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September 9, 2009 > Blacksmithing skills are alive at Ardenwood

Blacksmithing skills are alive at Ardenwood

By Suzanne Ortt
Photos By William Mancebo

Walk the trail through Ardenwood Historic Farm, partake of bygone days, and you will discover, next to the equipment shed, the Ardenwood Forge. Here you will find Blacksmith Scott Thomas.

The fifth in the farm's succession of blacksmiths, Scott took a rather circuitous route to reaching this position. Born and raised in Newark, his early years focused on school and scouting. Horses were a big part of his life since childhood. Curious about horseshoeing, he learned to be a farrier (a horseshoer) at a trade school in Bishop, California. More than that, he learned the basics of blacksmithing. Eventually, with his appeal for history and the desire to make more than just horseshoes, he expanded into general blacksmithing. His learning included reading reprints of old blacksmithing texts and lots of practice.

At the forge, you can see this trade in action. Blacksmithing, an ancient craft, reached its peak in the Middle Ages. Today it exists as it has for more than 3000 years. In medieval times, a blacksmith was the hub of a community. From each anvil and forge, hammer and tongs, emerged tools, armor, cookware, anchors, and the traditional horseshoes.

Throughout history, smiths impacted significant events. These metal workers forged the anchors for Christopher Columbus' sailing ships. Smiths forged the chain across the Hudson River to block the British fleet. George Washington went to the "Valley of the Forges" to have his equipment and arms repaired. In a typical cycle, the Industrial Age's expansion caused blacksmithing to dwindle. Beginning in the 20th century however, craftsmen began learning the trade. Blacksmithing has come full circle and is popular again.

In 1998, a fellow farrier told Scott that Ardenwood was seeking a resident blacksmith. Scott pursued this possibility and his career at Ardenwood began. Now in view of the public, he and his assistants make tools, reforge machine parts, and create ornamental objects and forge historical reproductions of iron objects from the Roman period to the American Civil War. Scott's main love is making functional items, such as hammers and other small utilitarian items. Garden gates and iron tables are in his repertoire. He enjoys making parts for motorcycles and antique cars. Custom work and restoration are major portions of this business.

When I contacted Scott for the interview, I interrupted him making a pair of pliers in the European medieval style. A custom design for a specific customer, this involves heating the metal and shaping it with a hammer. (The process is known as forging). Scott found a replica in an old woodcut and, based on the details shown and the customer's specifications, determined the size and shape. Old pictures and woodcuts provide much incentive for him.

Scott is the only fulltime traditional blacksmith in the Bay Area. Other metal workers are in the area but use modern tools and methods. Because 95 percent of his work is done by hand, he restricts his versatile work to small quantities. If a customer needs 200 hammers, Scott refers him elsewhere. He works with customers on desired designs, besides making the products and marketing them. Primarily, Ardenwood Forge is a public display business. Scott has the temperament to concentrate on his work while responding to the public's questions and open admiration. He also is the primary presenter of the interpretative programs. Visit the forge and get a fascinating glimpse into the olden days.

Ardenwood Forge is open for public demonstrations 10 a.m. - 4 p.m., Thursday, Friday, and Sunday. Additional days are certain Saturdays and for special events. Call (510) 790-9060 for more information or Historic Farm is located at 34600 Ardenwood Boulevard in Fremont.

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