THIS OLD HOUSE
BLACKSMITH
WHY CHARLIE KELLER HAS TO THINK HOT
JULY/AUGUST 1998
By WALT HARRINGTON
Photographs by MARY ELLEN MARK

Charlie Keller is dancing between thinking and doing. That's how he imagines his work as he takes up an iron poker and stokes the fire he has just built from soft Pennsylvania coal. The flames gently rise a foot, and the piece of iron Keller has put in the fire glows at 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit. He knows the temperature because the iron is bloodred. When he switches on the forge's blower, the flames lick higher and arc toward the mouth of the chimney. In the next few minutes, as Keller readies his tools, the iron in the forge runs through the spectrum that acts as a blacksmith's thermometer.

Bloodred: 1,100 degrees.
Dark cherry: 1,300 degrees. Orange: 1,800 degrees.
Light yellow: 2,300 degrees.
Dazzling white: 3,000 degrees.

When hot iron turns the color of dark cherry, the metal is soft enough to reshape with a hammer. At light yellow, it goes slick-resembling a glowing ice cubeand is ready to forge-weld. At dazzling white, it begins to decompose and flares like a Fourth of July sparkler. Keller knows what iron will do at each color as he forges replicas of colonial hoes, spades and rakes; ladles, hasps and potato hooks; and, the tool he is making today for a New Zealand museum, a Kentucky ax.

Without giving it much thought, he reads the fire thermometer. This morning, at light cherry, he will hammer indentations where the Kentucky ax handle goes. When the ax head glows orange, he will remove it and pound it 30 times on his anvil with a 2 1/2-pound hammer to begin forging a cutting edge. When the luminescence of the ax dulls, Keller will feel the hammer hitting more solid iron and will hear its concussion clanging at a higher pitch. Then he will know it is time to stop and plunge the ax back into the flames.

He will do these things as instinctively as a speed skater crouching more deeply at the hint of a head wind. No analysis, all sensation, with mechanics and intuition layered upon each other seamlessly. In the way that, away from the rink, a skater could calculate the physics of wind resistance, Keller could check hot iron's exact Fahrenheit readings by turning to a chart in his book Cognition and Tool Use: The Blacksmith at Work, coauthored with his wife, anthropologist Janet Dixon Keller of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

But he doesn't. In his blacksmith shop in rural Newman, Illinois, the exact temperatures on that chart might as well be written in a foreign language. It is the language of fire-and the language of experience, imagery, motion, weight, balance, sound, sight and feel-that a blacksmith must read. Years ago, Keller was only a reader of words, a professor of anthropology. His curiosity slowly pulled him into the world of craftsmanship, where ideas can't be distinguished from objects, thought can't be distinguished from labor-doing is thinking. Today, his lifework is to help the millions of us who no longer make objects with our hands to appreciate the few of us who still do.


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Keller's tools are similar to those used by Ignatius Streibich, who in 1870 built and opened the blacksmith shop in Newman, Illinois, where Keller works. A 1914 Little Giant trip-hammer delivers repeated blows for forging hot iron.


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Using a pair of flat-jawed tongs, Keller removes a slab or hot iron from the coal-fueled fire as flames lick high into the chimney. “In the summer, I sweat like nobody’s business,” he says. “I’ll go through a gallon of water a day.”

"Humans are makers," says Keller, a short, rounding, muscular 61-year-old with a graying beard and rough, thick hands. This morning as he works at the forge, smoke swirls in beams of sunlight that shoot through his dim shop's few windows. The iron in the fire smells like a cast-iron skillet that's been on a hot stove too long. "We have forgotten that, for two and a half million years, everyone made things," he says. Sometimes, when Keller is listening to an academic colleague argue that a craftsman shapes, say, a ladle as he does because its dipping function requires its bowllike form, Keller can only shake his head. His chattering colleague usually has no idea how many hundreds of choices and millions of tiny experiences go into the handmaking of even a simple ladle. Yeah, Keller will think to himself as the man speaks, come out to the shop, and IT give you a hammer.

Keller was a California boy who was going to be a trombone player, until he took an archaeology class in college. He got hooked. He earned his doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley and excavated African sites where people had made stone tools 400,000 years ago. His crew's dirt picks kept dulling, so he hired a Tanzanian blacksmith to forge them sharp. For hours on end, Keller found himself watching the old man, wondering exactly how craftsmen thought about their work.

Keller was always handy. As a boy, he built model sailboats. As a teen, he rebuilt a '31 Ford. As a man, he worked on his own house, even reroofed it. He loved solving the little problems of workmanship, figuring out just how to file the curve of a sailboat's wooden bow so it would slice through the waves, how to set the old Ford's carburetor to spit just the right mouthful of gas, how to calculate the rows of shingles so they'd end up hanging the correct /8 inch over the roof's edge. But he also loved the doing: laying row after row of shingles, the aching in his hammer arm, the smell of tar and sweat, his left hand reaching for a shingle, his fingertips feeling its tacky warmth from the hot sun, sliding the shingle into place, reaching for a nail held in his mouth and pounding the nail in with three dead-on hammer blows. And doing it again, again and again. It was beyond ideas and words.
Yet he knew that, to many intellectuals, physical labor is equivalent to the force that machines bring to bear on a job-blind, brute power. Keller believed otherwise:
Physical labor wasn't akin to dumb force but was a kind of intelligence. People often thought that a craftsman was closer to a draft animal than to a thinker, Keller suspected, because they didn't understand the amazing coordination of human senses that accomplishes the work. But he figured there was only one way to unravel the mysteries of thinking and doing.
"I needed to be taught something real."

So 23 years ago, Keller decided to learn a craft. Remembering his fascination with the Tanzanian blacksmith, he moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and apprenticed himself to two blacksmiths. He cleaned floors, painted walls,
lugged iron-and struggled to learn blacksmithing, which to an observer looks awfully simple: heat, hammer, bend.

One day, Keller was trying to read the temperature of a piece of hot iron, hold it with tongs in his left hand and turn it like a slab of meat to heat it evenly, use his right hand to adjust the amount of coal he needed, make certain that ashes weren't building up in the firebox and cooling the fire, watch for the iron to turn light cherry at 1,600 degrees so he knew it had reached forging temperature, figure out what tool he was going to use to shape the iron once he pulled it from the flames. No doubt, he was looking as awkward as a gritty nail-banger in a philosophy class when one of his mentors, standing in the shop, calmly smoking a cigarette, said, "Think hot."
Think hot? What the hell did that mean?

In time, the admonition revealed its meaning. A blacksmith must think as if he were his material, as if his material were, well, alive. Fine woodworkers often imagine that their walnut or mahogany is alive and helping or resisting the craftsman. A fine locksmith will imagine that his locks are talking to him. A coppersmith will imagine that his copper has agreed to be molded.

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A collection of colonial-era tool and hardware replicas made by Keller.
TOP: a log dog for hewing timbers. MIDDLE: a wagon wrench, a potato hook, a woodworker's hold-down, a hatchet, a toasting fork and a socketed splitting wedge. BOTTOM: a pitchfork, a hoe and a gate hook.


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Tools and fixtures in Keller's shop include, from left, a vise, an English-pattern anvil atop a stump with hammers leaning on it, a slack tub, a brick forge, the fire, various tongs and a trip-hammer. The dirt floor traditionally accommodated horses brought in to be shod.

A blacksmith must accept the nature of iron and fire and tools-and think as they would, if they could. "Think hot" was practical and metaphorical advice, akin to a music teacher telling a student to relax and enter the music or a veteran race-car driver telling a novice to let the car drive itself. The suggestions mean nothing at first, seem loony. But in those who will someday be the best musicians, race-car drivers and craftsmen, the advice poses a mental and emotional stance toward doing that is beyond words.

That day, though, Keller was a long way from beyond anything. He first had to learn that to get the right striking angle he must stand square to his anvil with his feet in a baseball batter's stance; that to thin, thicken, lengthen, narrow or spread hot iron he must use a metal hammer, but to straighten twisted iron he must use a wooden mallet; that the forge's firebox must be large enough to allow most of the oxygen to be consumed, or oxidation will pit the iron; that a 1/2-inch-thick iron bar heated to 2,500 degrees stays hot enough to forge for only 60 seconds; that when punching a hole in hot iron, he must feel the first strike when the punch no longer indents the iron, because an extra hammer blow will bury the punch in cold iron, like King Arthur's sword in the stone; that a knife blade's balance must be determined by its feel in the hand; and that when iron reaches forgewelding temperature it erupts in almost imperceptible sparks.

And those were mere details. In his head, Keller had to learn to create a picture of the object he hoped to make and then to imagine all the steps between. This imagery, as he came to call it, demanded not only experience but retrospective knowledge: the ability to look at finished objects by other craftsmen and to work backward to unravel the steps taken to make those pieces. From this, Keller learned the unspoken value blacksmiths share: Made objects should look as if they grew that way.

So they must be forged hot in 60-second intervals, because cold-hammered iron looks stiff and lifeless. The revelation to Keller was that blacksmiths don't revere their final objects-they revere what a man must know and master to be able to make the objects. As much as any intellectual, they revere knowledge.

"It's knowing for doing."

People often think of craftsmen as commonsensical mechanics whose skills grow from dexterity, patience and repetition. Keller came to reject that idea. "Craftsmanship is not common sense. What craftsmen do isn't intuition. It is hard-learned and complex and visual and intellectual. Always, there's a risk of failure. That's the rush." Over the years, Keller came to understand why craftsmen are often so bad at describing how they work. "They aren't verbal because the knowledge isn't verbal." Could Charlie Parker have put his saxophone playing into words? Could Laurence Olivier have explained how he became Hamlet? Could Janet Evans elucidate what happened when she hit the water? Keller discovered that competitive swimmers move more slowly when they think too much about stroke mechanics. Musicians play worse. Performers act stiffly.

"A lot of mental people really do think manual labor is of a lower order," Keller says. "But labor isn't just the means to the thrill of being done. There is satisfaction to the labor itself. Passion for the work grows from the feeling you get doing the work." He compares it to the runner's high."I'm saying that the tactile, visual and physical are as important to developing intelligence as language and that this intelligence is acquired from interacting with objects. This carries profound implications for a society where we no longer produce anything."

Finally, after 15 years of blacksmithing as research, Charlie Keller committed the anthropologist's greatest sin-he went native. He quit teaching and bought a share of an 1870 blacksmith shop that was being used for storage. Today, his tool replicas are in museums and at living-history sites in more than two dozen states and several countries. His tools appear in the film of The Last of the Mohicans. A few years ago, Early American Life Magazine named Keller one of the finest 200 traditional craftsmen in the United States. Yet, at night, he still writes academic articles about the mind of the craftsman.
"I want the thoughtfulness of these men recognized."

By the end of the workday, Keller is drenched in sweat. The temperature at the forge can rise to 130 degrees. Today, he has put the pieces of his Kentucky ax head in the fire and taken them out again probably a hundred times, forge-welded them together and hammered out the rough shape of a cutting edge. He has swung his hammer maybe a thousand times. He's tired and filthy. Grime is caked under his nails, and muck outlines the wrinkles on his neck. He wipes a streak of ash from his forehead. "That's why philosophers don't want to deal with this stuff," he says, laughing. "It's too dirty."

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Keller shapes the cutting edge of a Kentucky ax head. He swings his 2 ½ pound hammer until the blows begin to ring sharply, indicating that the iron has cooled too much and must be reheated.

END