List of Famous Blacksmiths and Bladesmiths In History (Past & Present Smiths)
People commonly think of blacksmithing as a historical trade but may not know much about specific blacksmiths and their contributions to society. They probably know even less about famous smiths living today.
While blacksmithing was especially significant prior to the 20th century, there are still a number of innovative blacksmiths and bladesmiths who create both functional and artistic pieces that are admired by large audiences. Smiths living today and those of the past rose to fame through their ingenuity, hard work, and other surprising contributions unrelated to the forge.
1) Lorenz Helmschmied
(1450-1515, Augsburg, Germany)Lorenz Helmschmied was born around 1450 in the Holy Roman Empire, which is present-day Germany. He is considered one of the finest armorers of the 15th and early 16th centuries due to his technologically innovative designs and intricate metalworking style.
Helmschmied started his apprenticeship in 1469 and gained mastery in 1477. In the same year, written documentation states he created his first set of armor for royalty.
He worked under the Habsburg emperors Frederick III and Maximilian I, and in 1491, became the official court armorer and gained a prestigious title and set of privileges as a master of his trade. Helmschmied also served as armorer on the front lines of battle during military campaigns in Burgundian Netherlands.
His most famous late-Gothic design is a sallet helmet made for Maximilian I that features innovative elements of his own invention. On the helmet, the chin defense plate and visor both pivot at the same point, allowing for a sleek design and personalized fit that better protected the emperor during battle. This helmet currently resides in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
2) Simeon Wheelock
(1741-1786, Massachusetts, United States)Born in 1741 in Uxbridge, Massachusetts, Simeon Wheelock was a blacksmith most widely known for his extensive military service. Wheelock worked as a smith in his shop next to his house between stints in the army.
He first served in the French and Indian War, and then became a minuteman during the Battle of Lexington and Concord during the American Revolution.
Wheelock died while serving in the militia during Shays’ Rebellion in 1786. He is regarded as an important figure in Massachusetts history due to his military service in some of the most pivotal battles of colonial American history.
His blacksmith shop and home still stand today and serve as a museum.
3) Alexander Hamilton Willard
(1777-1865 United States)
Alexander Hamilton Willard was another blacksmith remembered for contributions besides blacksmithing. He was born in Charlestown, New Hampshire in 1778 and worked as a smith prior to joining the army in 1800.
Skilled in ironwork, gun repair, and carpentry, Willard caught the attention of the famous Lewis and Clark, who recruited him into their Corps of Discovery.
In 1804, Willard accompanied Lewis and Clark on their expedition across America. His skills came to good use as he was put in charge of negotiating purchases with Native Americans and made weapons to trade for food. Willard proved so important to the team that Clark named Willard Creek in Montana after him.
After returning from the Corps of Discovery expedition, Willard became a blacksmith for the Shawnee and Delaware tribes. In his later life, he would move several times to clear land and fight in different campaigns.
Willard lived in Wisconsin and Iowa before settling in California, where he would die in 1865 at the age of 87. It is thought that he was one of the last survivors from the Lewis and Clark expedition.
4) William Goyens
(1794-1856, United States)
William Goyens was born a freeman in 1794. He is known as the first Black capitalist of Texas.
Over the course of his lifetime, Goyens worked as a blacksmith and wagon maker, a gunsmith for the Mexican army, and an intermediary between Native Americans and settlers. He also operated a freight hauling business between the cities of Natchitoches and Nacogdoches.
At his death in 1856, Goyens left behind 12,423 acres of land and 5 slaves and his estimated estate was valued at $11,917. This was no small sum at this time in history. William Goyens is remembered for his entrepreneurial spirit, his talent in many areas, and his good character.
5) James Black
(1800-1872, United States)
James Black was born in New Jersey and settled in Arkansas in around 1820. He was trained as a silversmith while living in New Jersey and learned blacksmithing and bladesmithing after his arrival in Arkansas. Due to his background in metalworking, he picked up the new trades quickly.
Black was proficient in making plows, wagons, hoes, guns, and especially knives. He is the father of the Bowie knife, and made the first one for Jim Bowie, the famous frontiersman.
Black developed several versions of the Bowie knife and other knives useful for life on the frontier. He is widely considered one of the best American blacksmiths.
6) Thomas Davenport
(1802-1851, Vermont, United States)
Thomas Davenport was a blacksmith from New England who is more well-known for being an inventor than a metalworker. In 1833, Davenport and his first business partner Orange Smalley bought an electromagnet originally used for separating iron ore. He and Smalley experimented with the electromagnet in their shared workshop and eventually produced rotary motion.
In 1837, Davenport patented his electric motor. Although during his lifetime he was unable to secure financial backing to produce his invention on a larger scale, the importance of Thomas Davenport’s work was later recognized in the early 1900s and used in new technology such as the electric streetcar.
7) John Fritz
(1822-1913, Pennsylvania, United States)
Born in 1822, John Fritz is considered the “Father of the US Steel Industry” due to his innovations and leadership in ironworking facilities and organizations. Fritz apprenticed as a blacksmith at age 16 and after completing his basic education, worked up to become a mechanic at the Norristown Iron Company and Cambria Iron Company.
Fritz became the superintendent of Bethlehem Iron Works and while there invented a new, more efficient way of manufacturing rails for the booming railroad industry. He also is credited with developing steel forgings and armor plate, which helped contribute to the rise of the United States’ defense industry.
8) Samuel Yellin
(1885-1940, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States)
Samuel Yellin was born in 1884 in Ukraine. He began his apprenticeship to be a blacksmith when he was only 11 years old and finished his schooling at 16. He and his family moved to Pennsylvania in 1905 and he continued his education at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Arts.
After graduating, he took on a teaching role at the school until later opening his own blacksmith shop in 1909. He specialized in decorative ironworking and made lighting, gateways, and other pieces that can still be seen in esteemed places such as Bowdoin College and Bryn Mawr College.
9) Jan Liwacz
(1898-1980, Bystrzyca Klodzka, Poland)
The “Blacksmith of Auschwitz” Jan Liwacz is best known for creating the infamous sign above the gate of the Auschwitz concentration camp that reads arbeit macht frei or “work will make you free.” Liwacz was arrested by the Gestapo for burning an effigy of Hitler and after finding out about his blacksmithing skills, he was set to work making lanterns, railings, and even toys for the Nazis’ children before creating Auschwitz’s sign.
As an act of defiance, he welded the ‘B’ in arbeit upside down, which he knew would infuriate the meticulous and strict Nazis. He also knew that the mistake would be permanent, since all the letters were welded together and it would take too much work to fix it.
Liwacz was eventually released from imprisonment at the end of the war and worked as a blacksmith and metalworking teacher in communist Poland. He died in 1980 at the age of 82.
10) Philip Simmons
(1912-2009, United States)
Philip Simmons was born in 1912 in South Carolina. He grew up with his grandparents and at age 8 moved to Charleston to attend school and live with his mother. While going to and from school, Simmons became intrigued by the various types of ironwork and manufacturing in his new city. He visited with local blacksmiths, shipwrights, coppersmiths, and other tradesman.
Eventually, Simmons decided to train as a blacksmith and was educated by Peter Simmons, a local smith. Beginning in 1938, Philip Simmons specialized in ornamental ironwork and continued to create beautiful decorative pieces until his retirement.
Many organizations and institutions recognized Simmons’s work and awarded him for his artistic contribution to blacksmithing. In 1982, Simmons won the National Endowment for the Arts’s National Heritage Fellowship, which is the country’s highest honor for traditional artists.
You can view Philip Simmons’s forged art in the Smithsonian, the South Carolina governor’s mansion, Charleston International Airport, South Carolina history centers, libraries, and other locations across the state.
11) Brad Silberberg
(1953-present, Baltimore, Maryland, USA)
Brad Silberberg was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1953. He started his art career as a wood sculptor and discovered blacksmithing when making tools that would help him with his carvings. He fell in love with the craft and continues to create a majority of metal art pieces.
Silberberg is a self-taught smith and learned the trade by reading and setting up his first small workshop in a chicken coop.
He makes a wide range of metal pieces including sculptures, jewelry, decorative gates and furniture, 12 of which reside in the Metal Museum in Memphis, Tennessee.
Silberberg is known for his use of the fly press instead of a hydraulic press when making pieces like jewelry because it “allows for a better sense of touch and control over the metal.” He is highly creative and continues to work and teach at his business, Mesa Creative Arts Center, in Pennsylvania.
12) Tom Joyce
(1956-present, Tulsa, Oklahoma, United States)Tom Joyce is a metalworking artist from Oklahoma who is celebrated for his contributions to metalworking as an artform and his outside-the-box approach to forging different materials. He completed his apprenticeship as a teenager in the early 1970s.
Today, Joyce works in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Brussels, Belgium on sculptures that convey various environmental, political, and historical themes. He oftentimes reuses metal scrap from manufacturing in his artwork.
Joyce has taught the art of blacksmithing at over 100 institutions around the world and has won dozens of prizes for his work. His sculptures can be viewed at museums worldwide.
13) Yoshindo Yoshihara
(1943-present, Tokyo, Japan)Yoshindo Yoshihara is considered one of the top swordsmiths living in Japan today. His workshop in Tokyo currently trains 6 apprentices, who must undergo 10 years of training to reach master status. Yoshihara relies on his own skills as a smith to craft not only his highly-coveted swords, but the tools to make them as well. Every tool in his shop has been created by him or one of his apprentices and are therefore all unique to his workshop.
Yoshihara’s swords prized by people around the world, and he considers sword making to be not just a craft, but an art. His swords have been showcased in major museums worldwide, with one of the most prestigious being the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Yoshihara’s sword making style blends tradition with innovation and makes him one of the leaders in today’s sword making industry. He has also authored many books, including the incredibly inspirational and detailed The Art of the Japanese Sword: The Craft of Swordmaking and its Appreciation.
3 thoughts on “Famous Blacksmiths & Bladesmiths In History (Past & Present)”
Very nice. I also am a blacksmith
Now 45 years I was trained as a industrial blacksmith at BHP steel portkembla Australia
And I have forge many public sculptures , huge crane hooks, shackles ,
Over my career we now will be able to forge very large ingots under our heavy 1000 ton forging press
James Black and William Goyens are two more significant blacksmiths. Black created the Bowie Knife and Goyens helped shape Texas through his skills as a negotiator and businessman.
I thought for sure you would have Honjo Masamune at least in your top 3. A shame not to see him here at all. Am I wrong? I’m not saying any of the people listed don’t deserve a mention, they are all or were all at the top of they’re game, I’m just surprised Honjo Masamune didn’t get a mention.