There is a ritual and subtle rhythm to Michael Murphy’s every movement as a blacksmith — in his 1800s style workspace at the Tallahassee Museum, he dances between the anvil and the bellows with tongs and red-hot iron in hand. The anvil is the large saddle-like structure where he bangs and bashes creations into being, while the bellows fan the flames of a coal-fueled fireplace that can burn at temperatures from 1800 to 2000 degrees.
While the term blacksmith may conjure up medieval images of sootcovered workers and their blunt instruments or farriers shoeing horses, Murphy confidently dispels these misconceptions with his demonstrations and workshops at the Tallahassee Museum. Suited up in his steel-toed work boots and polycarbonate lenses, he aims to educate visitors and students alike about a craft over thousands of years in the making and is looking forward to his upcoming Beginning Blacksmith Workshop on Saturday, May 27.
“When you think blacksmith, don’t think horseshoes, think hardware store,” Murphy said. “Blacksmithing as a whole is more tool making than anything else, and the tools and the techniques have been evolving. In Europe, in the 14th and 15th centuries there were a lot of specialized blacksmiths, but when we began colonizing this country, blacksmiths became generalists.”
In fact, Murphy says blacksmiths make more nails than anything else. In his own repertoire, he’s crafted everything from tomahawks to tongs, including his own tools. Murphy’s interest in blacksmithing began when he wanted to start making his own woodworking tools. As an army intelligence analyst stationed in Tacoma, Washington, he attended a workshop that led him to join the Northwest Blacksmith Association. After retiring from the U.S. Army, he joined the Florida Artist Blacksmith Association and has been teaching, demonstrating, and making ever since.
Twisting a white-hot piece of iron into an oyster shucker, he says he considers himself a craftsman rather than an artist, and that much of blacksmithing involves a good amount of general knowledge in geometry and physics. In terms of style, he focuses on detail work and adheres to his first teacher, Darryl Nelson’s, wise words concerning leaving your signature on a piece.
“Darryl up in Washington would have people say they wanted things to look hand forged with hammer marks,” explains Murphy. “Andhe would always say, ‘a good smith doesn’tleave hammer marks.’”
Murphy says his career as a computer programmer and tech support for the Florida Department of Labor and the Department of Agriculture serves him well as he pre-designs his ideas in graphics programs. Many of his materials are re-purposed — he forged his own primitive-looking knife out of a pick-up truck coil spring, a dead branch off a live oak tree in his backyard, and a few inches of quarter-inch copper from a lightning rod he salvaged.
Hanging in his shop are various tools that were once jackhammers, railroad clips, wagon wheels, and more. He’s made tiny swords out of duplex nails, bottle openers for bartenders, a rose out of roofing tin, and bookmarks in the shapes of leaves. Murphy isn’t confined to the 19th century in his own home shop, and uses power tools like a modern- day blacksmith, though he takes satisfaction in using his own physicality and force versus electricity.
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