I like to live by the premise that experiences are better than things, and birthdays are a great opportunity to put my money where my mouth is and find something fun as a present. With that in mind, this post is all about a blacksmith experience day I bought for my husband for his birthday earlier this year, in which we spent time forging our own knives.
We had actually come across a blacksmith offering paid-for-experience-days at a Christmas market at the end of last year, which is what planted the seed; and on doing some research online I found Oldfield Forge in Herefordshire offered a whole host of experiences. Oldfield Forge is a family run blacksmithing company producing bespoke ironmongery for homes and businesses; and the Oldfield Forge Academy is dedicated to passing on the traditional and modern techniques of the forge to others –something we definitely wanted to give a go. Of the options on offer, I purchased two tickets for their knife forging day, a hands-on day that promised us a self-crafted blade by the end of the day.
At £180 each (£150 plus VAT) it was a very expensive day out, but I decided my other half was worth the money and it would be mean to make him go on his own… you know how this works!
The one day knife-making course at Oldfield Forge is designed for both beginners like me as well as those who’ve already tried blacksmithing, and I could immediately see how this was the case when we got started. The day promised to help us discover the fundamentals of knife-making, including learning the traditional techniques involved, and I was so excited to hold my hand-made knife in my – er – hands at the end of the day.
We arrived at the forge at Garway Hill for 9am as per the instructions, and the team wasted no time in getting us started. We were invited into the showroom, which was full of all kinds of beautifully crafted goods including fireside accessories, lamps, curtain poles, swords, and all kinds of other things. It was all very nice and we could have spent a fortune in there. But we were not here to shop, we were to look at the knives and choose the style of blade and handle we were going to attempt to make ourselves. I chose a combination of styles from the ones on display, hoping to end up with something that would feel nice in my hand and be useful for anything an outdoors bushcraft type knife would normally be used for.
From there we headed into the workshop where we were kitted out with a leather apron and (not particularly clear) goggles for our protection. There has been a health and safety briefing at every experience day I’ve been on, but this one was pretty serious. The fact is that we were surrounded by gas, fires, mallets, hot oil, knifes, angle grinders, and all kinds of other scary looking bits and bobs – not paying attention to the rules, the techniques, and the instructions given could genuinely lead to serious injury or worse; probably the most important health and safety briefing I’ve ever been to. Although I have to say, I appreciated the humour, and found that the whole time we were in their charge, the guys at Oldfield Forge found the right combination of seriousness and fun, which meant we weren’t either worried or blaze about what we were doing.
There were seven people on experience days in total, three guys were also doing the one day knife making day and a father and son team were there to forge an axe head (which looked amazing!). There were two or three trained blacksmiths in the workshop at all times, and we had access to instruction and tuition as and when we needed it. There was plenty of space in the workshop – more than one fire per person, with space around each of us to move and work without needing to keep looking over our shoulders for wandering people. After a short demonstration, which made the process of forging our knife handles super quick and easy, we were each given an anvil, lump hammer, and knife-sized rectangle of steel so we could get started.
The process was one of seemingly endless repetition. We put the steel in the furnace until it was red hot and therefore supple, placed it on the anvil, bashed it strategically with a heavy mallet / lump hammer to create the shape we wanted – we had time for about three or four whacks until it cooled down too much to work – and then put it back in the furnace. There was an art to this; you had to leave it in the furnace for long enough but not too long, as the metal can become brittle and simply break a part. My husband found this to his detriment, when his steel split in two; thankfully one of the blacksmith instructors quickly got a new piece of steel to the point he’d reached so he didn’t have to start from scratch.
I initially found the repetition rather frustrating – one hit would create a shape I really liked, the next would undo it and create a bulge or a dint I didn’t. My lack of good technique, I was a complete beginner after all, meant progress was slow, very slow indeed. But after a couple of hours of what felt like random hammer slams, I did start to see the shape of a handle, and started to believe I might actually leave at the end of the day with something that looked like a knife. I can’t deny it, forging a knife is incredibly hard work, but it was also very addictive and became very enjoyable and satisfying – even with blisters forming on my hands from holding the hammer!
We had ordered lunch from the local pub, the Garway Moon Inn, that was delivered to Oldfield Forge at midday, and after three hours of constant bashing and whacking in the super-hot blacksmith workshop, it was a very welcome break. We sat outside to eat our beef and horseradish baguettes with chips, and chatted with our fellow beginner blacksmiths.
After lunch it was time to start on my blade, which involved trying to thin the steel on one edge as much as possible, while creating a shape that was aesthetically pleasing. I had chosen to fashion an outdoorsy kind of knife; I wanted something I could use when camping, the kind of blade you can whittle kindling with (or maybe finish my spoon I started during my GetOutside Challenge last autumn).
Once we were (reasonably) happy with our knife creations, it was time to harden the steel and hone the blade. We were guided through a process of intense heating and rapid cooling, which would make the blade super hard, and then oiling the knife to add some suppleness back to it from breaking. The whole process was hugely fascinating, I felt like I was really learning something about being a blacksmith; allowed to get stuck in and learn by doing rather than watching someone else do the fun and dangerous bits. Next we used an angle grinder to refine the shape and give a nicer edge to the blade, and then a couple of steel spinny things to enhance it even more. (Sorry, you didn’t come here for an accurate description of the forging process, did you?!) All I can say is every step of the process felt authentic – and I can honestly say that the knife I ended up with when I left at around 4pm was the work of my own hands, and that was something quite wonderful.
The day was certainly not cheap, it was a treat to celebrate a special occasion, but it was hugely interesting and personally satisfying day of using our hands (and all our muscles – I ached for days) and doing something creative. I would wholeheartedly recommend this or one of the other experience at Oldfield Forge to anyone interested in giving being a blacksmith a go, we had the ideal level of instruction versus allowing us to get on and create our own knives, and we both left with a good feeling.
I will quite happily admit that I was hoping to leave with a knife that I could use when out camping or for other things, but in reality I would have probably needed two or three more days of hard graft to get to that point. Our knives are more art pieces than gear-cupboard items, but I still love mine. It is certainly unique… it’s not perfect, it’s aren’t even a useful tool (yet), but it is mine and I am proud of it.
Check out the Oldfield Forge website for more information about this and their other blacksmith experiences.