MODERN-DAY MAN OF STEEL
Hammer it out: Eric Collins uses traditional tools like a hammer and anvil but also incorporates modern technology into the craft of blacksmithing.
Loud noises emanate from a workshop on top of a hill on Blacksburg’s Harding Avenue. Inside, Eric Collins is forging new opportunities in an age-old profession—blacksmithing.
“It seems like there is this idea that blacksmiths are big, burly guys with huge hammers that are just going to town,” said Collins, who graduated from Virginia Tech in 2007 with a degree in industrial engineeering. “But that’s not how it is at all. Most of the time, you don’t need a huge amount of physical strength to do it, you need manual dexterity. It’s a perfect craft for people who have use of their arms and hands and who want to make stuff.”
The art of blacksmithing is documented as early as 1350 B.C. in Egypt when men used the techniques to craft tools from iron. Modern blacksmiths still forge their creations the old-fashioned way by heating the steel to around 2,000 degrees to make it malleable enough to shape or cut.
Collins, who has been blacksmithing since the mid-1990’s, promotes a 21st-century vision for the age-old craft. Traditionally, blacksmiths begin with a bar of metal and use heat and tools, such as hammers and anvils, to shape the desired product. Collins’ methods rely on patterns and sheet metal to build similar products faster.
The workshop houses an array of his designs, such as a forged HokeBird wearing a cadet uniform, crafted leaves and frogs, and various tools. To create these pieces, Collins uses state-of-the-art technology, including a 3D printer and micoprocessors. His workshop also includes a computer numerical controlled (CNC) plasma cutter.
Collins built the CNC, which took about three months. The machine consists of a plasma cutter, a gantry, a stepper motor driver, and a computer. The plasma cutter can be controlled manually or via the computer. The gantry carries the torch head while it cuts, using a process similar to an Etch-a-Sketch. The stepper motor driver pulsates to cut the metal into specific shapes. A Mach 3 program operated by the computer guides the CNC’s cutting pattern.
In February, Collins debuted “Blacksmithing Magazine,” an online publication. The magazine features articles about building and using a plasma CNC and also provides cut files—outlines that can be printed as patterns for products. The magazine targets those interested in blacksmithing with resources to support beginners as well as intermediate and advanced levels of the profession.
Collins’ interest in smithing sparked in middle school when a substitute teacher shared a steel dragon he had forged and explained how metal can be as malleable as clay when it gets hot. Recognizing the middle schooler’s interest, the teacher invited Collins and his parents to learn more about forging at his workshop. Collins was hooked.
“The things you make now can last, with care, 100, 200, 300 years. As long as they are taken care of, they will last forever,” said Collins. “How many things can you do that are that permanent?”
Professionally, Collins designs custom products for industrial manufacturing, noting that he has a design process he can apply to any type of problem. Also, he sells art, ranging from blacksmithed products to paintings and wood creations.
“I’ve always made, designed, and created stuff,” said Collins. “That is who I am, my mind grinds on issues. If there is a problem, I always try to find out how to fix it.”
Collins actively participates in the Southwest Virginia Blacksmith Guild, and recently, he taught a blacksmithing class at Blue Ridge Church summer camp for children, perhaps inspiring yet another generation of smithys.
Haley Cummings, a senior majoring in public relations, is an intern with Virginia Tech Magazine.