PORTLAND – Simply finding the place is like a trip back in time.
Walk between the decaying brick warehouses where steam locomotives rumbled to life more than a century ago, past the tall windows with peeling paint, through the alley and just beyond a crumbled brick chimney until you reach a heavy wooden door. Hear the clang, clang, clang?
Yes, he will tell you, his name really is Sam Smith, and yes, he really is a master blacksmith.
Inside his dim, soot-covered shop, the 29-year-old has for five months quietly stoked interest in his burgeoning business, the Portland Forge. Built like a steel-strap barrel and with coal-colored hair and a commanding voice, Smith also has built a reputation for being perhaps the only master blacksmith in Maine who insists on exclusively working in 19th-century techniques.
But his home in the historic workshop — where railroad and steamship parts were first struck from molten steel and iron more than 150 years ago — is on borrowed time.
The shop is tucked away in building 16 of the Portland Company Complex, the 10-acre waterfront property that until recently was owned by Phineas Sprague Jr. and housed his business, Portland Yacht Services Inc., and a sprinkling of other commercial and nonprofit enterprises. But with the sale of the valuable land to a Yarmouth developer in late July, the future of Smith’s business may be in doubt.
“It feels like a level of destiny for me to be here,” said Smith. “It’s a beautiful space, it’s sound architecture, it’s built for this purpose, and I’m the last full-time purist, traditional blacksmith in the state. It should be my duty to make sure it just doesn’t go by the wayside.”
Smith’s lease runs out in March, giving him at least that long to make plans for his future, meet the new owners and hash out how to go forward. For now, he vows to do what he has since he was a wide-eyed apprentice more than a decade ago — pound iron.
Sprague, interviewed before the sale of his complex was announced, said that when he met Smith, he recognized a kindred spirit, a dreamer of big dreams, a member of what Sprague coyly calls the “unreasonable persons club,” borrowing a famed George Bernard Shaw quotation.
Reasonable people conform their aspirations to the world around them, Shaw said. Unreasonable people try to bend the world to fit their vision.
“Progress,” said Sprague, “is made by unreasonable people.”
Sprague said earlier this year that he was proud to provide space for Smith’s forge. “I’m sorry that our society has evolved to a point where the last … master craftsman in New England doesn’t have a home,” Sprague said at the time. “I wish him well, and I’m crazy enough to say, ‘Knock yourself out.’“
Smith’s custom-ordered jobs range from repairs of wrought-iron fire escapes to decorative iron pedestals and from artwork to simple hooks and nails used for historic renovation projects.
Over the years, Smith has had to keep a second job to support himself and his craft. Now, he said, the forge is busy enough to provide all his income.
Smith is so busy that customers have to wait nearly two months before he can take their job. He has a small coterie of apprentices and helpers, along with a couple of like-minded craftsmen who are regulars at the forge.
His goal, more than to simply build a profitable business creating durable objects, is to foster a durable community, one in which artists and craftsmen depend on each other, work with each other and help each other thrive. Ultimately he hopes to pass on his skills to apprentices who may choose to become masters of the craft themselves, the way Smith did since he was 14 years old after seeing a blacksmith demonstration at a historical village.
During 15 years as an apprentice in a now-disbanded blacksmith guild in New Jersey, he learned how to pound and shape steel, how to build a fire and stoke the coals and how to use heavy, crude instruments to craft intricate objects.
Stepping into his shop is a sensory overload.
The smell of sulfur hangs heavy, left over from impurities burned off in the bituminous coal that fuels his forge.
One of the only electrical connections in the shop powers a small metal lamp affixed to the end of a wooden pole. This is by design, Smith said.
A darker shop is better for the blacksmith, he said, so that the color of hot metal is more apparent when a piece is pulled from the fire.
The shop’s rear wall stretches up two stories, composed of desk-sized boulders long ago set into the side of Munjoy Hill. Heavy hammers, tongs for gripping and vises for holding hot iron litter the shop. A hand-operated drill press is mounted on one wall, and a pile of burnt coal rises in a back corner. Right now, Smith has only one permanent forge, but if all goes according to plan, he hopes to expand to operate as many as three forges at a time so he may teach classes and work on customers’ jobs simultaneously.
Smith’s move to traditional ways of working and his emphasis on hand-crafted quality mirrors wider trends in other niche industries. An easy analogy is found in the vibrant Portland restaurant scene, where a food’s provenance nearly eclipses its preparation.
The same sensibility that drives diners to shell out big bucks for an artisanal loaf of bread, a locally grown radish, or beef from a steer whose hooves trod only Maine dirt and chewed only Maine hay drives Smith’s customers to pay top dollar for hand-wrought pieces they could otherwise build or buy for less, but with far lower quality.
Smith’s prices vary. Generally, he charges by the hour and his rate is similar to what a master car mechanic would charge.
More so than most, Smith sees himself as member of a continuum of craftsmen that dates to prehistory, when early humans were discovering the most basic properties of metallurgy and metal-forming. Up through ancient and medieval times, blacksmiths were recognized for their unique ability to make their own tools, and the tools of every other worker. From his craft, all others sprang, he said.
So as advances in technology and industrial processes have distanced consumers from understanding how things are made and of what materials they are composed, Smith said, he sees an expanding role for himself as an educator.
“A blacksmith is what an engineer, a mechanic, a welder were all once,” he said. “I have a vision that I’m trying to force into this world, yes. But it’s not just my vision. I’m trying to save our history.”
Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at: