Skip to content

Forging away, the blacksmith crafts steel for a new day

David Pinn keeps the iron hot in West Nipissing

A modern-day blacksmith is something to be, and David Pinn, founder of Big Forge Blacksmithing, is keeping the forge blazing in Sturgeon Falls. He moved to town this past December with his wife Leanne and their two daughters. Before this, the family lived in New Liskeard, which is where Pinn’s blacksmithing journey began.

Technically, the spark to craft steel ignited when Pinn was around 12 years old, when he fashioned his first knife at an older friend’s forge. The finished project “was nothing to look at,” Pinn admitted, and “it wasn’t even sharp,” but he was twelve, so the results didn’t matter too much. The important point was that the project left a mark, and a seed was planted which would begin to grow much later in Pinn’s life.

About three and half years ago “I was thinking to myself that I needed a hobby,” and while watching Forged in Fire on television with Leanne, he decided that blacksmithing would become his new pastime. He began reading about the craft, watching YouTube videos, and reaching out to other blacksmiths he met online for advice. “A couple of weeks after our first daughter was born,” he made the leap to the fire, and crafted himself a forge.

This first forge, which Pinn set up in his yard—he didn’t have a shop yet, he just moved his operation to a rented garage in Sturgeon Falls last week—was made from a “half and half mixture of plaster of Paris and sand.” This mixture is formed around a can, and once the can is removed that space becomes “the inside of the forge.” It’s called a “coffee can forge,” and it serves as many a blacksmith’s first forge.

“It promptly fell apart after the first time I used it,” Pinn admitted. Undeterred, he continued making more coffee can forges, and honing his skills of the trade. Despite some setbacks like his forges falling apart, he found the hobby “easy to get into,” and “with help from people online” and through his own research, Pinn was forging some knives in his front yard.

He knows his new shop will “give me a lot more freedom” to work on projects—much more so than operating in his front yard. For one, he’ll be able to have all his tools available and on hand. He’s also graduated from the coffee cans to a propane burner forge, which has become his main forge. Pinn also treated himself this summer and “bought a coal forge.”

The coal to heat the forge comes from THAK Ironworks, which will send a 70-pound bag of bituminous coal from Virginia directly to the Home Hardware in Sturgeon Falls, where Pinn picks it up. He has “four of them ready to go,” but before he fires up, he checks in with the Fire Department to ensure there are no fire bans— “the coal sends up the ash and all of that.”

It burns hot too, that Virginia coal, “easily melting steel” as he fires his forge up to 2,500 to 3,000 degrees with blasts of air from his “hand cranked blower.” And once the heat is up, it’s time to hammer down.

Knives, key chains, wall hooks, and fireplace tools are the most common items Pinn cooks up, although he has his “first architectural gate commission coming up this summer.” He used to use “old leaf springs from a trailer” for his knife blades, but soon upgraded to buying the steel from Maritime Knife Supplies.

“A lot of people like homemade knives, they like the idea of having one, but custom knives are quite expensive,” Pinn said. Indeed, they are, as the work involved in crafting a custom blade is intense and laborious, and finished knives can easily go for hundreds of dollars.

Not everyone has that kind of money, so Pinn will make batches of blades “to bring the cost down quite a bit.” The knives are all still hand crafted, but each batch is practically the same, and making each similar to the next helps speed up the process and reduce costs.

He sells his wares at local craft sales, summer markets, and people can order through his website. People can’t stop by his shop because of insurance reasons, but he’s always willing to hear from new customers and discuss custom orders as well. His next project is learning to master the horseshoe, which he plans to embark upon in the upcoming months.

Pinn is in good company, as there seems to be rising interest in the old blacksmithing ways. He mentioned a forge is firing at Foxfire Heritage Farm in Powassan, and Mike Mossington is making knives in North Bay. There are hundreds more listed on the Canadian Blacksmith and Bladesmith Directory’s website, so it’s clear to see the craft remains in many good hands.

Asked if his striking arm was twice as large as his left, Pinn laughed, “it’s getting there.” He mentioned that during Medieval times, blacksmiths would become “ambidextrous in their hammer hands,” a skill picked up from necessity, as those old-time smiths would deliver “hundreds of thousands of hammer strikes per day.”

“How intense they were,” Pinn said, adding that he has tried hammering with his left, “but it was an absolute disaster.” His new hobby has opened a new world of history and manufacturing, and his respect for those blacksmiths that came before him continues to rise the more he learns of their ways. Some blacksmiths dedicated their lives to making nails— “that’s all they did”—and at one time “one or two blacksmiths would service surrounding towns.” They had light anvils with a spike affixed to the bottom. The smith would hammer the anvil into a stump, make a forge in a hole in the ground, and take care of the community’s metal needs before moving to the next village.

The hobby is treating Pinn well, but he plans to continue teaching mathematics at Canadore College and Northern College. Asked if he would consider the life of a travelling blacksmith upon retirement, he had a good laugh and thought that might be a good idea but hesitated as it would mean temporarily separating from his main anvil—a 150-pound behemoth he purchased “fourth or fifth hand.”

That anvil is from the late 1800s or early 1900s and was “made for a punch and chisel maker.” It’s not suitable for life on the road as a travelling Medieval-style blacksmith, “and I’m absolutely in love with this thing, I could never let it go.”

“Don’t tell the other anvils, but this is my favourite,” and he plans to use it for as long as he can, carrying on the ancient ways of the blacksmith for a new day and age.

David Briggs is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of BayToday, a publication of Village Media. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

Reader Feedback

David Briggs, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

About the Author: David Briggs, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

David Briggs is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter covering civic and diversity issues for BayToday. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada
Read more