MISSOULA, Mont. — Frank McKinney, a blacksmith and American history buff in Alberton, spends much of his time in his garage.
There, he has a collection of forges — the furnaces where blacksmiths heat metal — that he built himself. Hatchets, nails and knives litter the tables and counter tops. McKinney learned traditional forging methods in 1988 while working at the Historic Fort Snelling in St. Paul, Minn., and was instantly hooked.
“I was attracted to the historical aspect of blacksmithing,” said McKinney, who has a master’s degree in American history. “Then, making something from nothing. A blob of metal becomes a functional tool.”
In Alberton, McKinney makes horseshoes and custom wrought-iron pieces for customers, and has found a way to combine his love for history with his trade. Many of the pieces scattered about his shop are reproductions of historical tools, like the Hudson’s Bay knives used in the 19th century, tomahawks, or 18th century smoker’s companion tools, which were used to light pipes before matches.
Several years ago, McKinney began teaching his nephews and neighbor kids how to blacksmith. His wife suggested he expand that operation, and in fall of 2016 he began teaching classes to people from nearby communities. Nearly every class has been full, he said.
“Everything they’re doing here is enough to get them started in their own shop,” McKinney said, gesturing to the eight students hammering in his garage.
Each class is a day long, with both a lecture component and time for students to make their own tools. In the beginners’ class, which takes up to eight people, students make a nail, a hook, a meat turner, and a bottle opener. The idea is for each skill and tool to build on the previous one — the meat turner can be hung on the hook which is nailed to the wall.
“As a blacksmith, you are primarily a toolmaker,” McKinney told his students.
Students spent the late morning making their hooks — heating the metal and then hammering it against the anvil until it cooled. The process is repetitive and requires a balance of force and careful precision so as not to break any pieces off unintentionally.
McKinney encouraged the students who were tapping the metal too lightly: “Hit it hard!”
Alex McCormick, a welder from Bonner, joined the class because he’s already familiar with working with metal and thought it would be fun to learn a new skill.
“I like to think of myself as a hobbyist,” McCormick said. “I like to do many different things. This is awesome, I wish I had the space to have my own shop.”
Over lunch, McKinney talked about the methods blacksmiths used on the Lewis and Clark expeditions. They used to set up on the ground wherever they were and used hand-bellows, he said.
Brian McKenzie joined the class with his wife Vicky after watching “Forged in Fire” on the History Channel.
“It’s like a cooking show but for blacksmiths,” he said. “I watch it religiously.”
McKenzie said the show made it look easy, but there’s a lot more thought that needs to be put into blacksmithing, it’s not just hammering.
“It’s delicate with a lot of muscle, a lot of finesse,” he added.
Some people said they planned to attend the advanced class as well, where McKinney teaches how to make knives and tomahawks. David Smith, a woodworker, said he wanted to learn blacksmithing so he could combine the two skills to make knives.
As the skills get more complicated, students can learn to combine several types of metal to make a Damascus blade, which has a distinctive pattern, like flowing water or wood grain.
“A Damascus blade is a lot like baking a loaf of bread,” McKinney said. “You knead together metals with different carbon contents using heat and pressure. Then you weld all those metals together and it forms a billet that you can turn into a knife.”