No hammer shall ring out its joyful song today.
June 24, 2009 12:20 PM   Subscribe

Renowned blacksmith, Phillip Simmons, of Charleston, SC has died at age 98.

Mr. Simmons was a link to a past that is rapidly vanishing along the South Carolina coast. A man who came up in the apprentice system and worked in the era when blacksmiths were the handymen of their communities, repairing and creating from raw metal the objects of everyday life, through to the present day where his work is now seen as fine art and displayed in galleries and museums.

More information about him and images of his work can be seen at his website including an interactive map of where his works can be found.

A gallery of him and his works can be found at Charleston Magazine along with an interview with one few the founders of the foundation attempting to preserve his work.

An article on his workshop can be found at the National Trust, which is attempting to preserve it.
posted by 1f2frfbf (16 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
His work is amazing.
posted by pointystick at 12:21 PM on June 24, 2009

Great post, thanks. It's always such a weird feeling to discover some amazing new person - when they pass.
posted by freebird at 12:27 PM on June 24, 2009

I saw this in the local news yesterday. Very sad.

posted by chiababe at 12:28 PM on June 24, 2009

On a personal note, I was lucky enough to work with Mr. Simmons several times and found him to be a gregarious and friendly man, with a hand the size and texture of a baseball mitt due to his refusal to wear gloves while working iron. He always had time to help beginners and experts alike, and even as late as last year would jump in to swing the hammer when he got excited about a project or piece. His thick Charleston accent made me homesick the first time I met him in Mississippi, and the next time I ran into him after moving back to South Carolina, I told him this which generated a roaring laugh, a pat on the back that nearly knocked me across the room and a joke that perhaps he should get paid by the state to lure folks back home.

He was one of kind, a view into a world long past and we are all the poorer without him.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 12:28 PM on June 24, 2009 [7 favorites]

In my early teenage years in the country, I got into blacksmithing, and soon after my father got into it was doing it professionally. My first crude anvil I made when I was 13 or so, and was just a piece of sheet metal bolted onto a tree stump. Soon after, my father, a master craftsman, was able to find some real tools and equipment from some of the old farmers from around the area, and while he was fabricating parts for our old 1938 Allis Chalmers tractor, fixing up an old pair of horseshoes, or a custom iron gate, I was learning how to make knives, arrowheads, and axes from scrap metal I found from rusting, abandoned tractors and farm equipment.

Now I'm been in the city for 12 years or so, and I still miss the smells of a coal forge, the happy sizzle of quenching, and that perfect sound of hammer on metal when you get the temperature just right. Whenever I go home I try and figure out a project to do that I can bring back to my home in the city.

The tools are sometimes hard to find, and sometimes they are one-off pieces you kind of have to experiment with to find out what they were made for. Although the tools remain, it's the skills that are getting harder to come by. I don't know how many times my father and I had to re-invent some trick of the trade that would have been laughably common knowledge a hundred years or so.
posted by chambers at 1:29 PM on June 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

posted by Baby_Balrog at 1:35 PM on June 24, 2009

posted by jock@law at 1:50 PM on June 24, 2009

Thanks for sharing that, chambers and 1f2frfbf. I have an acquaintance, an older man who has offered to show any of several of us youngsters the blacksmithing basics. I've kind of always thought about taking him up on it; but life is busy. Still, the idea lingers.

Can either of you comment on how long it might take -- how much skill, or practice is required -- to learn basic blacksmithing well enough to actually produce something like a decent knife blade? A decorate curlieque? (sp?)

And... are there longterm health impacts, from breathing metal dust or something?

Thanks again.
posted by slab_lizard at 2:43 PM on June 24, 2009

posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 2:58 PM on June 24, 2009

Working with a propane-fired forge, instead of a coal-fired one, will help with the long-term health aspects of smithing, but it's generally the short-terms ones (like touching a piece of iron that's cooled enough to not be cherry-red, but is still hundreds of degrees hotter than your hand) that will get you now and then. But that's no reason to avoid trying it. You can make or find usable anvil substitutes (short sections of railroad track are popular), and it's possible to make a very small forge by hollowing out one or two firebricks, and firing it with a little disposable-cylinder propane or MAPP torch (plenty hot enough to forge an old file into a small knife blade, for example, or to make your own nails - see the most recent issue of MAKE for an example).
posted by blacksmithtb at 2:58 PM on June 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

And... are there longterm health impacts, from breathing metal dust or something?

You realize that you are asking that question in a thread about a blacksmith who made it 98 ... I mean, what shooting for, 120?
posted by 445supermag at 2:59 PM on June 24, 2009

I knew someone would call me on that, 445supermag. But there are plenty of smokers, heavy drinkers, dangerous drivers and open-mouth-eaters who live to ripe ol' ages, too -- but that doesn't make those things good for your health, statistically speaking. Who knows? Maybe blacksmiths commonly die young of Forge Lung or something...
posted by slab_lizard at 3:07 PM on June 24, 2009

Blacksmithing is a great art, a fun thing to do, and a genuine link to the past. People like Mr. Simmons are and were a great link to the past and treasures that should be celebrated and missed.
posted by elder18 at 3:22 PM on June 24, 2009

Living to 120 isn't long enough to do all the projects I want to try 445supermag.

Most of the health and safety stuff is standard shop injuries (Safety glasses - wear them dammit!), burns and repetitive stress injuries from swinging a hammer. A decent forge usually draws pretty well so the smoke isn't that big of an issue.

It doesn't take that long to get good enough to make things, but you have to resign yourself to wasting some iron and some coal (or coke or charcoal or propane) first. Don't buy your metal at a hardware store. Look for an Iron and Steel Distributor - he'll be in the part of town where the most murders are committed. Thanks Furniture to Go Guys

If you go in trying to make Excalibur or Durandal right out of the gate, you're setting yourself up for a world of frustration. If you take the time to get a gut reaction for how things are going to move when they're glowing like so and you hit them like thus you'll have a better time of it in the long run. One of the first things I did was draw a railroad spike out until it was about a foot and a half long and then bend it back on itself to make an S-hook. It wasn't exactly beautiful, but the next time I did a draw I got to where I was going with a lot fewer wasted hammer blows.

(There's a line I've quoted about martial arts - that the world is full of people who will take the elevator to the fourth floor but not the stairs to the tenth floor. It's the same thing here.)
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 3:51 PM on June 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

Slab lizard

I learned very early to not even think about trying to make a even halfway-decent knife when you're starting out as a beginning project. There's too many variables to juggle at first, and it can be very frustrating, It's best to start small and work on your basic skills at folding, shaping, and knowing how to judge the temperature by the color of the iron. Pick up tools at rural county flea markets. You'll find a punch here, calipers there, a hammer or two, and you'll have a decent set of tools after a few different markets.

It's no different from learning guitar. Learn the scales, then the chords, then work on getting it all to happen at the right time, together.

So just start with something basic, like a spike made of concrete re-bar. You'll see how the heat works differently as the iron gets narrower. Then, start bending the metal, and make some hooks. You'll see how the iron changes when it's stretched. Then, try flattening a and stretching the other end of the rod, and fold it over, and repeat, and see what happens and how it's handling differently.

Start out with basic projects, like hinges and hooks. Then try welding metal together. It's frustrating, the first few times, but it's vital to learn how to do it. Then try an axehead. Once you can make one that will hold an edge, THEN, give a shot a making a knife, and it may be ugly as hell, but it'll do what it's supposed to do, and you'll be well on your way.

It's well worth it, and you can make decent money on the side, and you'll always be giving the best birthday/christmas gifts around.
posted by chambers at 3:59 PM on June 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

It's amazing how, in a world where everything is mass-produced, you forget to notice some true artisanship when you see it. I live in Charleston now and walk around downtown all the time and barely notice all the gates and window bars that are all over the city. Seeing Phillip Simmons work has hopefully opened my eyes to take a step back and look around at some of the quieter beauty that's around me every day.

Metafilter amazes me. I saw a quick blurb about Simmons on the local news, and thought to myself: "Huh, this is weird, they're talking about a blacksmith dying?" I honestly never even considered that there may still be blacksmiths around, much less creating work like this. Then I come on here and read posts from guys who not only blacksmith (in their spare time!), but have met Phillip Simmons personally.
posted by This Guy at 8:15 AM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

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