When most people dream of retirement, they imagine long, pool-side naps, care-free road trips and the sweet sounds of mountain streams and bird song. When Carl Peoples began contemplating his own golden years, something a bit different sprang to mind: The glow of red hot coals, the acrid smell of sulfur, and the harsh metallic clang of metal striking metal.
“I consider it an avenue of relaxation,” he said Thursday, as he scanned the blacksmithing tools set up in the backyard of his home in Halifax.
Peoples’ love affair with metalworking goes back decades. The Roanoke Rapids native spent 42 years as a welder with International Paper, a job he said gave him a leg up when attempting to learn the basics of blacksmithing. “It definitely gave me an advantage, having worked with metal all my life. I knew all about the different types —high, low and medium carbon steel; ferrous and non-ferrous metals. It gave me a head start.”
When Peoples began exploring his new interest in the mid-nineties, he turned to his friend, Wayne Short, a practicing bladesmith (blacksmiths who create knives, swords, etc.), who was interested in learning the craft of welding. “I told him we’d trade knowledge,” said Peoples. “He shared the basics of blacksmithing with me and I showed him about welding.”
With his appetite whetted, Peoples began taking classes at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, working his way up through the intermediate courses before moving on to study with mastersmiths, the specialized elite of the blacksmithing world. Working at their side, he learned the finer points of crafting everything from flowers and animals to dragons and tool implements.
Since his early years working beneath a canopy in his backyard with a piece of railroad iron for an anvil, Peoples has acquired the professional tools that are basic to most blacksmithing operations: The forge, where the coal is heated; the anvil, where the steel is worked with a hammer and tongs; the vices, cutting tools and presses which all play a part in shaping the final product.
After retiring four years ago, he also built a blacksmith shop, a crude 14×15 feet building perched on a hillside off of N.C. Highway 125. “I don’t get to spend as much time out there as I’d like,” said Peoples, scanning his lawn. “Seems like I spend all my time mowing the grass and shopping.”
Though Peoples deemed it too hot to fire up his backyard forge Thursday, he took the time to run through the basic movements of blacksmithing.
As Peoples explained, once the metal is heated in the forge to between 1,800 and 2,200 degrees, the blacksmith uses tongs to place it on an anvil; with the opposite hand he uses a forging hammer to work the steel, drawing out, flattening and cutting to shape the plastic-like substance into the form he desires.
Peoples said it’s important to strike while the iron is hot. “If you let it cool too much it becomes hard to work with, the iron will crack.” He also warned against reheating the steel once it’s taken out of the coals, explaining that the process will burn out all the carbon in the metal, rendering it weak and useless.
Despite what is often portrayed in movies, the metal is not dipped in cold water. Instead, it is placed in either ashes or sand and allowed to cool on its own. “You never quench a piece of hot steel,” said Peoples, “it will change the molecular structure.
Looking around the yard at some of his handy work, including a birdhouse and several plant holders, Peoples said he enjoys the challenge of creating new shapes and learning new tricks. “I really enjoy anything that taxes my skill, to improve on what I know already. It keeps you sharp. You can always learn something from someone else. No matter who the smith is, he’ll always have something you don’t know.”
He also enjoys sharing that knowledge. Peoples said his 11-year-old grandson, Eli, has become interested in the hobby and, with little help from granddad, recently completed his first wall hook.
This Saturday, Peoples’ years of knowledge and blacksmithing experience will be on display at Riverside Mill’s grand opening event. Peoples will offer free demonstrations and advice for anyone interested in the craft. He will be joined at the mill by his wife, Norma, an avid woodcarver who specializes in walking sticks, wizards and songbirds.
Recalling his own humble beginnings in the field, People’s recommended anyone interested in blacksmithing start by apprenticing with a skilled craftsman. He also suggested taking courses in art and design, two areas of study he believes will “feed into your blacksmithing work.”
“It’s physically demanding,” he added. “It helps keep you in shape. Your mind has to concentrate on what your doing at the time. Anytime you forget what you’re doing when working with hot metal, you’re going to mess up.”
To demonstrate his point, Peoples showed off a large blister on his right thumb, a souvenir from a brief mental lapse during a recent blacksmithing session. “I’ve never forgotten how to burn myself,” he stated knowingly, staring at the wound. “It’s so easy to do.”
While it may require more than a fair bit of caution, Peoples seems perfectly at ease with his steel and carbon hobby, as he leans back in his chair and contemplates his next project.
“As they say in the blacksmithing world, ‘Fire is my best friend.’”