RIPLEY — My 10-year-old son caught a bug at this summer’s Augusta Festival in Elkins, and not the kind you get from an undercooked corn dog.
A blacksmith had set up a demonstration at the main pavilion in the city park, and Coen stood watching, transfixed, for the better part of an hour. Next thing we knew, he had scrounged an old ball-peen hammer from my parents’ basement, and soon no backyard gathering around the fire pit was safe from his attempts to heat a piece of sign wicket red hot and pound it flat.
These days, when a young person shows enthusiasm for something that doesn’t involve a screen, it seems worth throwing a little more coal on the fire. So, as traffic poured into Elkins for the climactic weekend of the 83rd annual Mountain State Forest Festival, Coen and I loaded up our car and headed out of town — toward the Cedar Lakes Conference Center, in Ripley, for the 2019 fall conference of the Appalachian Blacksmith Association.
As we set out, Coen seemed excited about this event, but he would later admit he had had misgivings. “When you said ‘conference,’” he told me, after the weekend was over and we were headed to Clarksburg for a soccer game, “I was worried it would be a bunch of people sitting around a table talking.”
That’s not how blacksmiths do conferences, apparently. This particular gathering’s equivalent of a keynote speaker was Mace Vitale, a renowned knifemaker and a 2015 champion of the History Channel’s competitive bladesmithing show, “Forged in Fire.”
There were no PowerPoint slides. Instead, in front of a roomful of blacksmiths perched on folding metal chairs, Mace labored all day Saturday with hammer, tongs and anvil to transform a nondescript hunk of metal into an unnervingly sharp bowie knife as long as my forearm. With a lapel mike clipped to his T-shirt, he talked as he worked, narrating each step and sharing lessons from his two decades’ worth of experience in the world of high-end knifemaking.
As fascinating as Coen found long stretches of Mace’s demonstration — at one point moving to an empty seat in the front row so he “could get a better view of Mace hammering on that red-hot metal,” as he told me later — there is only so much sitting still a 10-year-old can do. Fortunately, there was plenty to look at outside the workshop, too.
On pickup truck tailgates and under pop-up tents, about a dozen smiths had put out items for display and sale. These ranged from raw materials and second-hand tools to the beautiful handiwork of highly skilled smiths.
Coen kept returning to one particular table to heft a hammer with the swirling, water-like surface pattern of Damascus steel. Picking it up myself, I understood the attraction. In addition to the hammer’s bewitching appearance, its weight and balance felt perfect in my hand. ‘Just swing me a few times,’ it seemed to be saying, ‘I’ll show you what to do.’
I counted myself lucky this hammer was marked “not for sale,” because I was turning out to be a soft enough touch as it was. By the time the weekend was over, Coen would be the proud owner of a small anvil forged out of a chunk of light rail from an old West Virginia mine railway, and I would leave with not one but two walking sticks with heads forged from the anchor chain of an 1800s Lake Michigan shipwreck, not to mention a snazzy-looking knife made from a Nicholson Bastard-Cut mill file that I won at the fundraising auction.
But the main event, for Coen and me, came Saturday night, when attendees were given the opportunity to fire up one of the half-dozen forges in the ABA workshop and put in some hammer time on whatever projects struck their fancy. To my everlasting gratitude, what struck the fancy of one master smith was to take my son under his wing and spend the next hour and a half helping him work through the classic beginning blacksmith project of making a hook. The high point of my weekend was seeing the grin on Coen’s face when he proudly posed for a photo holding the result.
No, scratch that. The high point of my weekend was not seeing my son hold up that hook but rather the opportunity to step back and observe him while he made it — seeing his brow furrow as he listened to this generous teacher who had appeared out of nowhere; watching his hammer aim improve by degrees; understanding how hard he was working to get this new thing right.
“That was the best weekend of fourth grade,” he said, later, as we drove home.
No argument here.