Most 19-year-olds don’t set out to become a blacksmith—at least not today. But 200 years ago, such a career choice was as common as going to medical school or majoring in business. Matthew Shirey was not most 19-year-olds.
A history buff since a young age, he felt compelled by an old skill that was once a community fixture, now just a rare craft. Blacksmithing almost disappeared, for a time. It is artisans like Shirey who give it breath today.
Shape Shifter // Sylva, North Carolina, blacksmith Matthew Shirey has always been drawn to ways of the past. At 19, he discovered his passion for crafting functional, one-of-a-kind work in the forge; (left) a custom-made ax by Shirey
His path to the small Shira Forge workshop in Sylva, North Carolina, is simple, though certainly one less traveled. Shirey grew up fascinated by frontier life, famous wilderness men like Daniel Boone, and the “old ways of doing things.” He discovered living history reenactments in high school, where he was first introduced to blacksmithing. At 19, he decided to take a weekend blacksmithing workshop at a local state park in his home state of Pennsylvania. Two days with the forge and the anvil had him transfixed. “I knew immediately this is what I wanted to do,” he says.
He went on to become a welder and carpenter, but poured his free time into learning the art of blacksmithing. “I bought a hand-crank forge for 50 dollars, borrowed an anvil, and just started hammering away,” he explains. His whole-hearted pursuit paid off when he moved to Waynesville, North Carolina, to work at a Boy Scouts camp. He found a community that celebrates craft and decided to stay, teaching carpentry, taking on metalworking commissions, and refining his distinct style.
Into the Fire // Shirey’s Appalachian-inspired pans, knives, and tools are forged from carbon steel and hand-rubbed for a dark patina that will become more pronounced over time. He works mostly in the forge, shaping about 90 percent of the piece there. The result is a timeless and high-performing functional work of art.
Shirey’s work is a visual and tactile nod to time past. Across his knives, cookware, axes, and bottle openers, the mark of the forge is clear. His tools don’t hide the maker’s hand; they glow, almost, with warmth, authenticity, and soul long after the forge has gone cold. Other contemporary metalworkers are turning out sleek, modern pieces, but Shirey is quick to admit that he’s not after knives with a shiny, mirror finish. “My process is very forge-intensive,” Shirey says. “I try to do as much of the work in the forge as I can. I’ll hammer out 90 percent of the shape right there in the forge.”
Function is a core value for him: after all, function is the reason blacksmithing came to be thousands of years ago. Mankind needed stronger, cheaper tools, so we figured out how to create fires hot enough to forge them. “Blacksmithing is considered the root craft,” Shirey points out. “The ability to work iron really changed the face of human evolution.” Although Shirey has some modern equipment, the heart of the process is much the same as it was centuries ago. Iron is heated until it becomes malleable, and then hammered into something new. The moment when metal surrenders to the fire’s incredible heat is mesmerizing to watch—and to control.
“I find it amazing to take this super hard surface that comes from the earth and mold it into anything I want. To shape it into something very functional, like a tool, is a powerful process for me,” Shirey says. For a modern blacksmith who grew up idolizing frontier men, there’s something special about forging the same tools they used to carve out an existence in America’s untamed wilderness. Perhaps that’s why Shira Forge tools look as if they’d be right at home in the hands of Daniel Boone. Each piece is forged and refined for flawless performance, but Shirey stops shy of polishing away the warm, rough texture of the forge. The result is an aesthetic that pays homage to the plucky, self-reliant Appalachian culture he admires so much.
He’s not the only one who appreciates the aesthetic. At craft fairs and galleries (Shirey is a new vendor for this year’s upcoming Indie Craft Parade in Greenville), people catch sight of his cookware, in particular, and beeline for a closer look. Forged from carbon steel, Shira Forge pans have an organic shape and are hand-rubbed for a warm, dark patina that will continue to develop over years of use. Shirey is not afraid to pit his forged fry pans against that holy grail of Southern cooking, the cast-iron skillet. “Cast iron is brittle, but you could throw my pan against a brick wall and it won’t break,” he laughs.
But before the craft fairs and the art galleries and the online shop, before the business plan and the Shira Forge branding, there’s just a craftsman playing with fire, making something powerful and beautiful from the earth. This is what blacksmiths did two centuries ago, the music of the anvil ringing through their village. And this is what Matthew Shirey does today in his small shop in the woods: “My favorite place to be, other than with my family, is in my shop playing with metal. I enjoy making simple, useful things.”
View Matthew Shirey’s work at shiraforge.com; he will be at the Indie Craft Parade, September 16–17, at the Huguenot Mill at The Peace Center in Greenville.