1 of 6
Jennifer Garbrecht photo
Like the ancients
Despite gains in technology for blacksmithing and metal work, master blacksmith Doc William Cudd relies primarily on the ancient tools, just as the smiths who came before him in his family along with Bea Hensley, apprentice to Daniel Boone VI.
2 of 6
Jennifer Garbrecht photo
As long as it takes
“I don’t want years from now for someone to look at something and say, ‘Well he must have been in a hurry on the day he made this one’.” — Doc William Cudd, Jr.
3 of 6
Jennifer Garbrecht photos
Applying the heat
Blacksmith’s flame burns with vibrant blues and reds and produces heat of nearly 4,000 degrees in a matter of minutes.
4 of 6
Jennifer Garbrecht photos
Once the metal is flattened, Doc sets about using his chisel—“Old Faithful” as he calls it—to create the veins in the leaf.
5 of 6
Jennifer Garbrecht photos
“It’s impossible for me to say that I would be as good as someone who’s done it for eighty years. I can be as good, but it’s not the same because I can’t know what they know until I’ve been where they’ve been. No one knows it all and anyone who says they do told you a lie.” — Doc William Cudd, Jr.
6 of 6
Jennifer Garbrecht photo
The rod leading into the leaf is reheated and then worked into a loop, creating a hook from which the fire poker will hang. Ever a perfectionist, Doc carefully inspects his work and makes a few alterations to ensure the straightness of his lines.
The fire crackles to life with a single match strike, the small pile of kindling and tinder catching quickly. As it grows stronger, the blacksmith adds coke—a solid derivative of low-ash, low-sulfur bituminous coal—to the yellow flames before turning on the blower that feeds oxygen to the flame growing in the small forge. Within minutes of that first match strike, gorgeous red and blue flames dance with the intensity needed to transform iron and steel bars into works of art.
Blacksmithing has experienced a revival over the last thirty years, and today many hobbyist blacksmiths take to their garages on the weekends to produce blades for knives or other ornamental fixtures. Despite these weekend blacksmiths, ancient blacksmithing may not be on most people’s horizon. According to Doc William Cudd, Jr., master blacksmith living in Barnardsville, N.C., fewer than two hundred full time blacksmiths remain in America today. It may appear to some, then, as though it has faded into the fabric of the world’s history. Not if Cudd has anything to say about it, that is.
Family narratives passing on a trade seem like the stuff of legends—and yet such stories are still relevant and current today. Cudd traces blacksmithing back over four hundred years on both his mother and father’s sides. He works full time in his metal shop, filling orders he takes years in advance of completion, and his creations can be found around the world. When he’s not in his shop in Barnardsville, he works as the smithy at Biltmore Estate, where he demonstrates the ancient craft of blacksmithing to many thousands of visitors each year.
While technological improvements have simplified certain aspects of blacksmithing, such as toggle switches to turn on an electric blower fanning the flames in the forge, little has changed in the craft over the thousands of years it has existed. Ancient smiths began using soft metals such as gold, silver and copper, before transitioning to bronze and then eventually to iron and steel because of their durability for weapons and tools. Unlike iron, some metals—such as copper—do not require heat to make them hard. They will only harden from being worked or hammered.
Iron is unique because it does not immediately turn into a liquid when heated beyond its melting point. The sweet spot for blacksmiths is right around 2,700 to 2,800 degrees Fahrenheit when iron is its most pliable. In this temperature range, where it becomes more and more taffy-like, the metal worker hammers most efficiently to form the iron into shapes both functional and ornamental. At 2,900 degrees, however, the iron melts and the smith has lost all his hard work and must begin again. Cudd remembers that happening only once or twice and both during his apprenticeship, which began at the age of ten and lasted until he turned twenty.
After serving as an unpaid apprentice under his father and great uncle for ten years, Cudd started working as a journeyman under his maternal grandfather, William Ben Crisp. This position earned him very little money, but once he was given the master’s test at the age of thirty he was officially recognized as a master blacksmith. He describes the test his grandfather designed for him as particularly difficult. “Just one part of it lasted eighteen hours—not all in a row, of course—but there were a hundred parts to that test,” Cudd said. His grandfather, who had worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority building Fontana Dam, later told Cudd he made the test particularly hard because he wanted Cudd to be a great blacksmith.
Shortcuts do not exist in this trade, and although he’s done this most of his life, Cudd readily admits he still constantly learns and refines his metal work. “It’s impossible for me to say that I would be as good as someone who’s done it for eighty years,” Cudd says. “I can be as good, but it’s not the same because I can’t know what they know until I’ve been where they’ve been. No one knows it all and anyone who says they do told you a lie.”
A blacksmith Cudd holds in high regard is his dear friend, Bea Hensley, of Burnsville, N.C. Hensley and his family moved next to Daniel Boone VI’s smithy in Burnsville when Hensley was just four years old. Instantly fascinated with the fire and hammering, he spent hours watching the famed blacksmith work before beginning on his own path in the trade. When Hensley graduated from high school, Boone took Hensley under his wing as an apprentice. When Boone won the contract for restoring the ironwork in Colonial Williamsburg in 1937, he moved his forge to Spruce Pine, which Hensley eventually purchased years later. When Hensley returned from World War II he went on to finish the restoration work at Williamsburg in the 1950s.
In addition to learning a tremendous amount about metal working from Daniel Boone VI, Hensley learned the 50-part ancient hammer language of the anvil, which he eventually passed down to his son. Today, Cudd also keeps this language alive by continuing to not only use the language in a practical way but by literally playing the anvil as an instrument. In the early twentieth century anvils were adopted as a recognized orchestral instrument.
The blacksmith’s rhythm is beautiful to listen to, but Cudd is quick to point out that “every move of that hammer and tap on that anvil is to allow the other hand to flip that metal and reposition his eye.” Blacksmiths preserve their joints by allowing the hammer to fall on the anvil while they turn the metal over. “A good, forged anvil will lift that hammer back up—you don’t have to hit it, but it will return that hammer ten to fifteen times.”
Forged anvils are known to be superior to cast anvils, which can be too soft and not allow the hammer to return in the same way. Blacksmiths must work twice as hard on a cast anvil, and Cudd grimaces when speaking about it. “A cast anvil makes an annoying ear-piercing ring. A forged anvil makes a beautiful bell chime—like the ones I play.” Today he is one of four who continues to play the anvil, and he is the only one in his family to do so. His father and grandfather and others in his family used that language to communicate with their strikers and he remembers tuning into it around the age of twelve, noting that it’s the first thing an apprentice learns. The anvil makes a different sound depending on which part the hammer strikes, and the apprentice learns where to hit the metal based on the “song” the master plays. Each one of these songs gives instructions for what is to be made, and Cudd happily plays his anvil with the love and care a musician applies to any other instrument. It is evident how much awe he holds for the tools he uses in the craft that has dominated his life and continues to do so.
The philosophy of training twenty years for a profession is completely out of step with the instant gratification so prevalent in modern society. It certainly stands as quite a contrast to programs designed to turn students into blacksmiths in just a matter of months. However, Cudd is unfazed by modern society. “I don’t have the Internet,” he explains, and he lives a very simple down-to-earth life. Following in the same tradition from which he was taught, he currently works with two apprentices. Cudd readily admits that even though the world doesn’t look upon the trade the same way, and the labor board certainly doesn’t, it is still important to go through all the steps to becoming a master—all twenty years of them.
Steven Schroeder, Cudd’s apprentice who can also be seen twice a week at the Biltmore forge, is from Ohio. He decided around the age of nineteen that he wanted to become a blacksmith after exposure to the profession at Hocking College where he initially majored in forestry. He became enamored at the simple way of life and wanted to be a part of historical reenactments, which led to him working at Conner Prairie and then eventually finding his way down to Biltmore.
Schroeder relocated to the mountains of North Carolina to begin his ten-year apprenticeship under Cudd’s tutelage. The legacy of George Vanderbilt lives on through his functioning estate. It has brought together the master blacksmith and his apprentice, each from completely different backgrounds but who have found a common love of working with their hands.
When asking if shortening the typical decade one spends as an apprentice was possible, Cudd told him with a grin that he likes him and would be willing to shorten his time—to nine-and-three-quarters years. Schroeder knew then that while it may be a while before he’s ready to truly earn a living as a blacksmith, that at least he’d have fun working with a man with such a sense of humor.
Schroeder’s experience as a blacksmith has his entrepreneurial wheels turning. That connects him to the resurging American dream where more and more people are pursuing their dreams rather than working for another. As he develops his craft under the careful guidance of Cudd, he envisions what he can do with his talent and his space. Schroeder dreams of working with home-schooled children and setting them up to learn blacksmithing, and wonders what types of metal workings will become his specialty as he continues to hone and refine his skills. He recently opened his own shop, The Bearded Blacksmith, in Fairview, N.C., just outside of Asheville.
Working side by side, the master and apprentice both contribute to keeping the incredibly rich and historically important craft of blacksmithing alive. “People don’t realize it but blacksmithing is what allowed America to become what it is,” Cudd said. “The railroads wouldn’t have been built without us. Agriculture couldn’t have thrived without us.” While both Cudd and Schroeder work the ornamental side of the business, each realizes the contribution blacksmithing has made to the birth and growth of our nation.
While some may romanticize working in a craft that is centuries upon centuries old, that is not the case with Cudd. He may live a simple life, but he typically works nineteen hours a day, “Mornings begin at 5 a.m. I eat breakfast before heading to the shop around six,” Cudd said. “My cousins work with me down there and two of them show up around 7 a.m. I get them started until about 10 to 10:30 a.m. then I come to Biltmore. I have another cousin who comes around 8:30 a.m. They work and then I get home, eat supper, rest a bit then head back out to the shop until about 1 a.m.” Truly dedicated to his trade, however, he sometimes finds himself unable to sleep because he’s busy thinking about a particular creation. On nights like that he walks back over to his forge and begins again.
The pride that goes into the blacksmith’s work boils down to the perfection for which they approach their legacy. Cudd, who has been in the trade over three decades, and Schroeder who is going on roughly three years, both inspect their work ever so carefully looking for any minor imperfections that could exist. “If I wasn’t putting my name on this I may say I don’t care, but I don’t want years from now for someone to look at something and say, ‘Well he must have been in a hurry on the day he made this one’,” Cudd said.
Durability is something that matters. Most of the tools and machines in Cudd’s shop are well over 100 years old and they still function beautifully. Visitors are always given a warm welcome, and Cudd takes time to speak with them and to never turn his back on them. “I’ve had that experience where someone’s so caught up in what they’re doing that they barely take time to say hello,” Cudd said. That doesn’t happen here. Perhaps the only thing warmer is huddling in his Barnardsville Blacksmith’s shop with the wood stove crackling away and the forge nestling a 4,000 degree fire.
In the age of mass production and imitations, some folks find themselves willing to settle for less than the best in order to “save money.” Cudd recounts the story of a woman at the Mountain State Fair a few years ago interested in buying one of his hand crafted five-piece fireplace sets complete with hand woven broom. She argued with him over the price and he said, “Ma’am I am not trying to sell you this set.” She said she could get one at Walmart for $20. He gave her his blessing to do so and she left. The following year she came back, however, and he instantly remembered her as she again started inquiring about his fire set. He said he thought she was buying one at Wal-Mart. “Well, I did,” she admitted. When he asked her how long it lasted she replied softly, “Until about Christmas.” He said then as plainly as he says now, “My work lasts forever as we know forever. It doesn’t need replaced but if it ever does it comes with a lifetime guarantee as long as I’m alive.”
It upsets Cudd to note that several places now exist where what he calls pre-fab metal work is manufactured. “There was a great sink in blacksmithing, but about twenty years ago there was a revival of blacksmithing in America and people started realizing we needed this in our lives—this is how America was built,” Cudd said. “But when it began coming back, you had lost a span of people who truly believed it should be perfected. And many of the ones who are in the business now took some really beat-up metal work where it’s hammered and beat to death. And the pre-fab metal work is based on looking like that.”
Cudd glides his hands across the hammer marks on the fire poker he created, noting how each one is even and controlled. “Bad hammer marks were considered cheap grade, unlearned work. But now people think that these bad hammer marks make it more authentic,” Cudd said. “Metal work should look like smooth glass.” And it is clear that Cudd is able to produce this quality of work—and he strives to continue to instruct apprentices such as Schroeder to pursue the same perfection. “There’s a wide gap between the perfection work and this other side that’s trying to kill the perfection work, and then there’s the middle, and I’m trying to close up that gap with the work that I do and to teach people to respect and understand how hammer-marks should look,” Cudd said.