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OKOTOKIAN: Forging along

Oilfields High School fires things up with blacksmithing unit
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Youth are getting all fired up about one of the hottest new programs at a Black Diamond school..

About 25 students are hammering hot steel into shape for six to eight weeks each semester after industrial education and career and technology studies teacher Dave Toews introduced blacksmithing to his metal fab class at Oilfields High School three years ago.

Grade 7 student Kayleigh Mackenzie was intimidated when she first began blacksmithing, due to the intense heat from the forges, but soon began enjoying it.

“It’s a cool experience,” she said. “Hammering makes me get my anger out.”

Mia Coutts, also in Grade 7, said she enjoyed transforming metal into objects when she was in the program last fall.

“It’s just fun to hit something hot and see it transform into something flat,” she said. “It was annoying because it wasn’t turning out how I wanted it to, but eventually it turned out.”

Coutts said she had to restart a couple of times by reheating the metal and banging it back into shape.

“You can’t restart with a new piece of metal because there’s not enough for everyone,” she said.

Blacksmithing became a passion of Toews after a student introduced it to him four years ago. After watching some blacksmithing videos, Toews’ interest grew. He built a forge and began teaching his own children blacksmithing techniques.

To get the program going in his classroom, Toews enlisted the help of Millarville blacksmith and former student Lindy Malmberg.

The two collaborated and were soon offering blacksmithing to students using their own equipment.

“I was heavily reliant on Lindy to bring his equipment and I brought mine,” said Toews. “If Lindy didn’t come in the kids couldn’t do it, but Lindy coming at class time didn’t always allow enough time for the kids. I wanted to offer it so if kids wanted to smash metal at lunchtime they could do it.”

In 2019, Toews applied for and received the Foothills School Division’s Classroom Practice Innovative Project Grant, allowing him to buy propane-powered forges, anvils, stands, tongs, drifts, punches, hammers, chisels, safety gear and welders for the program.

Before long, the students were making metal key chains, coat hooks, bottle openers, fire pokers and drawer handles.

“Some kids are big and strong and some are young and not so muscular,” said Toews. “If swinging a hammer is difficult for them they work in groups or partners. Sometimes we have two forges and five kids at each forge.”

With as many as 10 students working with hot metal around forges exceeding 1,000 degrees Celsius, safety is paramount.

Toews requires them to wear shop coats, long pants, ear protection, eye protection, closed-toed shoes and welding gloves.

In addition to teaching the technical and safety side of blacksmithing, Toews also delves into some history.

“They’re learning about art and the craft of blacksmithing and its historical significance,” he said. “I do a lesson on blacksmithing, what did it mean to the community 200 years ago and the fundamentals of basic metal work.”

With no blacksmithing program in the curriculum allowing for students to collect credits, Toews said it made sense to offer the unit to junior high school students who aren’t relying on credits to graduate.

He said the unit fits well with the curriculum.

“I already teach them sheet metal work and shielded metal arc welding so blacksmithing just seemed like a great additional fit,” he said. “It’s a great hobby and could be a great potential career path from a small business standpoint making ornamental architecture like gates, plant hangers, horseshoes and tools. I want the kids to feel they can pursue it from an art standpoint or functionality standpoint, or both.”

In addition to teaching his students potential career skills, Toews said the blacksmithing unit also forces youth to step away from their electronics.

“I want kids to put their phones down and have an appreciation and interest in working with their hands,” he said. “Metal is the fundamental of our entire society. Nothing that exists has been made either without metal or things that are made of metal.”

Toews added that metal is versatile and flexible, and a beautiful medium to work with.

“They become comfortable with it and they want to sit in front of the forge and feel the heat and watch that red hot metal form as they smash it,” he said. “They develop a sense of confidence and a sense of anticipation for what they’re going to be able to do.”

Gavin Wielgosz, who participated in the metal fab program this school year and last, said the blacksmithing unit is one of his favourites. 

“I could make stuff that I could use like bottle openers and key rings,” he said. “It’s not too difficult, you just have to get the right technique. When you’re hammering you have to angle the hammer right.”

Through practice and watching Toews’ demonstrations, Wielgosz, who wants to pursue welding as a career, soon got the hang of blacksmithing.

“You use a hammer to shape it and then different punches make different sized holes,” he said. “It’s satisfying bending metal.”

But working with metal isn’t always easy.

“You could break your piece and it’s a little frustrating but there’s ways you can fix it like welding your pieces back together if they’re big enough,” he said. “If they’re too small you can think of something else to make.”

Although Seth McGregor had signed up for metal fab in Grade 7, the demand for the elective was too high and he wasn’t able to take the class until last fall during his Grade 8 year.

McGregor said he was looking forward to the blacksmithing unit particularly.

“When I was younger my father got a forge and anvil and started doing some work and it got me really interested,” he said. “I want to be a welder, blacksmither or woodworker.”

The idea of making something beautiful out of hammering metal appealed to McGregor, who made a keychain and bottle opener last semester.

“It’s pretty easy,” he said. “The hardest part is trying to get the actual shape that you want. It doesn’t really go the way you want when you’re not that experienced. You’ve just got to be careful sometimes.”

The one to prompt Toews to offer the unit, Quinn Sinton has relished in the addition of blacksmithing in the metal fab program.

“I just think it’s a really good skill to have,” he said. “You can make your own tools. If I want a hammer I could just make myself a hammer. I like how the metal is so malleable with the heat and the stuff you can make with it. I’ve made tongs, punches and drifts.”

Three years ago, Sinton made a forge at his home, collected some steel and began making hunting and bowie knives which he sells for as much as $200 on Instagram and through word of mouth.

“I liked knives but they’re super expensive to buy so I thought I would make my own,” he said. “I don’t really use them, I just like the enjoyment of making them.”

For the past two years, Sinton did blacksmithing demonstrations for the Calgary Stampede’s blacksmith committee during Aggie Days.

And with blacksmithing offered at school, Sinton spends even more time forming metal into objects.

“I can come here after school and work on some projects,” he said. “It’s just cool that they’re teaching all the kids how to blacksmith.”




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Tammy Rollie

About the Author: Tammy Rollie

Tammy Rollie is a staff reporter at OkotoksToday.ca and the Western Wheel newspaper, focusing on Wheel's West, local arts and culture and entertainment. For story tips contact trollie@okotoks.greatwest.ca
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