Forged in fire

Local blacksmiths host international convention in Troy

Photo: Most blacksmiths still rely on handtools and other traditional methods

By Matt Clevenger

Flames, molten metal, razor-sharp blades, and temperatures over 1,000 degrees; it sounds like something straight out of Dante’s Inferno. But it’s just another day at work for the highly skilled blacksmiths at the Southern Ohio Forge and Anvil club (SOFA).

“The fire’s about 2-3,000 degrees, so it will burn you real quick,” SOFA secretary-treasurer Mike Evanoo says. “You’re dealing with fire and sharp things. It’s dangerous, but you need the heat in order to form the metal.”

“You want to make sure that you have safety glasses, ear protection, protection for your hands, and everything you would expect in front of an industrial fire,”Evanoo says. “Also, if you’re forging on a day like today when it’s 80-some degrees out, you get dehydrated very quickly.”

SOFA members will fan the flames in Troy Friday, Sept. 22 through Sunday, Sept. 24, as the internationally known blacksmithing club’s annual QuadState convention returns to the Miami County Fairgrounds. This year’s theme is ‘40 Years of QuadState,’ celebrating four decades of SOFA blacksmiths and their world-class metal work.

“It’s one of the largest blacksmithing conferences in the world,” Evanoo says. “We have people from all over the world attend.”

“Last year, for example, the theme was international blacksmithing, and we had demonstrators from South Africa, Ireland, Germany, and the United States,” he says. “This year the theme is ‘40 years of QuadState,’ because we’ve been doing this now for 40 years. It’s more of a celebration of the history of QuadStates, and the history of the Southern Ohio Forge and Anvil club.”

Artwork and other items will be on display throughout the weekend, but QuadState’s real focus has always been on education, with presentations and hands-on metalworking demonstrations by skilled artisans. Technically, the event is open to the general public; however, admission is $60 and visitors should know the conference is designed specifically for practicing blacksmiths or those with a serious interest in metalwork.

“I want to make sure that it’s clear; the event is a trade conference type of event,” Evanoo says. “It does cost $60 to attend per person, so it’s not cheap compared to some events. It’s for blacksmiths and people who have a serious interest in blacksmithing.”

“The name QuadState originally comes from the intent of this conference, to bring together blacksmiths from Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky,” he says. “It’s brought together smiths from those states and then some, so it’s really expanded to being worldwide attendance.”

The conference usually draws around 1,000 to 1,200 people to the SOFA buildings at the Miami County Fairgrounds. “We’ve grown every year,” Evanoo says. “We’ve had people from Australia, and we’ve had people from Japan.”

Metal Mania

QuadState is put on by SOFA, and the event’s history is tied with that of the club.

“We have the largest blacksmithing club in the world, right here in Troy, with facilities that have about a dozen forges and all of the equipment necessary to forge and hold classes and everything else,” Evanoo says, referring to the club’s buildings at the Miami County Fairgrounds. “We have a very large building that we maintain there, and besides QuadStates we also hold monthly meetings the first Saturday of every month, and there are blacksmithing demonstrations there every month.”

“The SOFA club and QuadStates were originally formed by Emmett Studebaker, of the line of Studebakers that was responsible for the Studebaker car, or in that family,” he says. “QuadState was originally held on the Studebaker Homestead properties until it got too large for that. Then there was an arrangement made with the Miami County Fairgrounds; we agreed to build a building, and we’ve been there ever since.”

SOFA is a non-profit organization, started in the early 1970s to promote the art of blacksmithing. “SOFA is a non-profit organization focused on furthering the art and knowledge of blacksmithing,” Evanoo says. “When they first formed the club, there was kind of a downward spiral in blacksmithing at the time; not many people were performing that art, and there were some people who wanted to maintain that skill and art.”

“There’s been kind of on upswing in activity over the last several years,” he says, “especially with shows like “Forged in Fire”. Actually, we’ve had several members of SOFA who have been on, and won, “Forged in Fire” on the History Channel.”

“It’s kind of a well-kept secret,” Evanoo says of SOFA. “It’s not kept secret on purpose, but its kind of a jewel up there in Troy that most people don’t even know exists.”

Membership in SOFA is reasonably priced, at just $20 per year, and allows members to use the club’s facilities at the fairgrounds. Monthly club meetings often feature hands-on demonstrations and presentations, and members are also invited to other special workshops throughout the year.

“Most of the people in the club are blacksmiths, either as a hobby or full-time and do it as a living,” Evanoo says. “To become a member and use the facilities and everything is only $20 per year, so it’s very cheap for membership.”

“You can become a member online,” he says. “The other way that you can become a member is just coming to a club meeting the first Saturday of each month. That’s at the Miami County Fairgrounds, at the SOFA building.”

In addition to meetings and workshops, the club also uses their facility to host programs for youth, and co-host events with other blacksmithing organizations, including the American Bladesmith Society’s annual bladesmithing show. “We do metal working badges for boy scouts, and we hold other events for youth,” Evanoo says. “The American Bladesmith Society show in August, we host that every year as well. They run it; we host it in our building.”

“That event is focused on bladesmithing,” he says. “They go into different aspects of knife-making and blade-making. The master blade-smiths are there, from the American Bladesmith Society. They have demonstrations on making knives, building handles, making sheaths and heat-treating. The part that’s open to the general public is a knife show that they have that weekend.”

The Tools of the Trade

“Traditionally, a blacksmith is someone who forges steel into something useful or something artistic,” Evanoo says. “Many people think of blacksmiths as shoeing horses; actually someone who shoes horses is a farrier, not a blacksmith. That’s a type of blacksmith.”

“Originally, they had different names for different smiths,” he says. “For example, a whitesmith would be a silversmith, a redsmith was a coppersmith. A blacksmith was someone who formed iron, what now is actually steel. Originally, they used wrought iron to do that.”

“When people think of wrought iron, most people think of that as something that is just pounded, but it’s not,” he explains. “It’s a different type of steel, wrought iron; it’s actually an older type of steel. Modern steels are either low-carbon or high-carbon; wrought-iron was a very low-carbon, almost no-carbon type of steel.”

Many types of metalwork will be featured at QuadState, but blacksmithing will be the most prevalent. “It’s not only traditional blacksmithing with steel, but there’s also copper and aluminum; it’s metalsmithing in general,” Evanoo says.

SOFA members use mainly traditional tools and methods, many of which haven’t changed in hundreds or even thousands of years. “A lot of what we do is pretty traditional,” Evanoo says. “Traditionally, when you think of a blacksmith you think of somebody using a coal forge and an anvil and a hammer, and that’s generally what most people do there is use a coal forge, an anvil and a hammer.”

“There’re different advances that have been made, to make different parts of that easier,” he says. “For example, I have a propane forge. A lot of people use propane forges today; they’re easier because they actually don’t get as hot, they don’t burn the metal, whereas a coal forge will burn the metal and you have to tend it much more closely with a coal forge. At the club we have both coal forges and propane forges.”

Power hammers, welders, and other modern tools make blacksmithing work much quicker and easier, and the club provides most of these if members choose to use them. “Generally, we do focus on the more traditional methods,” Evanoo says. “We do have several power hammers available at the club as well.”

“Today we use things like welders to connect metal, where traditionally you might use other means like forge welding, where you put it into the forge and connect the metal together,” he says. “There are different advances that have been made, but most members still practice traditional methods and use more modern methods only when it’s warranted.”

Blacksmithing is relatively cheap to get started in, mainly because it’s easy to make many of the tools you need yourself. “They actually called blacksmithing the king of the professions at one time, because it’s one of the few professions that make their own tools,” Evanoo says. “Most blacksmiths make their own tools that they use to make other things; so it’s one of the few professions where you make everything yourself, or you can.”

“You can get into it pretty cheaply to find out if you like it,” he says, “but then like most hobbies or professions, you can spend a lot more on it if you want. There’re plenty of plans online to make your own coal forge from a semi wheel, or a lot of other things that people make forges out of. Because really for a coal forge, all you need is an air source to blow air into it from the bottom, and something to hold the coal at the top that’s not going to burn up. You can basically make that out of a lot of different things. If you’re stepping up to propane, a lot of people make their own propane forges, and there are plenty of plans online to do that.”

Blacksmiths can create a literally endless list of different items, and in 40 years SOFA craftsmen have made everything from useful items such as tools, swords, and knives to artistic pieces and furniture. In fact, one of the club’s buildings at the fairgrounds also serves as a museum of sorts, displaying a wide range of items created by SOFA members.

“You can see all kinds of things that people have made over the years, everything from large gates and railings to small hooks that can hold a coat,” Evanoo says. “That’s one of the things that draws me to it, is the ability to make so many different things.”

“You look at all of the pieces there, and it’s amazing some of the things people have made,” he says. “The blacksmiths that have been practicing there and demonstrating there have been some of the best in the world. It really draws me to that, to create something lasting out of steel, and to be able to form something that people think of as hard and in-formable and as unyielding as steel.”

“It’s creative,” he says. “Today, it’s really about being able to see that you are able to create something useful or something artistic. It’s a creative outlet and it’s an art form.”

 

SOFA’s QuadState conference will be held Friday, Sept 22 through Sunday, Sept 24 at the Miami County Fairgrounds, 650 N. County Road 25-A in Troy. Admission is $60. More information on QuadState and SOFA can be found online at SOFABlacksmiths.org.

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Matthew Clevenger
Reach DCP freelance writer Matt Clevenger at MattClevenger@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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