The Spanish Backsmithing Tradition

Book Review
      By Beth Holmberg, San Diego CA
      September 2008 California Blacksmith magazine
      “Southwestern Colonial Ironwork: The Spanish Blacksmithing Tradition”
      by Marc Simmons and Frank Turley, Sunstone Press, 216 pgs with illustrations; ISBN 978-0-86534-607-1; $39.95.
            It's finally back in print! First published in 1980, this book provides a rare, accessible, and insightful examination of Spanish colonial blacksmithing in the Americas. As a demonstrating blacksmith at Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, my Xerox of an old library copy has been the single most useful resource I've found both for forging appropriate reproductions and for discussing 19th century California blacksmithing with park visitors. The two authors are an unusual pairing of knowledge: Marc Simmons is a scholar of Spanish colonial history; Frank Turley, as many of us know, is a respected professional blacksmith and blacksmithing instructor. Their collaboration makes for a book that combines accurate historical knowledge and insightful practical knowledge.
            Many wonderful books on colonial American blacksmithing can be found—but they are all about the Eastern U.S., and discuss metalwork drawn largely from English, French, and German traditions. None of this is quite accurate for those of us in the parts of the U.S. that were colonized by Spain and draw on that blacksmithing tradition. This book fills that gap.
      Simmons and Turley have separated the book into two parts. The first traces, in general, the blacksmithing tradition from Spain to colonial Mexico to the Spanish Southwest and the Indian trade. It provides fabulous background information on how and when blacksmithing spread through our area, including discussions on iron sources and availability, what was forged where, and blacksmithing education in the Spanish tradition. Among the tidbits to be found are a 1773 letter from Father Junipero Serra pleading for more blacksmiths and iron for the California missions, and the appalling fact that one of the first things forged by Spanish smiths in the New World was branding irons for marking slaves and Aztec prisoners of war.
      The second part focuses on the products of the forge in the Spanish colonial Southwest, sorted by area of use (from "The Smithy" to "Ironware on the Farm, Ranch and Trail" to "Mission Iron"). This is where Turley's knowledge and analysis is clearly a benefit, indicating not just what was made, but how. Abundant photographs and drawings of 18th and 19th century Southwestern ironwork are scattered throughout, while the text discusses uses, typical forms, and variations in everyday forged items. I switched to making Spanish colonial "U" shaped firesteels (rather than "C" shaped) for local historical use after seeing the photo of a half dozen or so such firesteels in this book. It turns out they're fun to make, and offer twice the striking surfaces!
      Anyone involved in historic blacksmithing in the Southwest—museum blacksmith, reenactor, architectural blacksmith, etc.—will find this book useful in multiple ways. You can explain historic blacksmithing to visitors accurately, rather than drawing from legend and guesses. You can see appropriate examples of forged ironwork, and learn about what was common and what was not. You can inform your own designs with references to the early designs actually produced in our area (rather than, say, the 1920s romantic concepts of Spanish colonial design). There is no other viable source of information out there, and this one is spectacularly high quality and versatile. I recommend it highly.