This interview was conducted August 6, between our first and second quarterly releases.
So there we were, in a small, southern Connecticut town, thoroughly confused as to where we needed to go next and who we had to talk to.
Let me explain.
Leading up to our literary debut, we received a submission from a Charles Anderson, which included dozens of pictures of hand forged knives and hooks. We found out that he was not only interested in having his work shown in The Slag Review, and had made all these pieces himself, but he was only sixteen. Rather than just publishing some pictures, of his creations, we decided that we needed to show him to our readers. We couldn’t believe it—we had so many questions about who Charles was, and what he was doing, that we couldn’t wait to interview him. Luckily, a town fair was coming up in August that allowed us to witness Charles at his forge firsthand, which is how we found ourselves here.
When the date came, we wandered around the town’s fair, which was put on by the local Historical Society. We passed a one-room schoolhouse, several barns, sheep being shorn, until we saw an old man dressed in colonial attire. We thought he might know where Charles was, and so we waited behind the group listening to him explain the ancient farming equipment. We still hadn’t gone over what we were going to ask him.
Of course, when we heard the clang of metal on metal ringing from up the hill, we knew where we needed to go.
Soon we were face to face with the blacksmith and his forge. It was brick and mortar, and roared while Charles held the metal under piles of ash and char. The forge’s mouth opened wide, just above waist-height, and soot blasted away from the fan, up and out the chimney.
It was the most impressive forge we had seen, mostly because the one we had built out of fire brick had crumbled after our first use. Here was something real, I thought. Of course, we still had no idea what to do.
“So,” I said, “We’re gonna check it out real quick, let him know who we are, and ask him…things, I guess? I don’t know, should we just…jump in?”
“Yeah, the forge looks cozy-I’m sure you’ll be fine,” Tom laughed.
“Ok, but really.” We stood there for a bit longer. It seemed like Charles’ father was explaining things as tourists walked up, and his son focused on his work.
“It seems like you’d lose a lot of heat in this forge,” I noticed, trying to say something that sounded like a witty observation. Charles had pulled the rod out of the fire, and was hammering it out on the anvil again. As there were tourists, and people at work, it seemed like we could barely talk above a whisper. Especially since we didn’t know how to introduce ourselves.
“Well,” Tom said, “you don’t need to bring it to as hot a temperature as we’ve been doing, because he’s forging, not doing melting or casting.”
Therese had disappeared while we were waiting, and as she came back she said, “I want to point out that the old guy we met down there—his name is Jerry.”
“Thanks for finding that out for us,” Tom said.
“That’ll end up being important.”
“This is the kind of investigative reporting we’re looking for.”
She laughed and said, “Apparently he runs this whole thing.”
“Yeah, I mean, he seems like the kind of person who’d have a shady past and be in charge of things you wouldn’t expect,” Tom said. Therese and I had been holding in our laughter, still aware of the quiet that the forge seemed to demand.
“Well,” I said, “I think you’re bringing that part to it—the whole shady past thing.”
“Oh, I’m not bringing it, I’m just bringing it up. Jerry brought it.”
“Everyone’s afraid to talk about it, but we’re not,” Therese said.
“You can’t hide anymore, Jerry, we’re onto you.”
And then we kept waiting, watching Charles at work. Tom explained more about the forge. In truth, you don’t lose as much heat as I thought. Yes, some is being lost because it’s open to the air, but with the enormous pile of ash and charcoal glowing in the center, almost all the heat was held in. Charles was working on a leaf at the tip of the rod, and he would bury it deep in the ash, where the embers still glowed and thrived. A young man stood beside Charles, turning a crank-powered blower to keep the flames hot.
“A little bit better than an air mattress pump?” I asked Tom.
“Oh God,” Therese said, “That air mattress pump.”
Tom shrugged. He’s fond of the air mattress pump that he uses in our forge.
After waiting longer, and having a short discussion about sleeping bags, trash, and New York subways as a part of investigative journalism into where not to sleep (we’ll try it for our first anniversary, folks) we finally introduced ourselves. We still had no idea what to do, so I took the lead. I’m no more qualified than anyone else, I’m just more used to embarrassment, it seems. While Charles was busy, we spent time talking with his father, Mr. Anderson.
After small talk, where we were from and how we got there, I mentioned that all three of us had driven separately, and each of us had missed the small green the fair was held in.
“I got to the intersection and thought, ‘They’re shearing sheep there. Wait, that’s probably where we need to be.’”
Mr. Anderson laughed and said, “Yeah, the folks that were here before you guys said they’d been living in town for two years now, and never noticed the park before.”
When I asked how often this event happened, Mr. Anderson paused, and said, “Well, they do this once a year, but Charles comes up here as often as he can. We have to be up here with him because of his age, so our schedules can make it kind of tough, but he’s usually up here once a week, maybe once every two weeks. Sometimes he’ll get a couple days in a row. And of course, we have forges in our backyard.”
It turned out that Charles Anderson, this sixteen-year-old who reached out to us, started forging when he was only thirteen, the same year he earned his fist eagle scout palm (he is working on his third). The forges his father mentioned have all been cobbled together over the years – brake drums, propane forges, a European style forge that Mr. Anderson described as a coffee can with fire bricks, and of course, the coffee can forge itself.
It was strangely surreal, seeing both how similar our tracks were, especially with the coffee can forge, and how far Charles had pushed himself in what most consider an unusual hobby. As Charles continued to work on the leaf, hammering and quenching alternatively, I explained more about us to his father.
“Most of our experience has been in smelting and casting, because we’ll only get a few good heats out of a forge before it falls apart. It’s only been in the past year or so that we’ve been actually putting time and money into this stuff. The coffee can has sufficed for years, to be honest.”
“Cool! Have you done aluminum casts?”
“That’s most of what we’ve been doing, actually,” Tom said. “I’ve mostly been doing ingots, nothing super complex yet. I did a pretty simple, crude ring, actually.”
“And half of a cup,” I reminded him.
What I wanted to know, though, was how Charles got started with all of this. The blacksmith shop, the forge, forging in general, even.
“Well,” his father said, “Charles got set up with this sort of by chance. The old guy I think you ran into is the past president of the historical society, and once a month we do this thing where we all meet for coffee, and we were chatting and he says, ‘You know, I’d like you guys to get involved with the Historical Society,’ and casually went from that to transitioning and talking about Charles making knives in our garage, then the blacksmith shop, when he says to Charles ‘I want you to be the town blacksmith.’”
We all just stared, then laughed. The idea of it all was insane—that there was a town blacksmith at all, that he was so young, and that so many people wanted to support him. And now we were supporting him, too.
We all stood there, watching as Charles continued his work. Mr. Anderson talked about the show Forged in Fire, which none of us had seen. We immediately felt silly: we’re starting a magazine devoted partly to blacksmithing, and we haven’t seen possibly the only show on TV that turns blacksmithing into a competition. That wasn’t the first time I’d wondered how ill-prepared we seemed. It won’t be the last, I’m sure.
“You know,” I said, “It’s funny, but when we see people trying to get better at smithing, they almost always make leaves, knives, and hooks. Maybe there’s a lot to learn from those, or maybe they’re just more approachable. We’re going to be working on railroad spike knives soon, actually. Has Charles done any of those?”
“Yeah, kinda the first thing he did was the railroad spike knives. That and a rebar knife – they’re more difficult, but you can do it. Actually, here’s one of his first ones over here.”
Mr. Anderson walked away and returned with a blackened strip of iron, roughly pounded into the shape of a knife. You could see where the single edge would have been, curving back gently.
“When he first learned how to use this particular forge, he tried a railroad spike just to see what it was like. Cause you know, using a forge at your house is completely different than when you’re using something like this. You have to do a lot of work to keep the forge hot that you don’t on a smaller scale one. This might be the second one he ever did, up at the forge here, just to see what he could do. You’ll see pictures of his other knives too, he takes pictures, did he send you any? You won’t believe what he’s made. He started this one as a custom chef’s knife, and he stopped – he came up and worked on it for one day, maybe five hours to get it to this point, then stopped. Someone else bought a similar knife from him online, and he’s been working on a new one, with a screwdriver built into it, a bottle opener as well.”
Charles’ other activities are as varied and impressive as this knife sounds. In his spare time, Charles fences, plays trombone in the high school band, is active in boy scouts, and has a part-time job as a dishwasher. We’d been getting answers and input from him from time to time as he worked, and as his father told us about the forge set up, his history, and of course the mystery that is Charles’ interest in forging, which his father had never known the catalyst to.
We had decided to wait until he was done with his leaf, but I chose to interrupt instead. You know, how professionals do.
“Charles, how long does it take you to finish a leaf, usually?”
“A leaf? It depends. Where’s the one I did earlier?” he asked his friend, Graham, who stepped away from the crank and handed it to him. “Here, this one took about 15 minutes. The one I’m doing now, I’m really focusing on the stem, because I want to make it into a keychain.”
“Your dad was saying he can’t remember anything being a trigger to get you into this. So I guess – Why blacksmithing?”
“It was mainly YouTube. I saw blacksmiths, and I thought it was cool.”
“That’s fair,” Therese said.
“Yeah, that was us too. So, you said you were 13 when you started?” Tom asked, likely wondering when he got started forging.
“Yeah, I got into it when I was 12, but the first knife I made was when I was 13.”
“So you started right away on knives?”
“Yeah, but I wouldn’t exactly call it forging,” Charles said, laughing as he looked at the railroad spike knife his father had already shown us. “I kinda had some charcoal, and just put my steel into the charcoal, and got it up to a temper color, and then hit it. But it worked.”
“Hey, if it works, it works.”
“We’ve got two big rocks in our backyard that he used as anvils,” Mr. Anderson said as Charles went back to his work on the leaf.
“Yeah, I mean, we’re probably just gonna get a section of I-Beam” I said, then explained, “My stepdad’s an ironworker. The horn on an anvil is important, but we probably won’t have one for a while.”
Soon, other people began to crowd around us again, and Tom, Therese, and I backed off, wandering around the workshop rather than getting in the way of the viewers. As we did, Charles began to open up in a way I hadn’t seen before, speaking to the crowd gathered in front of him. Maybe it was just him working at the anvil, closer to them, that prompted it, or maybe talking to us loosened him up, but either way, he began to explain the process as he brought a chisel down on the fresh iron leaf.
Some of Charles’ work that he submitted to us.
“So now I’m adding the veins to the leaf. You can pass around this one that I already made. And that right there’s the wax I’ll add later, but right now I’m just doing the lines.”
“So are you just making the lines based on where you see it looking best?”
“Basically,” he said. “I don’t always add lines. I usually use this hammer and just kinda tap around to make a nice texture, but I generally do veins on leaves.”
I added my own question, “So, you’ve done work with knives and hooks before, but leaves are a little different, right? They don’t really have a function, so what are these going to be used for?”
“Well, a lot of times it’s simply decorative. People aren’t very attracted to just a simple little hook—they want something that they can talk about.”
“What do you find yourself learning from this process of leaf making?” Therese asked.
“Heat control, mostly, just because they’re so thin. Like, I find myself hitting cold metal a lot, and that’s really bad because it’s more prone to cracking. And it really teaches patience, because it’s so thin so you just have to keep running back and forth.”
Tom asked, “Do you find that heat control is more of a problem with this forge than your ones at home?”
Charles laughed and said, “No, the ones at my house have worse heat control, simply because my blower’s just a hair drier.”
“I was gonna ask if you guys used that,” Therese said as we all laughed, “My favorite moment was when we were making that ring, and the fan stopped working, and Tom’s just like ‘Oh, I guess an air mattress fan isn’t the best thing to use.’”
“So, of course, to replace it I went out and got another air mattress fan.”
Mr. Anderson was laughing hardest of all, and took the moment to tell us a bit more about the hair drier in question. Charles had grabbed it at first, just to test out his new forge, see if everything worked. It was meant to be able to be used in both capacities, really. Except that the heat from Charles’ forge melted the drier to the forge lining, burning it out and making it impossible to use for its original purpose. The best part? It was his sister’s hair drier.
“I mean, she never used it before I did,” Charles said, defending himself.
“That doesn’t matter, and you know it.”
“So, how long did it take you to figure your way around this forge?” Therese asked.
“The hardest part about this one is keeping it hot enough. Because the pot is so deep, it basically needs constant air to keep it up.”
“Can you do this by yourself?”
“I definitely can, but—”
“I’m the help,” his friend Graham said.
“I was gonna say, you look like you’re taking a lot of stress off. You’re killing it right now.”
She was right. Graham not only cranked the air supply, but when it came time to separate the final piece, Charles held it down while Graham struck it with the chisel. We waited patiently, listening as Charles ad Graham worked. Charles would rotate the piece of iron, saying “Hit” or “Light” and then readjusting as Graham came down with the hammer.
“So what are some plans you have in the future?” I asked.
“I’d really like to make some tongs, just so I can have my own tools, and they’re easy to make. Tongs and hammers. Top tools, bottom tools. Eventually, I’d like to become a master bladesmith from ABANA, but that’s a long way down the road.”
“Well, it seems like you’re on the right path. You definitely started earlier than us.”
Charles finished the leaf by pressing it into a ball of wax, which left its well-known black coating, typical of wrought-iron, on the leaf keychain. We were thrilled to be there with him, and we’re just as excited now as we were then to see him grow into a talented smith.
Talking to him reminded us of why we started the magazine: to create a home not just for art and literature, but to bring the crafts, especially blacksmithing, into conversation with them. Charles, and us, are learning key steps in the forging process, just as writers and artists do when they begin, and at the inception of our careers there is no telling what we will accomplish, but there is all the hope in the world.
To see more of Charles’ work, follow his website Paracorder Survival and Knives.