by Kate Evans
Tucked away in southern Morgan County is master blacksmith Randy McDaniel’s Expressive Metals School of Blacksmithing shop where McDaniel teaches personal basic to advanced blacksmith classes to serious students of the art.
McDaniel has over 45 years of professional experience working with mediums such as hot steel, wrought iron, tool steels, stainless steel, bronze, copper, aluminum and titanium. He also has over 45 years of experience teaching blacksmithing across the United States and in Canada.
In his first class, McDaniel said he taught a National Park Service employee from Gettysburg the basics of blacksmithing and he hasn’t stopped teaching since.
McDaniel got into blacksmithing 50 years ago in September 1972 when he, his dad and one of his younger brothers took a blacksmithing class from an 81 year-old blacksmith. It ran for a couple of hours for four Saturdays and cost $2, he said.
His father had a passion for blacksmithing and always seemed to end up in a blacksmith shop wherever he went, McDaniel noted. McDaniel was the only one in the family that pursued blacksmithing after their class.
McDaniel learned from retired and master smiths, researched metalworking in libraries and attended blacksmithing conferences to learn more about the art.
McDaniel said he started out doing colonial metalwork and then got into creating animals, flowers and contemporary work, which was an exciting change. What he’s exploring in blacksmithing is still changing. He got a hydraulic forging press 15 years ago and is constantly learning about his art.
McDaniel continued his blacksmithing studies and traveled to England to see the ironworks there. He visited colonial and contemporary ironworks, which were everywhere, he said. McDaniel also went to Barcelona, Spain to see the early 1900s ironworks there, which are totally different from anywhere.
“They’re truly beautiful and very inspiring. It taught me a different way of looking at what I do here now,” McDaniel said.
McDaniel creates everything from wall hooks, belt buckles, modern sculpture and lighting to bronze pieces, entranceways, gates and grilles and more.
His early metalwork was in colonial ironwork and restoration. McDaniel was hired by the National Park Service and created colonial pieces for Fort Frederick such as cooking utensils, tools, hammers, knives, axes, broad axes, belt axes and shovels like ones made in the 1700s. He did a lot of lighting like candleholders and rushlights.
McDaniel also restored two sets of historic gates in the city of Philadelphia at the corner of 4th and Pine. The gates were made in the 1850s.
McDaniel’s proudest project was making The Children’s Garden entranceway to Hershey Gardens in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Hershey Gardens originally was a small rose garden and grew into a 23-acre botanical garden that includes the Children’s Garden. McDaniel said he designed and did all the forge work for the Children’s Garden entranceway including the sign.
“It was a fun job, a whimsical design. It’s something a lot of people get to see and is the largest job I’ve ever done,” McDaniel said.
McDaniel has written two books on blacksmithing: “A Blacksmithing Primer: A Course in Basic and Intermediate Blacksmithing” and “Hydraulic Forging Press for the Blacksmith.” He has also penned numerous blacksmithing articles in books, newsletters and trade magazines.
McDaniel said he has been a draftsman since high school. In 1996 or so he took a computer-assisted drafting (CAD) course at Penn State University. He started doing step by step drawings of how to do blacksmithing. McDaniel took some drawings to a conference and sold out what he brought. In 1998 he self-published his primer book and it’s sold over 30,000 copies. A publisher has taken it over.
McDaniel published his second book about the hydraulic forging press because there wasn’t anything out there about how to make tools and dies.
McDaniel’s “A Blacksmithing Primer” has also been turned into a professionally-made three DVD video set of a six-hour long class of McDaniel working in his shop demonstrating in person what’s in the primer.
When McDaniel moved to Berkeley Springs six years ago, he decided to set up his school of blacksmithing and pass on what he can about the art while it’s still possible. He tries to keep his classes small-three students or less-to create good blacksmithing habits from the beginning.
“Everyone has their own anvil. It makes it more personal,” McDaniel said.
With classes some people just want to try out blacksmithing once. Others will take more classes and go on from there. McDaniel said he started out teaching five-day classes but moved to teaching one-day classes 15 years ago.
McDaniel said that of all the students he has mentored that Ken Schwarz, Colonial Williamsburg Blacksmith Shop’s master blacksmith, stands out the most. Schwarz took a class from him, worked for McDaniel for a while and then went to Williamsburg to work. Schwarz is still a great friend. McDaniel said there are quite a few other students that he mentored.
Everyone had thought blacksmithing was a dying art but after around 15 years there has been a resurgence, McDaniel said.
For those who are interested in blacksmithing, McDaniel advised them to learn the basics. That’s the biggest thing, he said.
“People try to go by videos online. It’s easier to take a class with someone that knows the business than to try it on your own,” McDaniel stressed.
McDaniel said a blacksmithing teacher in New Jersey straightened out all the problems he was having in just one class. The teacher also taught him how to teach blacksmithing.
McDaniel’s Expressive Metals School of Blacksmithing website shows his 50 years of background in blacksmithing, his time in Europe visiting ironwork masterpieces, photos of his many projects and products and his upcoming schedule of blacksmithing classes. People can sign up for classes or contact him online there for more information.
McDaniel said he’s had a lot of fun and a few challenges being a blacksmith, but he has really enjoyed it. He noted that the craft itself is a very isolated craft and one might not often see other blacksmiths.
In the blacksmith community “everybody helps out everyone else-it’s a wonderful group of people. It’s a great craft and group to be in. It’s been wonderful the whole time,” McDaniel said of blacksmithing.