Fans of television shows such as Forged in Fire can now experience the thrill of forging themselves, with the opening of a new blacksmith school in Hawkesbury.
Vans School of Blacksmithing opened its doors on June 1 of this year, and has been teaching students turn-of-the-century courses three times a week at the former location of Wylie Building Supply on Highway 34 south of Hawkesbury.
“The Hawkesbury shop is designed to be a heritage industrial shop, around the time period of the early 1900s,” explains owner and Master Blacksmith Josh Van Noy. “It’s got a lot of older tooling in it – the old power hammer, drill press, coal fired forges with hand-cranked blowers.”
Vans Blacksmithing was founded by Van Noy at his home in Alexandria the early 2000s as a general service blacksmith shop for eastern Ontario. In 2015 the business moved to Hammond and was reimagined as Vans School of Blacksmithing, to offer education in the trade and take advantage of the growing popularity of the craft, thanks to online videos and TV programs such as Forged in Fire.
“There’s definitely been a huge resurgence with the advent of YouTube and live stream and the development of a social platform where people could see more of this happening,” Van Noy observes, noting the craft itself is very visually appealing. “Programs like Forged in Fire really propelled blacksmithing to the forefront of entertainment.”
In early 2021, Vans opened a new shop in Nepean, and this spring plans were made to move the Hammond school to the new Hawkesbury location, for a number of reasons.
“It is somewhere I am familiar with – my earlier days in machining were in Vankleek Hill and Hawkesbury,” Van Noy explains. “Strategically for us as a company, it’s in a really good hub for the local area and it’s far enough from Nepean that we’re not overlapping.”
Strong history of blacksmithing in region
The history of blacksmithing in the region, as well as the fact there are still many practitioners of the craft locally, is another reason the Hawkesbury location makes sense for the company.
“Hawkesbury, Vankleek Hill, Maxville, Dunvegan – all those areas have a longstanding history with blacksmithing that I think is still very much relevant,” Van Noy remarks.
The new shop is located at 1855 Highway 34 Hawkesbury – in the spot that was formerly occupied by Wylie Building Supplies. The massive industrial heritage shop in Hawkesbury boosts centuries old tooling, including a working line shaft, coal-fired forges and a heritage approach to blacksmithing, while the shop in Nepean features more modern equipment.
“We diversified the two schools so that it encompasses the breadth of what it is to be a blacksmith in the 21st century,” Van Noy says, while highlighting some of the vintage equipment at the Hawkesbury location. “The Nepean school is more a modern take on blacksmithing – it’s what you would find in most people’s shops these days – with propane forges and induction forges, a 12-ton press and some of the more modern tools that blacksmiths are using now.”
“The Hawkesbury school is really the historical approach to blacksmithing.”
“After the second hit with the hammer, I just got into it.” – Gaytan Turpin
It is the historical aspect that induced Hawkesbury resident Gaytan Turpin to sign up for a course, after he spotted the sign outside the business while riding his motorcycle along Highway 34 shortly after it opened on June 1.
“I’ve been thinking of doing it for a lot of years – I’ve seen it at different fairs and historic villages,” says Turpin, who used to regularly stop by a turn-of-the-century blacksmith shop near where his family used to camp every summer 30 years ago. “I’d always go by it and say to myself I was going to try that one of these days.”
Although he had no previous experience, Turpin found the day-long knife-making class at Vans School of Blacksmithing easy to follow and noted that instructor Spencer Farrell outlined each step and drew them on a blackboard, which the inexperienced student found immensely helpful.
“I learned a lot,” says Turpin, who also got quite a workout. “After the second hit with the hammer, I just got into it. (Spencer) kept an eye on me and kept saying, ‘you’re doing fine, keep going’.”
Turpin’s experience is typical of other who take the course – most of whom are compete newcomers to the craft of blacksmithing.
“The whole premise of our programming is to take people who have zero experience and give them this experience and these skill sets,” Van Noy says. “We’ve had people in our classrooms who have never even twisted a screwdriver before.”
“The key focus when I approached the teaching part of this business was to make sure that it was attainable for everybody.”
Many students take multiple classes
An estimated 15 per cent of students continue on in blacksmithing; setting up their own small home forges, either as amateurs for pleasure, or to make extra money.
“We do have a fair number of students who pursue it as a hobby,” says Van Noy. “We also get a lot of people who are not sure if they want to make it a full hobby, but will come back for multiple classes.”
“We have some individuals who have taken all of our classes and are now taking them over because they have so much fun.”
Turpin will be one of those, enthusing he plans to set up a small forge at home and take future classes at the school. Vans School of Blacksmithing offers classes to make other items, such as axes or hammers and Turpin is hoping to make on of those. But first, he plans to take a second class in knife making.
“I’m going to go and do another knife because I want to see if I can do it better. I was excited about it. I was having fun doing it and I want to do it again.”
The Vans location in Hawkesbury is using the former Wylie store as a retail space, selling all of the equipment one needs to pursue the hobby of blacksmithing. The basic tools are purchased mostly from local suppliers and Vans attempts to use Canadian suppliers whenever possible.
“We’re supporting our local communities that way and helping to take some of these old tools that would be just scrapped and getting them back out there for people to use in their own shops,” Van Noy enthuses.
The former Wylie Building Supply location is perfect for the blacksmithing shop and the store, according to Van Noy.
“Mrs. Wylie offering us this location, that is just perfect for what we wanted to do, was a real blessing. She’s worked very hard to update the building and take care of a lot of things to make sure we can be successful in our endeavours.”
Van Noy is particularly proud of the large line shaft recently installed, which will power various equipment in the Hawkesbury shop. He was helped by local antique restoration whiz Clay MacWhirter in designing and installing the shaft.
“That’s definitely a rarity and fits right into that time period,” Van Noy says.
The owner of Vans School of Blacksmithing says he always knew the craft was enticing to people, through demonstrations he has done at museums and historical sites.
“People flocked to the blacksmith shop and they would stay there a considerable amount of time longer to watch the blacksmithing than they would at any of the other locations.”
However he attributes the resurgence and current popularity of blacksmithing to the entertainment industry.
“I can’t imagine having the success we’ve had if it were not for all the entertainment that has been shown on TV,” says Van Noy, who believes Forged in Fire is for the most part doing a good job as far as realism of the craft. “It’s very much on par in terms of its realism and educational value, compared to say a baking show. There’s obviously edits and they can only show much, but I think they show the real aspect of blacksmithing.”
“They’ve definitely dramatized it and made it more exciting – as if playing with 3,000-degree temperatures isn’t exciting enough.”
More information on Vans School of Blacksmithing, classes offered, and the company’s open house can be found at https://www.vansblacksmithing.ca/ .