Under a spreading chestnut tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.
-- from "The Village Blacksmith," by Henry W. Longfellow
Walter Boyd the Third (WB3) is a cigar-chomping, beer-drinking Texan -- a big man. He's also the director of web development and general counsel for high-tech Hypercon. His skin is deeply browned, but it sure as hell ain't from a tanning salon. More likely it's from wielding a sledgehammer all day in the sun or from the 1,600-plus-degree fire he's built to forge one of his forks or, perhaps, a custom Houston Press branding iron.
Walter Boyd's web site, www.lyttoncreek. com, is named for the Texas Hill Country spot where, five years ago, he built an experiment in living history -- a 19th-century blacksmith shop -- with plans taken from out-of-print books. A history buff and flintlock-muzzleloading-rifle enthusiast, Boyd inherited some of the tools of the trade from his grandfather. His anvil is a real source of pride. It's a Peter Wright from Birmingham, England -- the Mercedes of anvils. "It's at least five generations old," he said.
Any Net surfer can eventually build his or her own shop by logging in to www.lyttoncreek.com. There's a primer, blueprints and an extensive links page. The site receives about 12,000 hits a month, and it peaked at about twice that when it featured a live-cam feed last spring. Boyd invited me to the Houston "in-town" shop to make the Press branding iron, an all-day field trip.
Mercifully, it was the one day this summer that had an actual breeze. I stood beside a tangled pile of iron rod outside the shop, a small but sturdy enclosure with walls of thin wood and chicken wire. The coal had been burning for an hour when I arrived, so it was "coking," or reaching the point at which iron becomes a malleable substance. Walter introduced his two apprentices, teenagers Ray and Luciano "Lucky" Guzman, whose father owns this property. Lucky has already reached journeyman status.
Walter forges everything "by sight," so when colors change he can judge how the iron will respond to being hammered, bent, shaped. The process is loud and dangerous, an engineering thing. "Every time you bend the metal, it bends something else behind it," Walter shouted. He was not satisfied with how the iron was turning out, lamenting not having more time for the design. "Blacksmithing was the computer technology of the 19th century," he told me. I was sweating buckets, as were Lucky and Ray. Walter drank a steady flow of beer and had a perpetual cigarette hanging from his lips.
He accidentally touched a not-quite-cooled curve in the branding iron. He didn't scream, but a nasty white patch bubbled up through his skin. Ray got him a chunk of aloe vera, and Walter used the plant like a thimble.
Lucky was refining an enormous, medieval-looking sword. I admired the men's graceful choreography, the three of them weaving in and out of each other's way, holding irons in the fire, cranking the bellows' jaws, then backing off at just the right time to sweep the white-hot iron in the air, position it on the anvil and "draw it out" with a hammer.
I was covered in coal dust. We'd all turn and try not to breathe whenever Lucky cranked the bellows and the fire spewed thick, yellow smoke. We burned about 20 pounds of coal.
Walter coached me through the forging of a hook for hanging plants. It took hours. I beat that iron into submission. Nothing to it! Each clang of the six-pound hammer against the hook was deafening. I left happier than I'd ever been with lanyard key chains. "Here, Mom. For you. I forged it myself!"
The next day, I could not lift my arm without sobbing. Carpal tunnel, my ass. No wonder there's all that talk about "the smithy's hands." They've got to be made of steel. Or something like it.
-- Liz Belile
For more information about blacksmithing, or to get in touch with Walter Boyd about his living-history project, visit the extended version of this story at www.houstonpress.com/extra/urban/