The Vista Forge

Students in the California Blacksmith Association's training program get hands-on training

Bob Nett at work at the Vista Forge

Bob Nett at work at the Vista Forge. Students in the Vista Forge classes represent a diverse group: Men, women, young, old, father-and-son, welders, farriers, artists, professionals, craftsmen.

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It's not unusual to find a working blacksmith at a vintage farm equipment show. It is, however, unusual to find a full dozen ... unless you're familiar with the Vista Forge of the California Blacksmith Association (CBA). 

The Vista Forge is more than a blacksmiths' organization. It also offers extensive training in the centuries-old craft. Currently, about 50 students (age 13 and up) are enrolled in one of three year-long programs. Each class meets once a month, on Saturdays, at a barn at the Antique Gas & Steam Engine Museum in Vista, Calif. (The CBA sponsors courses at 17 sites in California.) At the AGSEM spring threshing bee in mid-June, the barn was a hive of activity.

"We had 12 forges lit here on Saturday," said Dave Vogel, a smith and instructor in the Vista program. "We're looking for five more anvils and hand-crank blowers to allow us to expand and put to use forges which we'll locate outside, under the shed roof."

In the CBA program, students learn to use hand-crank blowers from the turn of the last century.

"That's the era we're trying to represent," Dave said. "Our objective is teaching how to do blacksmithing safely. We teach the basic techniques: Using the forge, welding, riveting, punching, drawing metal out. Those are the same techniques that were used 300 years ago. But we also hope to help a person be able to select equipment to outfit a shop and be able to start out and work safely."

The attraction is simple, said Bill Stone, another instructor at the Vista Forge.

"It's the lure of getting metal to a temperature where you can move it," he said. "It's hard, you can't bend it; then you get it hot, and it melts like butter."

Each student, though, comes with a different goal.

"Some folks have already made the commitment and come to get skills and contacts," Dave said. "Some think they want to do it; some know that they want to do this, instead of what they do every day. Some want to be able to make a specific thing: Knives or special tools for woodworking, or maybe hardware to complement woodworking projects. And I've seen several, including my wife, jump from these classes to a career as an artist or blacksmith."

Beginning students come to class with little more than a pair of safety glasses and a hammer. Tongs, chisels and basic tools are produced in the class. Other equipment is available through the Vista Forge.

"A couple of the anvils belong to the CBA," Dave said. "But the Vista Forge has built, purchased and donated a bunch of the equipment, and that's allowed the growth of the program to its present size."

The Vista Forge inventory includes one four-foot cone mandrel, two large swage blocks, two Acorn tables, seven post vises, 25 small tongs, and about 50 large tongs. The group also has hardie tools (anvil tools), handled swages, and several sledgehammers, as well as a shear, a small hand-crank drill press and a chop saw.

"Certainly we're always looking for more equipment," he said.

The group's preference is for vintage equipment.

"It's better than the new stuff," Dave said, "especially the anvils."

Tailgate sales at blacksmith conferences generate new pieces at bargain prices.

"The cost is reasonable, usually $1 to $1.50 a pound for anvils," he said. "The forges are reasonable, as we purchase the firepots from Centaur forge, and build the forges ourselves. The post vises and blowers come now and then. Swage blocks and cone mandrels are hard to find."

The quality of the raw materials, though, has improved. "Steel today is better than what they used 100 years ago,' Bill said.

The focus remains on traditional methods.

"Yes, it would be easier to gas or arc weld than to forge weld," Dave said. "But where's the sport in that? We teach the traditional methods, which are slow and time consuming. The students learn how to do it, and what the work is supposed to look like. I do see some students supplementing their skills with the use of wire-feed welders and the like to become more cost effective with paying customers. I just figure that the smiths will know what the work is supposed to look like, and the customer can get some quality work that's affordable."

At AGSEM, the blacksmiths get an up-close look at more than one craft: They work with local wheelwrights on an occasional project.

"Traditionally, the blacksmith used to do everything: They made wheels, and put tires (steel) on them ... They did all of it," Bill said. "But they gradually moved away from that, and became more specialized. Now the wheelwright makes the wheels, and the blacksmith heats up the tire to shrink it to the wheel."

And don't confuse the blacksmith with the farrier: There's little overlap.

"You can find a farrier who's a blacksmith, but you'll never find a blacksmith who's a farrier," Bill said. "Most blacksmiths wouldn't know which end of a horse to put hay in. I really admire the guys who can drive a piece of steel into a beast's foot and live to tell about it." FC 

For more information: Bill Stone, 510 Oakbranch Drive, Encinitas, Calif., 92024; (760) 753-7553. email: stonebill@email.msn.com. 

Antique Gas & Steam Museum, 2040 N. Santa Fe Ave., Vista, Calif, 92083; (760) 941-1791 or 1-800-587-2286; online: www.agsem.com.