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Old School

A group of Adirondack artisans and advocates create a one-of-a-kind school that focuses on the past while helping a small community to forge ahead

by E.S. Cormac on August 15, 2013 · 1 comment

A blacksmithing student prepares his hand-forged knife by stripping the blade. Photo by E.S. Cormac.

A hand-cranked bellows feeds the burning coals oxygen as the fire grows so hot the flames flicker blue. A bar of high carbon steel glows a bright orange under the intense heat. Tongs pick the burning steel out of the flames and place it onto an anvil. A hammer begins its cadence of strikes. Bang-clang-bang clang-bang-clang. Each blow transforms the molten steel closer to its final form. As the steel cools to an incendiary shade of yellow, the hammer ceases to swing. The tongs lift the steel back into the forge and the bellows once again stoke the fire. This process repeats until finally a blade is born.

What sounds like a scene from the 1986 film Highlander or the 2008 installment of Rambo is actually an ordinary day during a knifemaking class at the Adirondack Folk School, located in the town of Lake Luzerne.

“I can’t think of a better way to spend the morning than playing with fire and beating on something with a hammer,” says Bill Collins, one of the students of the course.

Collins was one of six students who arrived at the Adirondack Folk School on a Tuesday morning in late July, eager to begin two long days of blacksmith instruction. The course they registered for, Beginning Knife Making, serves as a beginner’s course at the folk school and is intended to introduce students to the art of blacksmithing. Students are also guaranteed to go home at the end of the course with a knife they forged themselves.

The Adirondack Folk School teaches many of the arts, crafts, and traditions found in this storied region of upstate New York, a region once visited by then-Vice President Theodore Roosevelt (who was fetched from a hike on Mount Marcy with the news of President William McKinkley’s untimely death), and featured in Winslow Homer’s painting The Guides. The school offers a wide range of courses from blacksmithing, boat building, furniture making, weaving, and canning—just to name a few. Because it focuses exclusively on the crafts and arts of the Adirondacks, the school has become the only one of its kind in the United States. The folk school also became the first school in the country to offer the ABANA (Artist-Blacksmith’s Association of North America) certification program, offering students a chance to become a certified member of the national blacksmithing organization.

The school grew from an idea of local resident Jim Mandle. Like many towns in upstate New York, the historic downtown district of Lake Luzerne was struggling. Mandle attempted to attract several businesses to the vacant town hall building without success. Inspired by a visit to the North House Folk School in Minnesota, in 2010 he helped created the Adirondack Folk School. The school took over the former town hall located on the banks of the last free-flowing stretch of the Hudson River, unfettered by locks or dams as it flows down from Lake Tear in the Cloud on Mount Marcy.

“We started with about 50 instructors teaching about 90 classes, and we’re up to about over 100 instructors teaching about 300 classes this year,” says Eve Wenger, executive director of the Adirondack Folk School. The school is currently in its fourth year, and interest continues to grow, she adds. This year the folk school organized the Adirondack Forge and Hammer Week (August 10-18), a celebration of the art of blacksmithing that includes lectures and demonstrations by California-based master smith Mark Aspery.

“I took this class because I wanted to work with my hands,” says Robert Gendron, a knifemaking student. Gendron looked into several other schools, including one in Maine. He thought they were either too expensive or the courses were too long to fit his budget and schedule. “I really wanted to learn blacksmithing, and this school was the best answer.”

Collins is the former chief counsel for the New York State Senate Majority, and Gendron is an IT technician for a Saratoga County tech company. Also in the class was a retired career military man, a construction worker, and a mechanic, and another retiree. They represent the typical cross section of students the school attracts, according to Wenger.

This particular knifemaking course began with the basics, namely fire building. Instructor Eric Schatzel showed the students how to properly build a coal fire, and the technique needed to keep it going in a hand cranked forge. Schatzel continued instruction in alternating rounds of hands-on learning and demonstration.

As the students worked through the day, they appeared in awe of Schatzel’s blacksmithing skill. “Every time he does something he makes it look so easy,” says Jeffery Stevens, who watched in disbelief with each one of Schatzel’s demonstrations. The other students nodded in wonder, as Schatzel swung his hammer, forcing the metal to bend to his will with ease.

At 22 years old, Schatzel is something of a blacksmithing anomaly. His father introduced him to historical reenactment events when he was a young boy, and Schatzel became intrigued by the almost-forgotten art of blacksmithing. With help from his dad he bought a forge at the age of 14 and taught himself the trade. Now, his income comes entirely from blacksmithing. Besides teaching several courses at the Adirondack Folk School, he works part-time at the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown, and creates pieces for museums, historic sites and private collectors. “He is well on his way to becoming a master blacksmith,” says Adam Howard, one of the main blacksmiths at the school. Howard assisted in the first day of the July knifemaking class.

Patricia Goldberg weaves a sock rug. Photo by E.S. Cormac.

One of the other areas that makes the Adirondack Folk School unique is its commitment to the local community. “We don’t have dormitory rooms or a cafeteria here; we encourage people to go out and visit the local restaurants and stay in the local hotels and inns,” Wenzel says.

The Adirondack Folk School now employs every possible inch of the town hall and its property. On the second floor of the building sit three looms, offices and a large classroom. The basement is host to an array of woodworking power tools. On the first floor is a gift shop selling items made by instructors at the school.

Outside is a wood-fired brick oven the school uses in breadmaking classes. Students from the timber framing class built the pavilion around it using traditional post-and-beam construction.  Every September, students and instructors at the folk school host the Bountiful Bowl Benefit, a craft and music festival. More than 200 hand-thrown bowls filled with soup and chili get served with bread from the wood fired oven. The school donates the proceeds to the Maxfield Community Food Pantry in Lake Luzerne.

Adjacent to this is the barn that houses the forges used in blacksmithing courses. There is also a campfire area surrounded by wooden benches, lending the area a summer camp feel.

The first day of class ended with a few disappointments, as some of the students broke the tips off knife blades or burned off the handles of their knives. These mistakes are easy to make, according to Schatzel and Howard. Each instructor pointed out that at 9 AM none of them knew anything about blacksmithing, and the fact that they made it this far was impressive in itself. “The second day is easier than the first,” Howard promised, as the students left for the day.

 

Schatzel's blacksmithing projects. Photo by E.S. Cormac.

On the morning of the second day of the Beginner Knife Making Course, the students arrived eager to finish their knives. Most were sore from swinging 10-pound hammers and some had blisters forming on their hands. Others, like Stevens and Collins, saw the first day’s mishaps as a challenge and grew determined to make a second knife, and fulfilling Howard’s promise from the day before, they each did. Just before the final honing and polishing was complete Schatzel brought the class outside to show them some samples of his work.

When many people think of blacksmithing, what comes to mind are clunky wrought iron hinges, crude square-shaped nails and quaint farm implements. What Schatzel showed the class was completely different. He had a collection of intricately figured peace-pipe tomahawks, tailor’s tools, finishing hammers and barber shears. Each one was an exact duplication of an 18th century item found on various archeological sites.

Humbled, amazed, and enthused, the students returned to harden and sharpen their blades. Sparks rained through the air as the knife blades glided across the face of a belt grinder. Once more, the coals of the forge engulfed the knives until they glowed a bright orange. Steam rose as each blade plunged into a tank of oil, hardening the steel. Blue jet flames of a propane torch painted the bright sheen of the knives’ sharp edges into purple and blue hues, tempering the blades for a lifetime of use. Finally, each blade slid across a stone, giving the knife a keen razor edge.

Class finished and each student left with a tool they birthed in the forge. One student immediately registered for an October class on making camp axes.