Our family recently spent the afternoon at a local historical spot. That’s where we found our next interesting person. Tracey Rice has an uncommon talent. In a small wooden shed over flaming hot coals he bends and beats solid metal into whatever shape he pleases. The best part is, he makes it look easy. He has a great gift for sharing what he knows and we had the good fortune to meet up with him and ask a few questions about his unique craft.
Back in 1986, after graduating high school with a major in art, Tracey went to college at the University of Illinois for a degree in Metallurgy. He was familiar with the work, having grown up in Chicago he watched his father work as a foreman in a tool factory. After college he found his way into an apprenticeship, working at a historical village. I was amazed to learn that a full apprenticeship can take almost 20 years. Under the direction of a toolwright who maintained carriages, Tracey learned the skills of a tool maker. Now, if you’re like me….you might not be fresh with the lingo. A toolwright makes tools, a farrier works with horses and a cooper makes barrel rings…pay attention, there will be a quiz.
There are a lot of reasons why someone would want to become a blacksmith.
1. You’re trying out for a part in a Western film
2. You want to build your car from scratch
3. You’re looking for a career that will tone your biceps.
For Tracey, it’s all about the challenge. The push to create something new. He enjoys working on a project that lets him put his skill and creativity to the test. His most recent challenges were to create the bracket for a sail boat main mast and build custom designed brackets for holding antique rifles. Projects like these help to stretch his skill and knowledge and push him to a higher level.
Along with making things that are new and unique he is also able to meet some new and unique people. He currently puts on a display of his talent at the Historic Point Basse Wakely house. Donning the old fashioned leather apron, he sets out to bring people a little bit of history, a little bit of science and hopefully a dash of curiosity. When we saw him working at the Wakely House he was surrounded by a group of interested onlookers firing questions at him left and right. He maneuvered it easily all the while heating, bending and cooling iron. As he spins stories and hands out wisdom to his eager audience it’s easy to see the teacher in Tracey. He works as a science teacher when he’s not a blacksmith and like all my favorite teachers he’s got great stories to tell. He told me about Archimedes method for solving a difficult problem. The renowned man would hold a metal ball in his hand as he fell asleep, thinking all the while about the problem he wanted to solve. At the moment he fell asleep his hand would drop the metal ball into a metal bowl near his bed, thus shocking him awake. When he woke, the answer to his problem would be at the front of his mind and he simply had to write it down. I’m definitely going to try this and will let you know how it works.
Being a blacksmith is much like the stories he tells, recreating a piece of ancient knowledge. It’s one of those endeavors that keep alive the secrets and skills most of us will never know. Tracey admits that even in the present day we don’t know every tool a smith would have used. During the war efforts many anvils and blacksmith tools were melted down to assist in making war machines and weaponry. We may never know all that the old smiths used but it’s good to know that there is someone out there keeping that knowledge alive.
Through the passage of time, it has been difficult to keep the reality of what a blacksmith does from becoming the fiction we like to see in movies. If you ask Tracey what the biggest misconception of blacksmithing is, he might tell you it’s the Hollywood perception of the strapping muscled giant wielding a heavy hammer over sweaty coals. Wherever that stereotype started I was assured it’s most certainly not a prerequisite to the job. He pointed out to me the fact that some great smiths are women. In fact, women were the smiths who forged the enormous links of the Titanic’s anchor. Way to go girls!
The work is as varied as the smiths who create them, from small decorative pieces to massive works of art. Though each piece is different he uses the same techniques for each of them, just never the same steps. With those techniques he can take something as average as an old lawn mower blade, split it in half and turn it into two unique hand forged knives ready to be used. He gets plenty of donations like those blades, bed springs and many other parts that people think he might be able to use. With each piece of metal, he carefully tests it by striking it with a hammer and listening for oddities in the way it sounds. This ounce of prevention lets him know which piece of metal just might crack, break or otherwise explode when he’s working with it. That’s not the only danger to the job. Working with hot metal and coals has it’s own obvious hazards and Tracey has gotten his share of burns. But, despite the danger and the burnt hands he spends plenty of time at the forge, working on sometimes 6 projects at a time.
Currently he is working on a stained glass window for the Sacred Heart Church in Nekoosa. Most of the projects he sees are not quite that large, it’s rare that someone requests a hand forged fireplace set. But, whether it’s an heirloom piece or a simple carving knife Tracey likes to put a little something decorative in the pieces he makes. He told me, “If I have to look at it for 20 years I want it to look nice”
He sometimes holds classes running about 4weeks long, at the end of which you will have created from scratch your very own forged item. If you’re looking to find him the best place you can contact him is through his facebook page, bronzemask