Arts & Arms – Crafts of the Past

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Through making items, we connect the present to the past by gaining an appreciation for hand-crafted items that have survived generations. One of my favorite places growing up was my dad’s workshop. Working alongside my dad, he taught me the tricks of carpentry he had learned when framing houses in his college days. My father also encouraged me to practice carpentry by buying me tools and books for Christmas. Yep, I wanted tools for Christmas, still do. I found a fascination in working with hand tools early on and having a desire to even make my own tools, which eventually led to my interest in blacksmithing. I was fortunate to have a dad who gave me a lot of freedom to explore. When I told him I wanted to do blacksmithing he said, “That’s fine, but you’ll never get the metal hot enough”. Gauntlet down. Challenge accepted. After a bit of scrounging for metal to make a forge basin, borrowing my dad’s shop vac for a blower, and walking the railroad tracks, picking up coal that had fallen from the trains, a forge was born-a chisel forged. I was hooked! When I showed him the chisel he said, “Well, I guess you got it hot enough! What are you going to make next?”

woman hitting metal on an anvil

Carrying on Traditional Armsmaking

As a self-taught blacksmith and carpenter, there have been a lot of bumps and bends in the road to learning my craft. The few times I’ve taken a class, it has really helped refine my techniques and develop my skills. In my job at Conner Prairie, one of the things that I most enjoy is being able to share my knowledge with others through the various classes we teach as part of our Traditional Historic Skills and Armsmaking Workshops. I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn when I say, all of our instructors feel the same. We all have a desire to see our crafts be carried on by others. Though we primarily focus on traditional skills and products in pottery, woodworking, textiles, metalwork and hearth cooking, those skills can be applied in a variety of ways to produce works that possess a distinctly historic style or a unique contemporary design.

Man doing woodwork

In our basic design, humans have the desire to build and create. The workspaces and instructors at Conner Prairie create an environment that is designed to help students succeed in developing correct skills and techniques. The atmosphere of the classes are relaxed, yet focused on helping students achieve their goals. It’s rewarding being able to take an old car spring and forge it into a knife; or learn to decoratively engrave a piece of wood, or work a raw cow horn, into a finished product; or transform a lump of clay into a handcrafted mug. Through making items, we connect the present by discovering the satisfaction of utilizing our creative nature, just as the makers of the past did. Are you ready to channel your inner craftsman? Join us for our classes!

About the Author

Nathan Allen grew up in rural Missouri and from a young age had a fascination with history, making and the outdoors. He began his career at Conner Prairie as an intern in the blacksmith shop during the summer of 1995. Since then, he has worn a lot of hats, including working with a team to design, implement and oversee MakeSmith Workshop, developing various Make and Takes, teaching classes, and working to maintain Conner Prairie’s historic structures. Nathan has led many classes here at Conner Prairie, and has also taught and demonstrated blacksmithing to various organizations in Missouri, Michigan, Iowa, Illinois and Ohio.