If you love axes enough, eventually, you're going to want to make one yourself. A desire to learn what turns raw steel into a useful tool led us directly to Mark Hopper. Mark has been a blacksmith for more than 30 years, and in addition to creating custom pieces, he teaches a very full roster of classes out of his studio, Goatnhammer, in Atlanta. Emphasizing craft and the perfection of basic skills, Mark and his team are at the heart of the next generation of blacksmiths.
Project Woodchips: Let's start at the start: How did you get into blacksmithing?
Mark Hopper: I grew up making things. My grandfather was a cabinet maker, so every summer we'd hang out in his woodshed: painting, playing with charcoals and pastels. I eventually got into woodwork and wanted to make the metal components that went into it. My woodshop teacher introduced me to fire and anvil and hammer, and I fell in love. I got the chance to study at Quinnell's blacksmith shop near London, and then went on to Hereford College's Artist Blacksmithing program.
PW: You spent a stretch of your career in Africa—how did that influence your approaching to smithing?
MH: Blacksmithing is almost forgotten in East Africa. There's a lot of welding and fabricating, but Westernization and a supply of cheap tools from India and China have undercut the market on handmade things. I had the opportunity to set up a teaching house to share skills. I taught tool making, and other useful, everyday things. But I also showed my students how to be teachers, so when I left, the students were able to take over. In the process of sharing my craft there, I learned more than I taught.
PW: When people think of cities where traditional craft is undergoing a renaissance, they don't think Atlanta first. What's it been like to set up shop there?
MH: We've been fortunate to build an incredible community from inside Goatnhammer. We're starting a movement through our students; to shift away from a mentality that it's "just a bunch of hammering." It's been amazing to have our students take a few classes, and then go out to craft fairs or blacksmith demonstrations and come back to say, "Hey, I could do that better." It raises the bar for the whole community.
PW: Speaking as a student, your teaching style seems to focus heavily on the basics—perfecting different styles of points, for instance—before moving on to flashier project work. Are people surprised at the amount of detail that goes into smithing?
MH: What I hear most often is, "I can't believe how accurate and how controlled I can be with a hammer." People don't realize it's such a precise, meticulous trade.
For me, being a blacksmith is about having the heart of a craftsman, and living for the betterment of the craft. I know that there are people—future blacksmiths—who will learn from what I leave behind. They don't need the full blueprints for what I made, but if I teach the right fundamental skills, the next generation can look at something I created and know exactly which skills and techniques I used to create it. Teaching smithing is as much about me learning and growing as a craftsman as it is about helping others to learn and grow.
PW: You, Jessica Collins, and John Moulton have developed an impressive program for all skill levels, and you introduce folks to blacksmithing through something you call Hammer Therapy. What can someone expect when they show up for their first session?
MH: Our whole purpose of Goatnhammer is to give folks who don’t have an inkling how to swing a hammer a chance to find out if this is for them. We put them in front of an anvil, help them pick out a hammer that they like, give them a steel bar, show them how to shape it into a point, and let them go. We let people discover a lot of it along the way—they learn so much by uncovering what they don’t know. Hammer Therapy is the best way to spend ten dollars if you’ve ever wondered if you might want to do this.
It started as a thing we used to do with friends and employees on Friday night; four or five of us. Then we became ten. We had to get more anvils. Then more people came and we opened another time slot. Right now, Hammer Therapy goes from 3 p.m. until 9 p.m., every Friday.
PW: Who shows up for therapy?
MH: It's a great place to meet other lunatics who are tinkering and playing too. They might be working on a personal projects, they might be doing some course work [for one of Goatnhammer's series classes], or it might be their first time. We've got a lot of office workers; Georgia Tech students. We have a handful of retirees, too. Some of them might need to take a break every few hammer blows, but they show up, we help them adapt their movements, and they make wonderful things.
We're a bunch of misfits and we welcome everyone. We don't give a fuck who you are—we love you and we want you to find a home here.
Interested in becoming a blacksmith, or at least trying out a little Hammer Therapy? Check out Goatnhammer in Atlanta, or look for Mark's weeklong course through the John C. Campbell Folk School. (Make us an axe while you're at it!).