The anvil under which Mathew Burnett’s hammer hovers came from Ohio, built in the early 1930s. Turns out to be the newest anvil in this barn.
Nothing about blacksmithing smacks of the current. Vases of Ancient Greece depict a man heating iron in an oven, another fellow working the bellows. Civilizations through the millennia have evidence of metal shaping forged by craftsmen.
An expectation might come that this age-old enterprise has evolved with modern methods.
In truth … not really.
The work of blacksmiths remains that of heating metal and hammering it, then repeating. It combines force and finesse. It requires practiced strokes with a blunt instrument. Also, a fire that raises steel’s temperature beyond 1,500 degrees and a bucket of water to tame the heat.
For a blacksmith, the basics have not changed.
The young blood of this endeavor, Burnett does not mind.
At 28, an interest in blacksmithing has occupied more than half his life. Burnett saw a demonstration at the Kansas City Renaissance Festival. He was 13 and intrigued.
“I guess for the lack of a better word, there’s something kind of magical about being able to heat up a piece of steel and then hammer it into different shapes, make different things out of a raw piece of steel or even a piece of steel that’s been something else,” he says.
Burnett coaxed his father into attending with him a couple of blacksmithing classes. They learned how to work the forge, to utilize all the tools, to study time-honored techniques.
The young student knew he could look back on this early exposure in two ways, with excitement or as a waste of time. Matthew chose the former.
The next year, he joined the Blacksmith Association of Missouri, an organization formed during a “hammer-in” in 1983. Blacksmiths hoped to preserve their art and craft. In Burnett, they found a disciple.
He milked them for information, soaked up every demonstration. Later, Burnett would be the one demonstrating, at local festivals and even the Missouri State Fair.
Aside from the fact that so few exist, it seemed a logical extension of this interest that Burnett would last year found the Missouri School of Blacksmithing.
In a barn on land his family has worked for four generations near Kidder, Missouri, student forging stations stand in a row, anvils, tongs and other tools at the ready.
Burnett offers courses for beginners (“having never lit a fire or hit hot steel”) and up through those with advanced proficiency (forge welding, anyone?). He got the idea by looking around the state and finding little in the way of formal teaching of the blacksmith trade.
“I think I’ve got a talent for teaching, and I want to pass this on. Hopefully, I can give them some good, quality instruction,” he says.
The blacksmith suggests a pair of safety goggles and hearing protection before handing over a hammer. A rudimentary project, a wall hook, begins with a three-eighth-inch square steel rod, pounded down to one tapered end. Heat, then hammer. Heat, then hammer. Sounds brutish, but it requires some touch.
“If you’re able to hit with the hammer exactly where you want to hit and the way you want to hit it, you’re able to work pretty quickly and efficiently,” Burnett says.
Subtlety comes in handy later in executing a rat-tail end on the hook. When that’s done, the middle section of the piece must be heated in the forge (the coal chunks come from northeastern Oklahoma) without the thinner end melting. A dip of the tip in water produces a minor hiss, and the red glows only higher up the piece.
Blacksmithing had a fallow period, but its practitioners evolved into architectural work, stair railings, decorative household items, even sculpture. Burnett has a number of pieces in motion, assorted furnishings using mortise and tenon and other traditional forms of joinery.
“An eye for design and art does come in as part of your work and the work of others,” he says, “what works aesthetically and what doesn’t.”
On an anvil nearly 60 years older than he is, Burnett works quickly, moving back and forth to his forge, reaching for tools mostly made in this barn. He wants to pass along his knowledge, another generation bringing vitality to a craft thought confined to the past.
The Missouri School of Blacksmithing, founded and operated by Matthew Burnett, is located near Kidder, Missouri, about nine miles southeast of Cameron. For information, call 816-575-2798.