Jamie Tyree deftly rearranged the smoldering coals on his forge. The fire revived, flames licking the air and sending soot and smoke up the metal chimney. Tyree added more charcoal and turned away to gather his tools and give the new fuel time to ignite. Satisfied with the intensity of the heat, he gripped a long, rectangular piece of metal with his forge tongs and thrust one end into the burning coals.

Using an internal clock set by decades of experience, Tyree watched and waited, then pulled the red-hot metal from the forge with his tongs at just the right moment. If he pulled it out too soon, any effort to shape it would be wasted. Leaving it too long would render the material brittle and useless.

He turned from the forge, the glowing metal gripped between the jaws of the tongs in one hand and a large well-worn hammer in the other. Two steps took him to his anvil, and he laid metal to metal, the hammer’s blows ringing through the quiet shop and shaping the metal into a smooth, curved handle.

Tyree, now in his 50s, has relived similar scenes countless times since his childhood.

“We camped a lot during the summer, and I was constantly getting a pair of pliers and a nail or something or other and sticking it in the campfire and heating it up and literally using a rock to pound it out,” Tyree said.

Tyree’s love for working with metal never waned. By the time he was 12 years old, he opened his own blacksmith shop and now, 37 years later, he is an internationally known master blacksmith.

“Some of us are fortunate enough that we’re born knowing exactly what we want to do, and I was one of those, even as a very small child,” he said.

Tyree’s vocation could have come to him through his lineage. His grandfather was a master machinist. His great-grandfather became the first certified Ford mechanic in East Tennessee but was a blacksmith by trade. His great-uncles from the Cedar Creek community were blacksmiths.

“My wife has done the genealogy and traced it all back to our people when they first come into here in the 1760s,” said Tyree, noting that part of his family still lives on the original land grant that was bought from Jacob Brown. “The census, as far as what she can find, one after another were blacksmiths. There was such a huge demand (back then). It was like car mechanics today. They’re everywhere.”

WHAT IS A SMITH?

“To be historically correct, blacksmith means mechanic,” Tyree explains. “I’m actually what’s traditionally considered a smith. I’m a hinge maker. I do door hardware. That’s my main business, and cooking utensils and things like that. A blacksmith is equivalent to the modern day car mechanic. They fix things. They were not producing, necessarily, anything. They were fixing things that had already been produced.

“If you made gates and railings, traditionally, you would be called a palisadosmith, not a blacksmith.”

Tyree points out that farriers, though skilled in some of the same techniques, are not blacksmiths.

“A farrier is very skilled but they are a totally different aspect of the craft than say, I am as a hinge smith, or a gate maker or a knife maker, which are still part of smithing,” Tyree said. It’s just a different aspect.

“I am extremely specialized in this shop, being a hardware smith. Once you become a smith and know all the basic steps, you can do pretty much anything. Just, obviously, you’re not going to be as good at it as somebody who’s done strictly that one thing. But we can all interchange with each other, as far as our abilities.”

Tyree hesitates when asked whether smithing is more art or science and likens it to an ancient craft shrouded in mystery, explaining that the forging process changes the structure of the metal.

“That’s a very complicated question,” Tyree said, measuring his words. “It’s all alchemy. We’re taking a raw material and, even though a lot of smiths may not know the metallurgical side of it as far as what’s physically taking place inside that bar of material, we are changing its entire makeup. How the material is heated, how it’s forged, how it’s cooled down afterwards, affects greatly the end product. Even if it’s a very elaborate and beautiful piece of hardware, there’s still a lot of science involved.”

“When we start out with the raw piece of material, and we forge that and make it into an object, that object is a different material,” he adds.

FORGING A LIVING

While smithing often evokes a romantic nostalgia for bygone days, it’s a hard way to make a living. In summer, temperatures in Tyree’s shop can reach 110 degrees Fahrenheit and once climbed to 125.

Imports pose another challenge.

“We’re competing against Lowes and Home Depot,” Tyree explained. “They’re producing tens of thousands of hinges, which means their prices can be way, way lower than what ours possibly could. We do production work here but it’s still a small production rate. Strap hinges, for instance, if we have a run of 50 of those, that’s a big order. Whereas 50 hinges to Lowes is not even worth fooling with.”

Still, Tyree forges a living from his shop, combining wholesale orders with sales from his online Etsy shop, Clinkerman. He ships all over the world.

“A very, very small amount of it stays here,” he said. “There’s just not a demand for it. This is the poor part of the country. So even though there are houses going up everywhere, when you start putting in custom-made iron work, like these hinges, you’re easily 10 times over increasing the cost, if not more.”

Mass produced hinges can’t compare in quality, durability and aesthetics to hand forged hardware, though.

“There’s a whole science behind it, but when you forge a piece of material, it changes its makeup, its composition and makes it much stronger as compared to a piece of material that’s been cast — you know molten and poured into a mold. That has very little strength. That’s the reason the axels in our cars are forged. That’s the reason landing gears on airplanes are forged. It’s so much stronger.”

He adds, “When we make a hinge, it’s expected to last 400 to 500 years. Whereas if you go to Lowes and buy that $10 hinge, if it lasts 50 years you’re doing pretty good.”

“There are many examples all over Europe — I mean tons and tons of examples — of hinges that were made in the 1100s that are still perfectly functional, still working every day,” he adds.

Most of the work Tyree turns out of his shop is based on 18th century English design which drew its aesthetic appeal from the symmetry and flow of organic forms found in nature.

“You very seldom see any straight lines in nature,” he explained, running his finger along the edge of a strap hinge. “A hinge, for example, when first looking at it, it appears that the lines are straight but they’re not. They actually bow just a little bit.

“It’s just like Greek columns on Olympia, at a distance, you look at them and they look perfectly straight. They’re not. They’re fatter in the middle than they are at the top or the bottom. It’s an illusion. It tricks the mind into thinking that it’s straight. We do the same thing with this hinge. If you’ll look at this, how the lines flow just like nature does, there’s no real straight lines anywhere in it.”

Although the design is taken from the 18th century, Tyree points out that styles and tastes change over time, and he caters to his customers’ preferences.

“This is junk compared to what the old guys did. There are hammer marks where there never would have been hammer marks. That was considered a sign of poor quality,” he explains, holding a hinge with a hand-hammered finish. “If I could travel in time and take that back 300 years ago and walk into town and offer that for sale, they would laugh me plumb out of town. ‘You’re no smith at all! That’s trash! That’s a two-year apprentice’s work!’

“But times have changed and so have likes and preferences and now, thanks to Walt Disney and Hollywood, this is considered appropriate, the real rough texture and all that. Out of their ignorance, they portrayed forge work as being a very coarse, primitive work. Part of the obligation of me being a master craftsman is to educate people and tell them this is the way it was.”

PRESERVING THE CRAFT

Another obligation Tyree feels keenly as a master smith is to preserve the craft by training apprentices.

A typical apprenticeship lasts seven years, at which point Tyree says the apprentice has gained enough skill to be called a journeyman, which means he can go to another shop and start producing. After about five years as a journeyman, he can test to become a master. A master can run his own shop and train apprentices but, Tyree says, never truly masters the craft himself.

“This is one of the hardest crafts to learn,” said Tyree. “It takes an honest year before you even learn to use a hammer somewhat efficiently. I’ve been doing it for 37 years now and I still learn something new every day.

He adds, “The hardest part of the craft is patience. You’ve got to have patience. You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to make a lot of them.”

That patience, along with the dozen years invested in training and the resulting experience and skill, also plays into the cost of hand-forged work.

In years past, Tyree would have up to eight apprentices training in his shop at one time, but his business hasn’t yet fully recovered from a fire that burned down his shop in 2007 or the housing market crash in 2008. Now he takes one apprentice at a time to be sure he can provide them with enough work for thorough training.

“It’s important to me to protect and preserve and teach the craft as much as possible, if for no other reason just because of our local Greene County history.”

Greene County’s abundance of red clay and limestone, the two ingredients needed to smelt iron, and the difficulty in getting goods over the mountains from the east, led to the development of the ironworking industry in the region.

THE FUTURE OF SMITHING

A statistic often cited that there are only about 1,000 full-time smiths working in the craft in the United States gives the impression that it is a dying craft. Tyree scoffs at the idea.

“As far as that statistic saying there’s only 1,000 smiths here in the United States, I don’t know, that maybe seems a little old to me,” he said. “There are so many fields within (smithing).”

He also points out that industrial smithing is the foundation of all other industries, from medical care and research to clothing manufacture and space exploration, in some way helping to manufacture, transport or otherwise sustain them.

“Everything from your car to tools, there are blacksmiths involved in every bit of it on an industrial scale,” he said, noting that although huge mechanical hammers are used on an industrial scale, the process is the same as that used since the dawn of the iron age.

“There’s no end in sight because there’s no replacement for it. Our global economy relies on forging. They say we’re in the space age or the technological age. No, we’re not. We’re still very much in the iron age because of vehicles, ships, airplanes, tooling. You can’t go out and drill a hole to find oil unless you’ve got iron and steel to drill with. The axles in an automobile, those are all forged but it’s done with very large machines. That’s how they manipulate the material to get it into whatever form or shape that they want.”

Tyree is aware, however, that his part in carrying on the craft will end one day. After 37 years at the anvil, he’s beginning to feel the wear on his body.

“It used to be nothing to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week when I was in my 30s, and I loved it, but it’s telling on itself now. I’m having to go to the chiropractor,” said Tyree, pausing to point out the depressions he’s worn into the floor between his forge and anvil over the years.

“We’re not taught how to protect our bodies in the craft. So, depending on how long my body holds up, I don’t mean to ever retire. I mean to literally walk out of the shop and fall over dead. That’s my goal.”

But though the question of how much longer he will wield his hammer looms in the future, one thing is certain. The legacy reaching back through his family line and the millennia since the iron age gave birth to the craft, will live on through Tyree’s work and the apprentices trained in his shop who will in turn train others. The craft of fire and iron that made possible the modern world as we know it will continue to forge our future.

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