Blacksmithing as a vocation may have already had its heyday, but there is a still a sizable contingent of enthusiasts willing to take it up as a hobby and an art form. One such hobbyist is Bill Kauffman, who was present with other smithies of the Illinois Valley Blacksmith Association at the 70th annual Central States Threshermen’s Reunion, each working a forge to show curious passersby what metalwork looked like.
    Kauffman, who resides in rural Danvers — the location of which he humorously described as being between “vaguely” and “almost” — said he’s been at the craft for about 50 years, and coming to the Reunion for more than 30. He was first introduced to it by his father.
    “When I was about 6 years old, my dad had to take plow shears to a local blacksmith,” he said. “So, when you’re a 6-year-old kid watching that guy work, you had fire, you had a lot of noise, and you get dirty — perfect for a little kid. I’ve been interested in it ever since.”
    While the fire and grime still appeals to him, Kauffman admitted that, at his age, he could do without the noise. He said that he never made a livelihood out of it, he’d been better able to enjoy it and make “a few bucks” since retirement from a tech company in 1991.
    As a blacksmith, Kauffman said he can make several different things, including tripod grills and railings, as well as projects he’s commissioned to doing. He said that he was among the charter members of the IVBA, a not-for-profit organization founded in 1976 by 21 blacksmithing enthusiasts that is “dedicated to promoting and expanding the horizons of architectural, artistic and practical blacksmithing, while preserving the past heritage of this craft and art form.”
    With the association now boasting more than 400 members, Kauffman said he’s additionally taken on a more tutorial role.
    “We have classes at the Sugar Grove Nature Center (in McLean), south of Bloomington, which will actually start up next month,” he said, adding that anyone that showed interest in the craft at events like the Threshermen’s Reunion would be found something to do.
    “If anyone comes up here and stands here and says, ‘I want to learn,’ we’ll snatch them up and put them to work,” he said. “We’ll work with them and teach them how to do some things, if they’d like — that’s what events like the Threshermen’s Reunion are for.”
    Ultimately, Kauffman thought that the prospect of being able to create practical and even beautiful things out of metal was enough of a draw on its own to keep interest in blacksmithing alive for years to come.
    “The ability to make something out of a piece of steel does attract quite a few people,” he said. “It’s a lot like modeling clay from childhood, where the limit is your imagination. With blacksmithing, your thumb becomes a hammer and this stuff is about 1,700 degrees, but the moving and shaping is similar.”