Lost Crafts: Rediscovering Traditional Skills

Lost Crafts: Rediscovering Traditional Skills
By Una McGovern
2008 Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd, 376 pp, $24.95

Lost CraftsAuthor Una McGovern turns back the pages of time to remind readers of half-forgotten skills that were once as ubiquitous as the smartphone. Before the industrial revolution, every household had their own cider maker, beekeeper, rope maker, basket weaver, candle maker and much more. These abilities were not just the result of years of learning but also the result of careful observation of the natural world. They made families self-sufficient and in a hostile world this knowledge was often the difference between surviving or not.

The skill of coppicing, for example, is an ancient method of woodland management that intentionally produces material that will later be used for house building, making charcoal, basketry, brooms as well other things important to the function and comfort of the household. Like most of the skills in this book, coppicing is not instant gratification. And, it also requires the craftsman to work in tune with nature. When a broad-leaved tree is cut down, if the stump and roots are left intact, the tree will coppice. This means the tree will put its energy into regrowing by sending out new shoots. When the shoots reach the correct size for their intended purpose (which could be years) they are harvested and the process starts over. A practice similar to coppicing is called pollarding. Instead of cutting the tree at the ground, the tree is cut about eight feet up. Because the resulting shoots grow above the grazing level of animals, it is a useful method of growing firewood in an area that is also used as pasture.

Lost Crafts is filled with practical, simple knowledge that enabled former generations to live in harmony with nature and themselves. In a time where the ability to “work with one’s hands” is once again re-gaining the respect it deserves, this book opens a door. McGovern reminds us that even in a modern world, the ability to make a fire without a match, fish with creel, skin a rabbit, forage for wild food, and navigate by the stars are still very valuable skills to have.

Taking Control of Fire and Air: Traditional Blacksmithing at Sanborn Mills Farm

The ancients believed that with an anvil, a hammer and a strong fire a blacksmith could make everything he needed. After that, he could make everything anyone else needed. It’s no wonder that an art which forged nations is experiencing a renewed interest around the globe. At Sanborn Mills Farm in Loudon, New Hampshire, students come to learn this and other traditional skills that were once central to every thriving community.

A blacksmith creates an object by forging metal into a desired shape or form. Under his hammer, iron and steel becomes tools, horseshoes, weapons, armor, furniture, sculpture and whatever else he wills. Yet, there are only five basic operations or techniques used in forging:
Drawing – lengthens the metal by reducing one or both of the dimensions
Shrinking – the opposite process as drawing, resulting in a thicker piece
Bending – the metal is hammered or bent to desired shape or angle
Upsetting – the process of making the metal thicker in one dimension through shortening in the other
Punching – making a hole

Photo by E. John Waldron

While the idea of forcing iron to submit to your will may seem daunting, “If you can hammer a nail, you can get started blacksmithing.” says Colin Cabot, farmer, conservationist, preservationist and entrepreneur. Some of the things students will learn during the three-day workshop for beginners is safety, respect for the art, fire management, air handling, how to find the hottest part of the fire and how to “read” what is going on with the metal by judging its color. Beginning blacksmiths will use the techniques of drawing and tapering to create a gate hook. And they will learn the important secret of making multiples of the same item.

“Learning to forge metal is a linear progression of skills.” says Cabot. Individuals taking the intermediate workshop can expect to further develop their basic skills while moving onto finer work such as hardening steel for tools and knives.

Photo by E. John Waldron

Sanborn Mills Farm is a traditional New England diversified working farm with agricultural fields and managed forests. The timber-framed barns and outbuildings are used for animals. Dating from the 1830s, the water-powered sawmill and grist mill, and blacksmith shop still serve their original purpose. The farm buildings are clustered around two dams at the outlet of Sanborn Pond. At one time, the farm was a bustling center of agricultural activities that supported an extended family and served the surrounding community. Today, Colin and Paula Cabot have gathered farmers, craftspeople and historians to teach traditional skills. They provide opportunities for people to learn old-fashioned ways and explore how this knowledge can be integrated into modern life. Colin and Paula believe these skills are a vital connection to the land and continue to be important and relevant in our time. Surrounded by almost 2,000 acres of open space held in conservation, Sanborn Mills Farm serves as a meeting place where current needs for sustainability and community are forged with the skills and knowledge of the past.

A few of the other workshops offered at Sanborn Mills are: forge welding, tinsmithing, building stone walls, and logging with animals. Workshops generally cost around $100 per day depending on whether meals are included.  Accommodation is $30 per night. Some materials may be extra. To arrange for classes or gather more information visit:

Where: Sanborn Mills Farm
7097 Sanborn Road
Loudon, New Hampshire 03307
Phone: 603-435-7314
Email: colin@sanbornmills.org

Photographs by E. John Waldron