Peter Ross’ Keynote Address at the 1998 ABANA Conference

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Peter Ross took his first blacksmith lesson at Stonybrook Museums, in 1970. After attending the Rhode Island School of Design he worked his way through various shops working as a blacksmith until he moved to be the Master Blacksmith at Colonial Williamsburg. Peter worked to promote the study of blacksmithing through historically accurate processes. He remained at the museum from 1979 to 2004. He has now begun pursuing his own ventures of producing historic hardware reproductions in his own studio. Peter has demonstrated nationally at several ABANA conferences as well as most of the countries craft schools.

This address was delivered on June 17, 1998.

To paraphrase a great opening line — “You’re probably all wondering why they asked me to be here tonight.”

The theme of this conference, “By Hand, By Hammer” is very important to me personally. As many of you know, I have spent my career working with 18th and 19th century forging methods. My job at Colonial Williamsburg has been to re-discover and practice these skills while making things our museum needs. How the pieces are made is just as important as how they look. I’m guessing that many of you expect me to talk about that tonight, but I hope you will be pleasantly disappointed.

Over the years, I have been able to teach many workshops around the country. Mostly, I focus on the use of basic tools and their potential (that being my area of expertise). Many of my students remark about my small tool box, and about how much work can be done with a few simple tools. This often leads to a discussion about how we are conditioned to think about the work. How many tools are necessary? What kinds should they be? What do you expect to do yourself and what do you expect the tools to do for you? The interesting thing to me is how these expectations keep changing.

In his book The Nature and Art of Workmanship, David Pye answers these questions as a broad range of options. At one end of the scale is the “workmanship of risk” in which the workman, rather than the tools, determines the outcome. Writing with a pencil is a good example of this. The pencil has little effect on how the letters are shaped or on the final result. At the other end is the “workmanship of certainty” in which the workman has little effect on the outcome. Typing is one example which is more the workmanship of certainty. No matter how inept the workman, each letter ”E” will be shaped much as the last. A printing press would be even more the workmanship of certainty than the typewriter. As Pye explains, this is not a matter of hand versus machine, for many hand tools have components of certainty and many machines have components of risk.

Back to the classes: I have noticed of late that more and more students will walk with their piece 40 to 50 yards to cut it on the chop saw rather than use the hardy which is right at their anvil. (This is not a comment about the quality of equipment at the workshops.) To me, this suggests a change in the way smiths think about their work. While it is true that the chop saw makes a square cut every time, I think there’s more to it than that. Often, people use a saw even when it takes longer and a square cut is unnecessary. So why do it?

I believe what I am seeing is the emergence of what I will call ”machine mentality.” I will also describe what I think of as “hand mentality”. Please don’t think of this as a comparison of hand versus machine or traditional versus modern. We would spend our time just as well discussing which is the best color. Instead, these terms suggest the orientation of the workman, not the methods; the mentality, not the process.

To me, machine mentality has the following characteristics:

  1. Precise raw materials (size, content)
  2. Partial re-shaping of materials
  3. Quick and cheap precision
  4. Expectation of uniformity

This is different from the workmanship of certainty, for it describes the design expectations more than the method. Jay Gaynor, our tools curator, likes to use as an example the Chinese-made copy of the Swiss Army Knife. At a glance, it is much like the real thing, but when you look closely you can see that all the parts have been shaped by hand. The metal parts are covered with file marks, the riveting is done with a hammer, the polishing is freehand, The methods are all hand methods, but the mentality is machine. Make this piece look like the stamped out version!

In hand mentality we have different characteristics:

  1. Irregular raw materials
  2. Complete re-shaping of materials
  3. Precision-comes only with many steps
  4. Expectation of variety.

Both the Yellin work and the African pieces on display this week are good examples of this approach, though I don’t expect the workshops of these smiths to be at all similar. The hand mentality is evidenced both by lack of original bar size remaining in the work and the obvious variations between repeated forms. In addition, we all can bring to mind the examples in which a completely machine made item is given some texture of intentionally repeated irregularity to pose as something it is not (suggesting hand mentality when make by machine).

For almost all of us, it is very difficult to be anything but machine mentality oriented. We have grown up with plentiful, cheap, manufactured products which are quite uniform and predictable, and often excellent quality. Even formerly irregular items such as food are being processed to take most of the variations out. This becomes a conditioned expectation. Predictable uniformity is good; irregularity is bad.

This unconscious conditioning of machine mentality provides the motivation to use the chop saw even when it is not convenient. We have come to expect that a precise cut is always better. And besides, this extra precision is cheap. In extreme cases of machine mentality I have seen smiths use layout dye and precise measurements when preparing to hot punch a hole.

“Ah!”, many of you will say to yourselves, “I don’t have the time to learn all this stuff the old-fashioned way, and I’m sure not going to risk ruining several day’s work on the last step. That chop saw cut or drilled pilot hole can sure take the risk out of the work and no one will ever know.”

Why should this interest me at all? What does it matter if people use modern tools if they’re available? The answer lies in my experience with restoration and reproduction work. In looking back, I have to say that much of what has drawn me to historic work has been the nature of the pieces themselves. They have a casual competence and inventiveness which is refreshing and interesting. It has been this nonchalant vigor which I have tried to emulate. Whenever I’ve tried to circumvent the hand mentality, the results look cold and stiff.

What I see happening among smiths if not simply the switch from hand hammer to power hammer. It is much more subtle than that. What I see is a change from spontaneous to carefully-planned execution; from using eye judgment to careful spotting with center punch marks. This change in its self is not really much of a change. After all, people have been using center punches for thousands of years. It is not even a shift on the risk/certainty scale. But the presumption that it is better to use a punch when laying out twists in the bar, or laying out a veining pattern to be chiseled, is the emergence of machine mentality.

So am I suggesting we stop using modern tools? Of course not. I don’t believe our role is only in carrying on traditions, but should embrace new forms and ideas as well. I’m hoping we can retain some of the hand mentality even when using machine tools.

More importantly, I see our organization at an important crossroads. We still have a few smiths among us (like Francis) who were trained in the hand mentality environment. (Even though lots of machine tools were used at Yellin’s, the work still has the life and vigor of the hand.) That is about to change, as most of us in ABANA today are not directly connected with that tradition. As we lose this tie with hand mentality, it will take an extra effort to maintain it in our work. Often, this means practicing hand technique (even when there are easier alternatives) with the knowledge that one day the hand techniques will become the easier choice.

This approach is not without risk and failures. But isn’t this one thing that makes our work stand out? Pieces made with the workmanship of risk convey that risk to the viewer. Even in successful pieces you feel that things could have gone wrong, but didn’t.

Pieces made with the workmanship of risk convey that risk to the viewer. Even in successful pieces you feel that things could have gone wrong but didn’t.

Our work can survive because it is so different from the norm in this country. We offer an alternative to volume production and predictable regularity. We can provide variety, a personal message, and sometimes, exceptional quality. I think our best hope lies in maintaining that distinction.

We are here tonight on the eve of the largest blacksmiths conference in ABANA’s history. We have gathered Smiths from many parts of the world and with widely differing backgrounds. I hope we can use this forum to talk about the role of the hand in our own work, our collective work and in our future.

Peter’s footnote of July 6, 2012 

Discussion of my talk seems to deteriorate into a debate about using hand tools versus machine tools. This is not the point at all. I am not condemning machine tools or suggesting they are in any way inferior. In fact, they are often far superior to hand skills in doing what they do. My point is that continual use of machine tools can lead to conditioned assumptions about accuracy, symmetry, uniformity, etc. That may be detrimental to producing well designed hand work. The paper is more about understanding the aesthetic of contemporary ironwork than how the thing is made.

I hope any discussions that ensue can avoid the simple machine versus hand argument.

Peter Ross


For those of you not fortunate enough to have seen Peter in action, he is the closest smith I have seen to almost move metal with his mind.

Peter forges works of art with his hand hammer about as easily as I can work modeling clay with my hammer.


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