Blacksmith carries on ancient art in Wilton

WILTON — While they both work with an anvil, hammer and metal, a blacksmith and a farrier are not the same.

That’s the one misconception Skip Kern, the resident blacksmith at Wilton Historical Society would like to dispel. A farrier shoes horses, period.

And while a country blacksmith may have made horseshoes, their primary stock in trade was and continues to be goods for the home: hooks, latches, hinges, and all items for the hearth including toasters, griddle irons, chains, and fireplace items including peels (a shovel-like item to remove ashes).

“The blacksmith was considered the king of all trades because they made their own tools as well as the tools for others. They also repaired tools,” Kern said last week as he shut down the blacksmith shop after a week’s worth of demonstrations for fifth graders.

Kern has been the historical society’s blacksmith for the last two years although his association here began more than 25 years ago when he stopped in to see if the society needed his services.

The society hired someone else, but when he died, Kern came by to help with the estate — sorting out who owned what tools — and he was invited to stay on. He has been on the grounds for major events, including the holiday train show, the artisan exhibition and more.

A historical reenacter, Kern came to blacksmithing by accident. About 35 years ago his group’s whaleboat needed repair and he volunteered to learn the craft. He had his own forge and took lessons from others “and here we are,” he said with a laugh.

He’s been head blacksmith at Boothe Memorial Park in Stratford and the Kent Antique Machinery Association. When the gig opened up in Wilton, being a Norwalk resident, he jumped at it.

When asked what he enjoys most about it, he said “making something from what people might consider trash.”

Holding up a short iron rod he said,” talking a scrap piece of iron and making it into a useful item.”

Kern is also continuing a Wilton tradition. The building in which he works dates from the 1890s and was originally on Hurlbutt Street.

“It was a working blacksmith shop and continues to be a working forge,” he said.

At one end of the building is the fire built with bituminous coal, also known as soft coal, and fed by a blower. “That’s pure energy,” he said.

He holds a piece of iron in the fire until it is soft enough to take to the anvil where it is forged with a variety of hammers, depending on the end product.

“Forging,” he said, “is the act of forming the shape.”

To make a hook, he said, is a simple project that can be completed in a few minutes. More complicated would be something like a trammel, which goes on a fireplace crane and allows one to raise or lower a pot.

“You have to hot punch the holes,” he explained.

Ancient art

Blacksmithing has not changed much over the centuries.

“As soon as people figured out how to smelt iron, the techniques are the same,” he said. “The metals may change but not the technique.”

It’s a lifelong pursuit, he said, one that he is still learning with the help of others.

“The blacksmithing community today is good about sharing techniques,” he said. “They are trying to keep this alive.

“The community is huge, it’s men and women” around the world who include those making a business of it, historical hobbyists, and people who want to be self-sufficient.

Kern would like to harness that popularity by perhaps holding a “hammer-in,” drawing blacksmiths from all areas to demonstrate their skills and hawk their wares.

Some of his own items were popular in the society’s gift shop — the Betts Store — over the holidays and he would like to expand his product line to include more hooks, bottle openers, and skewers.

“Any historical society that carried period items, I would seek out,” he said. “I’m willing to travel for it and other people are, too.”