you have a budget given you by the museum it will probably be the last option.  If this is the case how much production is expected/required?

You also need to know how many hours and weekends the shop is expected to be open.

Classes are similar to items for sale.  Who gets the proceeds?  Who many classes are expected?

Does the museum expect you to produce things for historically accurate repairs and reconstructions?  Since the portrayed period is later than colonial times you probably are not expected to produce X hundred hand forged nails per year for construction.  However, you might be expected to fit a steel tire to a wooden wheel or make or repair wagon fittings.

You may need to evaluate the inventory of tools and how they are to be best utilized.  How many work stations do you want in the new shop?  Maybe you have more of something than you need and the excess could be disposed of to acquire something you do need.

I suggest that you have a long and sincere talk with the museum director about each of your expectations and goals.  Your predecessor may have done things pretty informally but you need to be professional about this.  And everything should be put into writing.  No informal understandings and agreements.  Memories are imperfect and opinions and people may change.

This may be a bigger undertaking than you thought at first but you need to go into it with your eyes open and a complete understanding of what you are getting yourself into.  All decisions need to be informed decisions.

Basically, you need a game/business plan.  Coming up with this will be a major project.  Don't be shy about asking us for advice or comments.  There is a wealth of experience here, life, legal, financial, business, educational, etc. besides how to get iron hot and then hit it.

Finally, you need to decide how long you want to commit for?  1 year? 5 years? Until you are "old?"  Until it is no longer fun?

"By hammer and hand all arts do stand."

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Goodness, historic is covered as is legal. Good.

My first move would be to sit down with Al and find out how he ran the shop. Prep, materials, etc. everything you can pump the gentleman for. Maybe even get him to help in the shop for a while until you get your feet o the ground.

You'll need to divide demos by period. It's not very realistic for a 1890 smithy to be doing 1940 work simultaneously. Hmm? That's good though, you can announce particular periods like it's an event.

Next week it's 1890s day!! Learn how a moldboard plow was ironed! Watch the blacksmith forge a drop pin hitch for a cargo wagon! Ironed a log sledge. etc. etc. 

Then it's 1900s day!! Learn how the blacksmith adjusted to using mild steel rather than wrought iron! and you can demonstrate the differences in: material, forging techniques and uses. The equipment towed by a steam tractor was WAY different than horse drawn the differences in tools and comparisons to earlier. 

When the shop gains more volunteers you can assign each a different decade and cover more. As the host you can arrange say 1890 and 1920 next to each other and compare the tools, work, jobs, etc. directly in real time. 

And so on. 

Research is going to be a major part of the job.

Do NOT offer to do this out of your own pocket unless you have the disposable income. If you can afford it you can spend time and take classes at other historical blacksmith shops and learn some specifics. 

There is a museum about 5 miles from me. I put on a blacksmith demonstration at an annual event, "Art On Fire" by name. The curator approaches me every year to do demonstrations for the museum. I was willing until he started lining out where I would leave my equipment and told me I donated coal and steel but could have 25% of anything that sells in the gift shop or 50% of what I sell in person. I'm NOT donating my tools, time and covering materials!

Same for the museum in downtown Wasilla. 

My advice is use their equipment, tools and materials unless you don't mind giving yours away. You'd get a tax deduction though. 

Like George says, get it in writing and make sure they have insurance. I wouldn't like sharing blacksmithing and wood working in the same building. If someone it was common in historical periods suggest they find out how often such operations burned to the ground. 

This is just off the top of my head. Other than doing demos occasionally I don't have any experience in the situation you're getting into. It'd be a ball once you get things smoothed out and running.

Frosty The Lucky.

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