Having stemmed from a strong and well-populated family tree of metal workers, I half-expected the spirits of my ancestors to whisper instructions during my metal-forging class at the Drunken Smithy.
Though I had some good instincts, the Napoli millwrights and boilermakers of yore remained decidedly silent. My higher goal then became not to scald my lily-white hands.
The Drunken Smithy, a.k.a. Eitri Jones, also has steelworkers in his lineage.
Jones grew up playing in scrap metal yards in western Pennsylvania. His education and chemistry background made him a natural for demonstrating blacksmithing at various festivals and the Renaissance Faire, as well as teaching weapons forging in his Palmyra workshop.
The workshop lies within whistling distance from the railroad tracks in downtown Palmyra. Listening to the whirring and huffing of trains going by adds to the ambience. The basement-level workshop vents its heat upward, making breathable the jeans and steel-toed boots, with added sweaty safety layers of gloves, goggles and masks.
While safety is paramount, so is common sense, with a little humor to wash it down. Completely clad in regulation safety gear, Jones said, “If you see me wearing my gloves, it’s because I got complacent and recently burned myself.”
Like most of the guys in the class, I chose to draw out a railroad spike into a knife. It looked like the simplest of the beginner projects, and I wanted an excuse to use the verb “brandish.” My husband George chose to make an axe from a template that already had an unrefined axe shape to it.
Of the 7:1 male-to-female ratio in the workshop, Jones said, “Typically, we have more females in the class. We’ve even had some bachelorette parties here.”
Jones’ assistant, Red Chandler, had a grandfather who was a farrier, and she used to give demonstrations in Colonial Williamsburg. “Now I make swords,” she said, helping the one sword-forger in our class find room in the communal forge furnace.
Because metal must be orange-hot in order to reshape it, we spent almost two hours of the class alternately heating the metal and pounding it out, heating the metal and pounding it out. The pounding wasn’t anything like hammering a nail.
I flexed both arms, raising a sledgehammer above my head, forcing use of muscles unused since high school band camp. And I had to get as many strikes as I could with only a short window of orange metal time. As soon as the metal turned reddish black, back into the furnace it went.
“If you pound the metal, and it’s not hot enough, it could break off,” Chandler said.
While my metal was reheating, we pulled George’s axe out of the furnace. I felt like a medieval dentist learning how to handle the lava-hot metal with blacksmith tongs. I held the metal to the surface of the anvil while he hammered. It remains the only anvil I have seen outside of a Looney Tunes cartoon.
Four metal shards heated to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit chipped off the spike’s surface, sizzled through my arm hair, and branded my forearms like a badge of honor. If those teeny blisters were still there, I would be pointing to them as proof that I’m a self-proclaimed warrior princess.
In truth, I cheated a little. Using the hydraulic hammer shortened the hand-pounding time by probably half. If we waited on my arm strength to finish the flattening process, we would still be there.
A moment converged when our weapons were flat and thin enough, our arms too rubbery to continue, and the scent of meat wafted under our noses. The gathering space for break time included one forge furnace dedicated to roasting hot dogs on metal rods.
Jones’ apprentice Reuben set out a fetch-your-own, family-style picnic dinner on a rustic table. I washed my hands in the industrial sink and ripped off a paper towel to create a makeshift paper plate. We were also invited to grab a home-brewed something out of the cooler.
We spent the second half of class sanding and grinding the rough edges. We stood side-by-side along an impressive row of 10 sanders, each running our blades along the edges, dipping often in water to cool it down. As with sandpaper, rough grit came first, fine grit second. I paused often to inspect my blade. This was for effect only. I had no idea what it should look like when complete. One of the tools, used by Jones alone, was a two-belt sander designed to evenly create double-edged blades.
Once my knife was sharp enough, Chandler dipped it in brine, and it was ready to brandish. But the axe and sword, made from an iron-carbon alloy, required tempering for strengthening. The metals were heated to between 400 and 700 degrees then dipped (or quenched) in oil. While George dipped orange-hot metal into a bucket of oil, I held my breath and scanned for emergency exits.
Chandler said, “If it catches fire, just stir and agitate it until the fire goes out.”
Catch fire it did, and the fire dissipated with a little stirring, just as she said in her tone of “nothing to see here.”
At the end of the evening, the two women in the class finished the final sharpening of the weapons. (Truth: Chandler sharpened five knives, an axe and a sword in the time it took me to finish my own knife.)
The men convened in the break area to sit in rocking chairs, listen to Celtic music, finish their drinks, and throw axes at a target. On my second axe throw—ever—I hit the business card and won a prize.
Don’t be too impressed, though. My first throw hit the ceiling. This likely caused the spirits of my ancestors to smack their palms to their foreheads. But I am hopeful that my first hand-forged weapon made them proud.
The Drunken Smithy is located at 61 W. Front St., Palmyra. For more information, call 717-448-5911 or visit www.drunkensmithy.com or his Facebook page.