For woodworkers today, using traditional joinery is an expression of skill and nostalgia, a demonstration of the mastery of techniques practiced every day two centuries earlier. A time when furniture making in America reached a pinnacle that has yet to be eclipsed. For colonial cabinetmakers, dovetails, box joints and pinned mortise-and-tenon joints represented state-of-the-art technology when it came to keeping two pieces of wood together. More than anything, it was the well-made joint that kept furniture from falling apart. In fact, use of the dovetail allowed cabinet design to shift from clunky low chests to vaulting highboys, tall chests supported by delicate cabriole legs.
There were no high-strength glues. No screws. Nails could be had, but at a price that made hand-cut joints economical.There was no Home Depot, no corner hardware store, no catalog from which to order. Hardware, as we know it, didn’t exist at all, not even in a corner of the general store.
Instead, there were blacksmiths. Thousands of them in cities, towns and villages throughout the colonies. A survey of Philadelphia in 1788 listed 214 blacksmiths. A census of Lancaster County, Penn., listed 25 blacksmiths and whitesmiths, seven gunsmiths and seven nail makers.
Before the Industrial Age, if you wanted something from iron (steel was used sparingly) you went to the blacksmith and placed an order. It would be made by hand in a forge and shaped on an anvil. And yes, some smiths fitted horseshoes, but these were a minority and were considered near the bottom rung.
Hardware was expensive. To begin with, raw iron stock from which the work was wrought, was pricey. Add to that the labor of making one piece at a time, which usually required heating and re-heating it several times and working it on the anvil in between. Blacksmiths took pride in their work. For example, prior to the Industrial Age they never left hammer marks on their work. It was considered a sign of poor workmanship. After the Industrial Age, they left hammer marks to show the work was handmade. A whitesmith, so called because his work was finished as bright metal, not black, filed and finished all his work to a flawless surface.
Some blacksmiths made nails. A good one could produce 1,000 nails a day. That’s about a half minute to make each one, which required cutting 1/4″-square barstock to length, heating, pointing one end by hammering, then nicking the other end where the appropriate-sized head was formed there.
Blacksmiths also made hinges, latches and locks. They made many of the edge tools for cabinetmakers. They made shears, fireplace tools, iron rims for wagon wheels, chain, ship fittings, weapons, and even spoons, knives and forks.
But the ring of the anvil faded as the Industrial Age revolutionized how work was done. Today, blacksmiths, except for the horseshoeing variety, are scarce as hens’ teeth. However, the number of blacksmiths producing more artistic work is growing thanks to the work of the Artist-Blacksmiths Association of North America.
Marsha Nelson is a blacksmith from Cold Spring, Ky., who is schooled in the traditional ways of smithing. She produces traditional designs of furniture hardware and household furnishings of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. She has a ready outlet for her work at an antique furniture reproduction shop and showroom across the river in Ohio.
Intrigued about what it must have been like to work with a blacksmith, I visited Marsha’s shop one day when she was making a traditional hinge called a rat-tail, a popular hinge in the 1700s.
She explains that her technique is strictly 18th century, learned during her apprenticeship at the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., some 15 years ago.
To start the process, Marsha first makes the barrel part of the hinge using inch-wide flat stock. She places the mild steel in a jig that’s secured in a vise. The flat stock is then cold bent in the vise to a 90-degree angle. Then the barrel is formed by wrapping the stock around a jig.