Blacksmith Re-Creates Historical Weapons
Door County history reaches back to the Potawatomi Indians, Swedish settlers, the early Moravian church. But tucked away in a shed just south of Sturgeon Bay lies history dating back to ancient Greece.
It’s in Ric Furrer’s workshop – a cluttered, unassuming shed overflowing with historic machinery. It’s a sword formed from fire, iron ore and one man’s interest in historical re-creation, a sword Alexander the Great would have carried into battle.
But it isn’t the blade Furrer treasures, it’s the creation.
“When you start with dirt, add heat and other chemicals to it and extract the useful metal from the ore, it’s quite an interesting thing,” Furrer said. “You can really assume why it was considered magical back in the day, because you’re starting with dirt and ending up with a useful tool.”
Furrer owns Door County Forgeworks, a blacksmithing shop where he makes everything from trap net anchors, to bed frames, to swords. He uses traditional steelmaking for projects commissioned by customers around the world, and he teaches classes that draw students from as far as Australia.
Furrer is a classically trained hammer and anvil blacksmith, and is prestigious in the field – but that doesn’t mean he’s modernized. He starts his smelting projects in his carport, where he builds a new furnace out of bricks and clay for each project.
To make steel, Furrer fills the furnace with charcoal and pumps it with air until it reaches 3,000 degrees, then he adds shovelfuls of iron ore, a small brick of clay mixed with water and iron ore, and more charcoal. When the iron ore begins to react with the carbon, waste called slag slowly oozes out of a hole in the side of the furnace like lava from a volcano.
After eight to 10 hours of filling the furnace with charcoal and iron ore and watching slag run onto the driveway, Furrer takes a long pair of forceps and reaches inside the hot furnace for the final product – the bloom.
The bloom is impure steel and has to be heated to a dull orange and hammered into the shape of a blade. Then the blade is dunked in cool water or oil, called the quench, first to harden the steel into place, then into place, then again to make it more flexible.
The arduous process doesn’t always go smoothly. Furrer has worked for weeks on a blade only to have it crack in the quench. Those losses are hard to stomach, considering he’s working under customers’ deadlines and only gets paid when products turn out.
Losses also hurt a craftsman’s pride.
“Early man made thousands and thousands and thousands of tons of this – so why can’t I?” Furrer said. “It’s a matter of giving [iron] the conditions it needs to do what it naturally does. If it doesn’t work it’s your fault.”
Smelting iron ore is just one of the processes Furrer uses to make steel. He’s mastered other European steels such as blister, crucible and shear, and teaches classes in Japanese metalwork, Wootz steelmaking, Damascus steelmaking and titanium forging, too.
But it may be the Zombie Apocalypse classes that set Furrer’s blacksmith shop apart.
It started as a joke while his wife, the young adult librarian at the Sturgeon Bay Library, was reading the 2009 parody novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Furrer thought he should offer a weekend, tongue-in-cheek class where students could forge an axe or blade to protect themselves in case of zombie attack.
“Within six hours of posting the class I got a reply,” Furrer said. “It will probably be my most popular class next year.”
Furrer has gotten plenty of attention outside of zombie and ancient weapons enthusiasts. He’s helping Adam Perry Lang, a famed barbecue chef and author of three cookbooks (pictured right), learn to weld steel for his own line of kitchen knives.
“It’s a very peculiar little niche,” Furrer said. “Who would have thought there was a demand for such a thing? But there is. In this mechanized, cookie cutter, high production world there is still a place for the one-of-a-kind or the handmade. The trick is to find the clientele that appreciate that.”
Furrer went to school to become a high school history teacher. He left college when his Army reserve unit was called to Desert Storm and upon his return rekindled his blacksmithing hobby. After years of school he dropped the history teacher dream and got a nursing degree instead, then followed his wife to Florida where he worked in a blacksmith shop.
Now, after 14 years of owning his own blacksmith shop in Sturgeon Bay, Furrer is internationally recognized as a master of the craft. In 2002, he was invited to demonstrate sword and knife making at the Smithsonian Institution Silk Road Festival in Washington, D.C. He set up a booth, and as visitors passed by they would comment, or tell Furrer about blacksmithing ancestors.
“It’s interesting what different people pick out as what’s important in blacksmithing,” Furrer said. “The most often asked question I got was ‘is that a real fire?’ We are that far removed from one of the fundamental forces of nature that we can’t recognize it.”
Blacksmiths used to be part of the epicenter of a community. When a machine would break and you couldn’t fix it yourself, you’d go to a blacksmith for help. Now, blacksmithing is all but cut from our lives.
“People still have a relationship with the craft, but the reality of it is we are far removed from it now,” Furrer said. “It’s like the Do You Know Your Farmer? bumper sticker. It used to be Do You Know Your Blacksmith?”
Since October 2012, more and more people can answer yes, they do know their blacksmith, and it’s Ric Furrer.
Last year, Furrer was featured on an episode of the prestigious PBS science series Nova, called “Secrets of the Viking Sword,” where he recreated the complex Ulfberht sword used by the Vikings. He was the first blacksmith to make an accurate re-creation in 1,000 years.
“To do it right, it’s the most complicated thing I know how to make,” Furrer said on the show. “It’s that challenge that drives me.”
Furrer was also featured in an episode of Arcade Arms – a video series that brings video game weapons to life. The camera crew set up in his workshop, where Furrer talked them through the process of making a sword. Romantic, medieval music plays in the background as he plunges the red-hot sword into the quench, revealing a finished blade just like the one Alexander the Great would have carried to battle.
The need for the challenging, the historic, the handmade, is what keeps Furrer in his shop, braving the burns and crafting anchors, tables and blades. No new technology can truly replace the old, and craftsmen like Furrer keep history, culture and tradition alive.
“Man has shaped metal for more than 10,000 years yet the struggle with the material is as fresh and current as anything born of Silicon Valley,” Furrer said in his artist’s statement. “Through the interaction of fire, metal and flesh I feel a connection to a past that many have abandoned. I feel more at peace tapping on the anvil and not the keyboard.”
Hammering it out
During his classes, Furrer teaches novice and experienced students how to make steel with different techniques. Here are the basics:
- Build a furnace out of bricks and clay, fill it with charcoal and pump it with air until it gets hot.
- Add a mixture of water, clay and iron ore. Let the slag, the waste byproduct of the chemical reaction taking place inside the furnace, run out of the furnace.
- Pull the bloom, an impure steel, out of the furnace after it cools.
- Hammer the bloom into plates, then weld them together.
- Heat, hammer and plane the metal into the shape of the final product.
- Finally, dunk the metal into cool water or oil, called the quench, to make it flexible and strong.
Photography by Len Villano.