Precise Imprecision:
What???? This isn’t about Ying and Yang, not all so long ago I was used to working in very precise measurements. I was, as Peter Ross (Past Master Blacksmith, Colonial Williamsburg) puts it, in a “Machine Mentality”. I have since then come to understand and respect to a greater degree of what he calls the “Hand Mentality”. I did not realize until I actually read Peter’s 1998 speech how much of an impact he actually has had on the way that I think about Blacksmithing and reproducing 18th C. cannon carriages. I only read his speech about 1-1/2 weeks ago. I have been acquainted with Peter since 1999 when I thought all I needed was to make Strake Nails for the carriages. Things have changed since then.

           Elevation Plate Hinge French Gribeauval Carriage, 18th C.

I have had several of my fellow blacksmith enthusiasts laugh at me because I talk about the metal telling you what it wants to be. Well sometimes in an artistic manner that is what happens and I will shape a piece until it looks good or I start to do something and decide that it looks better, rougher, etc. Not having had to perform repetitive tasks at the anvil I probably lost out on many nuances of hand work. I developed many bad habits and wrong thinking in the early years. In truth, I never thought that Blacksmithing was going to be the major component of my job, nor did the people that hired me. So I started out thinking one thing and ended up with a very different outcome. Sounds familiar.
The major part of my employment involves making 18thCentury Cannon Carriages for Colonial National Historical Park. I rebuild entire carriages, woodwork, wheelwrighting and blacksmithing. When I first started to build these carriages I was using a machinist rule, you know the ones marked in Hundreds! Well the old books were quite specific about the sizes, in decimals to the Thousandth. That standard was very hard to meet considering wood moves more than a Hundredth of an inch in high humidity like we have during the summer months in Virginia. Not the least of which those little lines were and still are getting harder to read. I pressed on with the belief that the men who did this in the 18th C. had nowhere near the capability that we do today and if they could do it, I could do it! I fought this process for several years until around 2004-2005. During my continuing research of carriages and building processes I kept running across references to 1/64” as an error allowance in blacksmithing and wheelwrighting. I acquiesced; this made life so much easier, at least now I did not feel like I was being tested at every turn. I also started to reevaluate the entire process that I developed to building carriages. They are not mass produced so why would I try to make them that way. Hmmm once again. Keep in mind that I am on occasion talking to Peter Ross, Ken Schwarz and Shel Browder of CW. All of whom have formidable knowledge on 18th C. blacksmithing and the processes that they used during that period.
It is about this time I think I started to change my attitude about blacksmithing and this impacted the way that I approached wheelwrighting and the building of the carriage trail. I did change to a certain degree, but I was still really looking at a mass production process. If I cut all my parts for several carriages in advance then it would surely save me time. Not so fast. Cannon tubes are not all the same, even if the books say so, even if they are reproductions, i.e. trunnions which are oblong vice round. The fact remains that there are variances and they will affect the work you do, much to your displeasure. But my focus here is really about the changes to my blacksmithing processes.
Since 2004-2005 I find that I do more work at the anvil than ever before. I still use arc welding, A/O torch, etc. but if it can be done at the anvil while I have the fire going I prefer to do it there. That includes punching, slitting and drifting. Those skills really didn’t exist to me and only after 2005 did I really start to perform them. Drill it, ream it, weld it, etc. was the order of the day. What I began to discover is that in many cases it is faster for me to do it at the anvil. Those times it is not or time constraints require, I still have the option to use a saw, drill or brush. I do so with the understanding that the piece will never look like it would if I did the work at the anvil. It just doesn’t. Try an experiment and you will see it for yourself. While I have a long way to go to make something as nice as Peter Ross and most of the Smiths I have learned from I take comfort knowing that my efforts have lead to small improvements. I am not of the “Hand Mentality” uniformly nor naturally, but I think I understand it and use it as a tool to make items look more beautiful.
Having given Peter’s speech some thought over the past week I would have to say that I have benefited more than I realized from being exposed to him and CW’s staff in particular. That exposure has brought me closer to or at least understanding the “Hand Mentality”.
So do you, do I really need to use that cutoff saw?
I encourage you to read Peter Ross’ Keynote speech and please share your thoughts on it.
See ya at the Forge!
Note: The elevation plate hinge has both hand and machine work visible in it.


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