Iron Magic

March 17, 2009

A couple of weeks ago I took a custom order from Nicholas Breeze Wood, publisher of Sacred Hoop, the British quarterly magazine on shamanism.  He wanted Siberian-type forged iron shaman’s ornaments:  cone bells (traditional style, not the curly ones that I usually make), a miniature sword, and a miniature bow with arrows.  I hadn’t thought about making this sort of thing for awhile, since I’d been more focused on jewelry.   A couple of days later, I went hiking in the desert and found a rusty pair of old (circa 1930s) Craftsman pliers.  I cleaned them up and found that the handles were decorated, probably to give a better grip in the days before dipped-plastic handle covers, but still a nice magical touch.  They are quite similar to the old pair of pliers (bought the swap meet in Georgetown, KY) that I’ve used for 15 years – a hard size to find, but indispensible for just about everything I make, so it’s great to have a second pair in a slightly different and very useful shape.  These are NOT the blacksmith’s tongs that are used for grabbing pieces in the forge.  They are used for twisting, curving, and shaping pieces of hot iron that are too small for the hammer.

Antique Pliers

Antique Pliers

Here’s the finished set of shaman’s ornaments.  The bow is four inches long.
Shaman's Cone Bells, Mini Bow and Arrows, Mini Sword

Shaman's Cone Bells, Mini Bow and Arrows, Mini Sword

I was inspired to design a new cone bell style, nice and loud but a bit too heavy for jewelry – they’ll be strung on a chain.  Here’s one with firescale removed with a wire brush, but not yet polished or blackened.  The small cone acts as a clapper.  When several of these double bells are strung together, the small cones will also add a high-pitched tinkling overtone to the hollow clanking of the bigger cones.
Double Cone Bell

Double Cone Bell


6 Responses to “Iron Magic”

  1. woley said

    The question begs: Do you own any of Nicholas’s work like rattles or paintings and such?

    • ironwing said

      No, his e-mail came out of the blue. It turns out that we share a fascination with Siberian and Central Asian iron shaman’s ornaments. They are the type of forgework that inspired me to take up blacksmithing. I’ve been making shaman’s bells and other items for 15 years, although they’re my own designs (after all, I live in a very different kind of place and have different spirits to provide inspiration and direction!). The ten cones that I made for Nick are more like historical replicas – they’re very similar to traditional Siberian bells – but the other two items incorporate motifs that I use regularly (reverse twists, multiple tiny loops, wire spirals, etc.) that aren’t found in Siberian shamanic ironwork.
      I’m a rattlemaker myself (dipper gourds and small gourds with iron handles) and prefer to make my own shaman’s tools, regardless of how much I might like the look of someone else’s work. Between 1992 and 1998, I made and sold more than 300 gourd rattles, vessels, and masks, all intricately decorated with ink, red ochre, metallic powders, and iron and/or copper ornaments. You can see one of the fancy vessels on the “About Me” page of my website. In 1998 I quit working with gourds in order to focus on painting and blacksmithing.

  2. woley said

    I nearly bought one of your gourds before the Ironwing Tarot was published. I couldn’t afford it and had nowhere to display it, but I remember sending pictures to people as I liked it so much.

    I find it interesting to see how different artists approach things, and obviously this fellow does too!

  3. Heidi said

    I found your blog while surfing about looking for blacksmithing lore, your work is wonderful!
    Are you using iron or mild steel for the bells? Does it matter on a magical/spiritual level if it’s pure iron or mild steel?
    I made some bells for a friend in Seattle many years ago when I first started blacksmithing, the cone shaped shamans bells..I used what I had, 16 gage mild steel. Nothing as artistic as your work..


  4. ironwing said

    My only source for “pure iron” was some antique wrought iron scrap that I played around with a few years ago. I found it to be too soft for jewelry work, though I do like the look of wrought iron that has lain in the ground and rusted for years – the grain makes it look like weathered wood.
    The plain cones in the photo (and the triangular clapper bells on my website) are forged from A-36 mild steel 1/8″ plate, sawn into triangles. The loops were forged from salvaged round wire (larger than 1/8″, smaller than 3/16″) that had been twisted and used for separating the strands in barbed wire fences. It’s very soft and I assume it’s A-36 also. I don’t like working with A-36 – it’s recycled and has many hard and soft spots and impurities that make it unpredictable for fine work – but it’s all I can get for steel plate, and the material I have is salvaged so it was free! The curly cones and pods (and many other things on my website) are forged from cut nails made by the Tremont company. They make various sizes but the largest – the 8″ cut spikes – are the most versatile. They won’t say what type of steel it is, but from the working and quenching properties it appears to be medium carbon. It’s easy to forge, can be hammered or drawn out very thin without cracking, can be formed into delicate shapes easily, and hardens nicely when quenched.
    For small chain links, earrings, etc. I sometimes use 1/8″ cold-rolled round mild steel, but I prefer 1/8″ round high-carbon (1095) “music wire” which is easier to find, cheaper, and holds very precise shapes. My knife blades are 1095 knifemaker’s stock, sawn into small triangles and forged/ground/carved/polished and otherwise tortured into shape.
    The smallest links, iron fringe, and the “bowstring” in the photo are the common 14 gauge annealed steel wire sold in coils as “tie wire” or “baling wire”. I’m not sure of its exact composition but it appears to be very close to pure iron though it’s labelled mild steel.
    Spiritually and even historically (other than 18th-19th century U.S.), I don’t see much difference between “pure iron” and “mild steel” (or any plain carbon steel, for that matter). It’s all the Black Metal. A “bloom” from an ancient bloomery would have contained some carbon from the charcoal used for smelting, so it wouldn’t have been “pure” either. Meteorite iron contains up to about 12% nickel and sometimes other elements, so even the very earliest iron objects weren’t “pure”.

    I frequently get requests for “pure iron – not steel” items from men (never women) who are convinced that there is some spiritual or magical difference between the two. I think this artificial difference is due to a lack of understanding of what the words mean in the metallurgical sense. Unfortunately, our language has two words for ferrous metal, and each is “loaded” with very different acquired poetic, literary, and everyday associations that create a huge imaginary distance where there isn’t one in reality.
    There is also an obsession with “purity” that has crept into a lot of New Age and Pagan thought, perhaps through spiritual traditions such as Medieval alchemy, that is often repeated by people who are looking more for dogma than understanding, and more for the IDEAL of nature (or anything else) than the real thing.

  5. heidi said

    Thank you for sharing the information
    regarding your materials and work!
    I have never seen anyone else making the Shaman bells!
    Have you seen the iron staff tops from Scandinavia? Shaped like houses or birds?

    I agree with you on the “purity” of iron issue,
    Iron or steel, it makes no difference in my experience either. In the heathen/pagan community I still run into many misconceptions about forge work, some based on fantasy writing, or bad cinema. Some born out of dogma, metaphysical dogma I should say.
    As you say “It is all the Black Metal.” -powerful and amazing, :)The heart of the Earth..
    Back to the fire..

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