Public Demos, Rules, and Ideas

Old Dominion Blacksmiths Association Public Demo Suggestions

"We would hope that, as a member of ODBSA, you would demo what you know to your friends and the general public because that is an important part of being a member of the Old Dominion Blacksmith Association.

I do not profess to be a professional demonstrator to the public because 90% of my demonstrations have been to school groups in an enclosed environment and the children were captive for a 30-minute time period. Still, some of the things I did and learned might be of some assistance to you.

I have put together some suggestions that you can, if you want to, implement when you do a demonstration to the public. First, all members should know the hazard of blacksmithing before ever doing a demo. We definitely do not want anyone hurt because of what you did or did not do. Remember this: if an accident were to occur, you might have just opened yourself to Liability.

Now, what to demo? Whatever you want but I found to keep the majority of the crowd's attention, make something simple that does not take long to do, like a hook, nail or cross.

Surprise! I always do more talking that I do demonstrating. You might do the opposite, just demonstrating, but if you want to run your mouth some, here is some help for you.

  1. What is the most popular last name in the USA and England? One in every 100 people has the last name of Smith. Blacksmith is what is meant when referring to "Smith". I found in the records of our plantation where they paid the "Smith" at the end of each year.
  2. In earlier times as families moved further inland in America and started settling into communities, what was the first professional person they wanted? No, it was not the Doctor but it was the Blacksmith. He repaired equipment, made equipment, shod horses, fixed wagons, made axes, hoes, etc, etc. He was the MAN.
  3. The blacksmith worked himself out of a job. When the first automobiles came out the blacksmith would say when seeing the first car: " there goes another blacksmith that will be out of work."
  4. The Blacksmithing trade really started declining rapidly in the 1930's and by the early 60's had almost disappeared. In the 70's, it started to rejuvenate. Thanks to some people that wanted hand forged items over the last thirty years, we again have some professional blacksmiths. The real keepers of this historic craft are the hobbyist blacksmiths.
  5. Point out the anvil (steel face, wrought iron bottom if that is what you are using), hardie hole, pritchel hole (was added about 1830), horn (in England they call it a beck); slack tub or quenching tub (used for cooling and hardening metal); the blacksmithing vise or pole vise (the leg absorb the energy of the blow and the pole vise has been around for hundreds of years); the crank blower (the first dated about 1850) or the bellows which goes way, way back in time.
  6. Today, in America, we blacksmiths are not exactly using everything as they had in the early 1800's. In the past they used charcoal. The making of which helped clear a lot land in northeastern states like Pennsylvania. The charcoal maker would cut the trees down, cut it in certain lengths and stack it like an extra large T-pee and cover the outside with mud with very few holes for the smoke to get out when the fire was started. The fire was a very slow burning smoldering one. It would normally take about a week to produce the charcoal. The charcoal maker would have to stay in the woods observing the fire the whole time to make sure it did not burn too fast. Most of the smiths today use coal. I have been told that in this area of Virginia some Blacksmiths did not begin to use coal until about 1850.
  7. Another thing that is different is the metal that we are using. They used wrought iron, which has impurities in it like sand (silica). Because of this sand the wrought iron has a very distinct grain structure and the silica is said to help prevent rust. At this point, I show the people an example of it. This wrought iron is easier to forge weld, does not like sharp angles and is much more rust resistant than the metal we use today. In fact, up the 1930's most bridges were made of it. Wrought iron is no longer produced in the USA. Most of the pieces we are able to get come from old buildings and bridges. Today, we use mild steel that has very low carbon content and will rust quickly if nothing is put on it.
  8. The nail is my favorite subject to talk about because the public is interested in knowing something about its history. Why did the House of Burgess of Virginia pass a law in 1645 that people relocating could not burn their houses down? Because the nails were so rare and expensive when people moved they would burn their houses down to retrieve the nails. Here is a copy of the Law: "And it is further enacted by the authority aforesaid, That it shall not be lawful for any person so deserting his plantation as afore said to burn any necessary housing that are situated thereupon, but shall receive so many nails as may be computed by 2 indifferent men were expended bout the building thereof for full satisfaction, reservinge to the King all such rent as did accrew by vertue of the former grants or planting of the same from the expiration of the first seaven years."
  9. Because the wrought iron and particularly steel were so expensive in earlier times, the blacksmith did not charge by the job but instead charged by the weight of the metal used to do the task.
  10. Up to the Revolutionary War, we Americans were not allowed to make our nails, and many other items that England wanted to control. England had a cottage industry making nails and wanted to protect it.
  11. The hand-made nail goes way back in time. The Roman Empire and before used them. (Emperor Caligula used these nails dipped in copper for his ships.)
  12. The hand-made nail with its uneven head and sharp point was extensively used until the first machine for making cut nails was invented around 1795 (it had a somewhat square end or point. Even with this machine, they still had to make the heads by hand. As the cut nail machines improved (they now could produce heads that were somewhat the same and square) and as they became cheaper than the hand-made ones, they started replacing them. There was still a need for hand-make ones when clinching was desired, like in batten doors. Up to 1825 the grain in the machine made cut nails went the wrong way to bend it without breaking. There are ways to identity the approximate dates of cut nails made between 1795 and 1830.
  13. The availability of cut nails in this part of Virginia did not show up until about 1808.
  14. One of the first nail making businesses in Virginia was at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello in 1794. In 1795 he said he employed a dozen little boys aged from 10 to 16 years old. They produced 8 to 10 thousand nails a day. If they worked 10 hours a day and produced 10,000 nails then they each averaged making a nail every 45 seconds. In 1796 he bought and used one of the first nail making machines.
  15. The early blacksmiths took pride in their finished products. They would not let any item leave their shop until it looked perfect. It is said that they spent more time with a file than in forging the piece. When you look at historic hand-forged metal work you would think it came out of a machine (no hammer marks except on the back where it could not be seen). In the current times the general public wants to see hammer marks for verification of hand forging. "

Artist-Blacksmith's Association of North America

DEMONSTRATOR GUIDELINES (for public demonstrations) - Updated September 2008

Foreword: The following guidelines are meant to serve as a set of helpful hints to those who have not demonstrated before. As you perform more demonstrations, you will find that adjustments may be necessary. Remember, when you are in front of the public, you are representing not only yourself, but other blacksmiths as well. Act accordingly. Integrity and safety should be at the forefront of your thoughts. These guidelines should be helpful, but are not to guarantee that all will work smoothly. A good safe demonstration requires a conscientious blacksmith. That, we can guarantee. Have fun. Demonstrate often.


When doing a public demonstration, you should have the proper tooling to explain the different processes and complete your forging. The more tooling you have to display, the better, but the more work involved in setting up and tearing down. The ideal setup would be a self contained trailer with a complete shop separate from your home shop. For the person just starting to demonstrate, it is suggested that you only take the basics.


There are several things to consider when selecting a site. Remember, no one will show up to help until after you are done.

  1. You should always try to set up in the shade, under a tree, beside a building, or under a shelter. It gets extremely hot while working and you will need this.
  2. Check to see what will be set up around you. Stay away from quilt makers and others that the smoke and/or fly ash might do damage to their products.
  3. If at all possible, try and set up to the right of the entrance. People have a natural tendency to go that way.
  4. Set up in a depression with the public standing at a level about two feet higher. They get a better view and it reduces the chances of them being hit by slag, etc.
  5. Avoid concrete and asphalt. These surfaces are very tiring for your feet and hot metal can melt asphalt.
  6. Have a clean area without trash. Leave the area as clean as or even cleaner than you found it.

Safety should be #1 in every demonstrator's mind--not only for the audience, but for you as well.

  1. Work slow and always be aware of your audience. In you home shop, you naturally work faster and take certain things for granted. Never assume or take anything for granted while demonstrating.
  2. Separate the audience from your forging area as much as possible. Use a rope barrier, display table, or something to make a boundary. People tend to move closer and closer as they get involved in watching. Most demonstrators try to keep at least ten feet distance between the forging area and the audience.
  3. Always wear your safety glasses, and if possible have your viewers wear them also.
  4. Preferably, keep your audience in front of you instead of on the sides. Always control your audience-- never let them control you.
  5. Wear an apron. Not only is it nostalgic, but it could prevent injury and embarrassment!
  6. Talk about safety and warn of sparks, sharp edges and hot items. No matter how sincere they may be, don't let the viewers pick up tools or pieces you are working on.
  7. Keep all hot pieces (cut-offs, etc.) under the forge and away from people. It may be best to quench all pieces to be on the safe side.
  8. Have a first aid kit handy. You never know when you might burn or cut yourself.
  9. Forge welding is always fascinating to watch, but can be very dangerous. It is best not to forge weld if possible.
  10. Small children are naturally curious and will get right next to the forge or anvil. Be especially careful if they are present. Their little faces are right in line with the anvil and can be hit with slag or a chip of metal. It is not a bad idea to request parents to hold small children while you demonstrate.
  11. When using a hardy, never cut completely through stock. Use your tongs to break the end off. A cut piece of steel can be a misguided missile if you aren't careful.

Normally, the layout of your equipment is what feels good to you. However, when demonstrating in public you should consider the audience and remember the safety aspects involved. Keep it simple, but have everything you need. A small work table is good when assembling items. For large audiences, bleachers work well and you can control the demonstration better. Make sure access is available to get equipment to the demonstration site. The last thing you need to do is lug an anvil across a parking lot to your site. Arrive early and set up so as not to interfere with other demonstrators.


Everyone has a different level of proficiency, but when demonstrating in public you need to keep projects short and fairly simple. The attention span of your audience is relatively short since there may be other sites to see. Small quick-to-make items will also sell better if they see you make them. Rehearse your demo and have it down pat so that it will go smoothly.

Now is not the time to try a new technique. It is a good idea to have a speech prepared so you can explain the steps as you go. Always bring extra items you plan to demonstrate, so if someone is interested in purchasing one, you will have enough.

Some of the more popular items to demonstrate are:

You might also consider demonstrating with another person. For example, a two-person sledge demo to demonstrate drawing out of a bar could be done.


During a demonstration (between heats), it is good to have ideas of topics to talk about. There is no need to get technical or go into a long explanation of a tool or process because these people are there to be entertained.

  1. If the audience won't ask questions, stimulate them by asking some of your own.
  2. Pass around a chunk of coal and a piece of coke explaining how coal is converted into coke. Most people have no idea what you use to fuel your forge.
  3. Tell them about the Industrial Revolution and the role the blacksmith had in it. Include some of the history of blacksmithing and how it evolved from the Stone Age.
  4. There is a lot of interesting information to be passed on about the differences in wrought, mild and tool steels. Explain the plasticity of metal when it is heated.
  5. The general public has always heard the term "wrought iron" to describe any forged work. You might explain what wrought iron really is.
  6. People like to hear clean jokes, folk tales, and superstitions associated with the craft.
  7. Talk about the tools of the trade, the many parts of an anvil and its function.
  8. Be sure and note the presence of local or state affiliates and the national organization of ABANA. You never know when there might be someone in the crowd who has been looking for such a connection.
  9. Distinguish the difference between blacksmithing as an art form and farrier work.
  10. No matter where you go there will be people that will intentionally try and trip you up with a question. If you don't know the answer, say so. It is better to learn something new than to be made a fool.

It is easier to sell what you make during a demonstration, so choose your projects accordingly. A display board or table with some samples of your work is good and can lead to jobs down the road. Photo albums of past work are also a good selling tool. Keep a supply of business cards handy if anyone asks to have one. Keep extra stock of demo items in case an item you are demonstrating gets a lot of interest. Be able to make change with smaller bills. Price sale items fairly and don't cut the price. Remember, you are a craftsman.

    Gee Mom, look what else I've found!

Wisdom of my father: "It takes more of a man to walk away from a fight than to stay and fight."
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