Forging a Different Education
February 28th, 2019 by Pam Blair

Blacksmith John Lacefield heats a metal rod in the fire. John teaches blacksmithing during craft programs at Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park.

Retired industrial arts teacher reaches youngsters through blacksmithing

As John Lacefield pulls a glowing piece of hot metal from the forge, two youngsters from Citra are entranced—and the retired educator-turned-blacksmith does what comes second nature. He teaches.

With John’s encouragement, 7-year-old Camrin and her 12-year-old brother, Kayne—who are visiting Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park with their mother during a special craft festival—take turns helping him hammer the metal rod into a plant hook.

“You have to strike while the iron is hot,” he says, impressing the point by making repeated trips back to the fire to reheat the metal, and working with the kids to pound it into shape.

John—who views the blacksmith shop as an outdoor classroom—seizes the opportunity to extend what starts as a lesson in patience and perseverance to multifaceted learning, tossing science and math into his presentation.

He hands the youngsters a piece of coal, and explains how it is converted to coke when the impurities—petroleum products, sulfur and metals—are burned out. As John adds a blast of air to the fire, he explains how the air helps keep the coals hot.

John retrieves a piece of metal from the forge and pulls out a chart that shows different colors for different temperature ranges. He asks his young assistants to point to the color of the metal he just pulled from the fire. They come close—within a couple of hundred degrees.

“The fire is 2,000 degrees,” John says, turning that bit of information into a math equation when he asks, “How much hotter is that than your oven at home?”

A piece of metal John intentionally leaves in the fire too long begins to spark. He explains that too much heat can turn solid metal into liquid.

Camrin and Kayne leave the park not only with a plant hook they helped make, but having learned how science and math are used outside a traditional classroom.

For John, blacksmithing hearkens back to his time in the military and his 23-year career in vocational education.

“In the Coast Guard I was a welder, so I had a cutting torch and really enjoyed working with my hands,” John says.

He taught industrial arts in Palatka for three years, then Union County for nine years before that curriculum was phased out in favor of technology education.

After one more year in Union County, John moved to Georgia when his wife, Roberta, got a job as a math professor.

He taught industrial arts for a year there before being reassigned to teach vocational building trades and one computer-aided design class a semester.

“The last several years were stressful,” admits John, who laments the near-universal loss of industrial education programs. “Kids today are drawn to technology. We don’t have many vocational programs left in the schools. It’s expensive to have an industrial arts lab. We’ve neglected our apprenticeship programs.”

John was visiting Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park during a folk festival in 2003 and watched a blacksmith for an hour. He was captivated.

“People are fascinated by heating and shaping metal,” John says. “It brings out the pyromaniac in us.”
John found a mentor and slowly learned blacksmithing techniques.

“The gentleman who taught me made four plant hooks in the time I made one,” John says. “But when I focused on blacksmithing, I lost the stress. It’s relaxing.

“You learn that when you heat the metal to a certain temperature, you can move it easily. You work the metal. You don’t have to be big and powerful. But if you don’t get it quite hot enough, the metal works you. A small piece loses its temperature real fast.”

Even before he retired from teaching, John did blacksmithing demonstrations at Stephen Foster—one of the few state parks with a dedicated craft area.

The park is 10 minutes away from the Hamilton County farm where John and Roberta grow a variety of organic fruit and raise Dexter cattle, primarily as pets.

Sharing his skills as a blacksmith serves as a reminder of what once was.

“One hundred years ago, every farmer knew how to do a little blacksmithing and horseshoeing,” John says.

Farriers tend to pick up blacksmithing skills easier than blacksmiths pick up the intricacies of working with horses, John says, noting he cannot shoe a horse.

“In the day, a good blacksmith could make anything,” John says. “They were skilled people in the community. The Industrial Revolution and the advent of welders changed that.”

John combines the old with the new.

“I kind of cheat,” he says. “I use welding principles along with blacksmithing, sometimes using a cutting torch. Lots of people are better at it than I am. I got started pretty late in life.”

John has made three forges, including one he takes around for demonstrations.

“I do lots of honey-dos and make gifts for friends and neighbors,” John says. “I’m fascinated by wind vanes, and use farm parts to make yard art.”

He made a branding iron as a wall decoration for a woman who wanted to preserve her parents’ initials.

John gave a neighbor a gift certificate for his 60th birthday.

“We took a railroad spike and made a knife,” he says. “He had never done any blacksmithing before.”

Always a teacher, John loves introducing people of all ages to blacksmithing—and he continues to learn himself.

He once made a machete from a lawnmower blade. It was a painful lesson.

“That is really hard metal,” John says, recalling how physically demanding the work was. “I felt that for two days.

“I learn a lot through experimentation. Like any hobby, you learn more as you do it. I have a fun time making little things.”