Shipsmithing

By Amy Shmania, F09

Walking across the green, I can smell the shipsmithing shop. Its thick and gritty odor oozes out the doors, up the chimneys, and through the skylights, sending tentacles down the sandy streets, around the shops and houses, past the horse and carriage, and into my nostrils. Inside the shop, coal is burning on the forges—deep down a bright white-yellow, fading up through orangey-red to black.

When you walk into the shop, you might expect it to be dark and grimy, the air thick with smoke, but the dirt floor is neatly swept and the smoke goes up the chimneys quite happily. The sunlight pouring through the windows illuminates piles of scrap metal, unfinished hooks and rings, buckets of hammers, a wall of metal rods. Bill, our instructor, is always pulling out new things from the piles of metal: buckets of possible projects, wrenches, unfinished hooks to be cut off and started again, a box of letters to punch into finished work. The more time I spend in the shop, the less random the buckets, stacks, and oddly assorted piles seem to me. The hammers, files, drill bits, and finishing wax all have their places in the chaos of metal.

Start with a piece of iron, not too thick. Heat it in the fire, taper the end into a point. Heat it again, and curl the tip back before bending the metal into a hook around the horn of the anvil. Heat. Cut the metal to size. Heat. Flatten the top with several hits of the hammer. Cool, drill a hole, adjust. When Bill makes a hook out of iron, it is just that simple. He holds his hammer with ease, swinging it up and down to use the least amount of muscle and the most force. The metal stays bright with heat, and it rounds or flattens or squares just right under the touch of his hammer.

Miranda, Lucy, and I do our best. The staff members in the shop like to tell visitors that working with hot iron is like molding clay. I have my doubts. Sometimes the metal gets too hot in the forge and the tip melts or a thin leaf gets holes burned in it. Some days, no matter how hot the piece you are working on looks, by the time you’ve fished it out of the coals, gotten a good hold on it, and brought it to the anvil, it has lost its colorful heat. Despite these minor frustrations and my doubts on the clay-like qualities of hot iron, the shipsmithing shop is my favorite place in the Seaport. Inside, Bill makes his famous hot chocolate (Swiss Miss plus Ghirardelli, and are ten mini marshmallows enough?), the coals send off a cozy heat, the four of us work in rhythm—metal in the fire, metal out, stop to chat, to watch, to admire—visitors come and go, the sound of pounding iron fills my head, and the metal below my hammer behaves better every day.

Author: williamsmystic

A one semester interdisciplinary ocean and coastal studies program integrating marine science, maritime history, environmental policy, and literature of the sea.

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