photo essay

Meet the blacksmith of East Dover

Psychology student turned blacksmith has been forging in Nova Scotia for 48 years

John Little has been turning discards into works of art for 48 years.

Originally from New Jersey, Little, 75, came to Halifax to pursue a master’s degree in psychology at Dalhousie University. Frustrated by the politics of academia, he abandoned his research and bought a property in East Dover, N.S.

“The main reason I started blacksmithing is that I wanted to avoid commuting to Halifax,” he says.

The Signal visited him at his home in East Dover on Monday to learn how he turns trash into treasure.

John Little prepares his forge for a fire. He’s been blacksmithing for 48 years.   Andrew Bethune

Little collects scrap everywhere he goes.

Many of his possessions, from motors to hoses, were salvaged after they were thrown away. After years of collecting scrap metal, some metalworkers just give Little their scrap.

On this visit, Little turns a “drop” — a piece of steel that fell to the floor as a larger piece was cut — into something useful.

To start, he heats a coal fire in his forge to about 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, before putting the scrap in.

Little puts a piece of scrap metal into the forge fire. It’s mild steel, meaning it has very low levels of carbon.   Andrew Bethune

Little began blacksmithing in 1970. He started out selling simple things, like candle-snuffers, at craft fairs. His first steady work was making anchors for local fishermen. Within 10 years, he was making “crazy, whacko” things he couldn’t have imagined: sonic sculptures for musicians and other large artistic works.

He says after the very first strike, he knew he would never look back.

“I picked up a hand hammer and hit a piece of hot metal … the metal moved, and that was it for me,” he says.

A hammer used by blacksmith John Little.   Andrew Bethune

He takes the piece from the fire and puts it into a vise, hammering one end of the steel into a flat bud, before returning it to the fire. The steel has to be put into the fire every few minutes so it’s hot enough to shape.

Little prepares to strike a hot piece of iron at his East Dover forge.   Andrew Bethune

Little spends about five minutes pounding out the tip of the piece.

Little’s hammer hits the piece of metal and sparks fly.   Andrew Bethune

After it sits in the fire for a bit, Little lengthens the piece by hammering it over an anvil.

This is the 10th forge Little has built on his property. Like his blacksmith work, he started out small, with only the basics, and reworked everything as he gained new materials and equipment.

“This workshop is my greatest work of art,” he says. “Sometimes I wonder how many hours I’ve spent in this forge, how many hammer blows.”

John Little in his East Dover blacksmith’s workshop.   Andrew Bethune

He says blacksmithing is perfect for him.

“Blacksmithing is very unique. It has fire and heat and danger and violence, in a way, carefully controlled violence,” he says. “It’s got smoke, it’s got noise, it’s just got everything … it also appeals to my personality, which is a personality that loves to jump in.”

Little pulls his work in progress from the forge’s hot coal fire.   Andrew Bethune

He says blacksmithing is good, honest work that allows for some artistry. After visiting craft fairs in the early days, he now does commissions for larger, more elaborate works.

Little uses a cast-iron power hammer he calls the Czar to hammer out a bowl shape.   Andrew Bethune

After another trip to the fire, Little uses a giant cast-iron power hammer he calls the Czar to pound the flat end of the piece into a bowl shape.

“I’ve always been driven to be creative,” he says.

Little says the Czar was built before the Russian Revolution.   Andrew Bethune

Once the bowl-shaped end is done, Little heats the stem and twists it into a curled design. He says blacksmithing is all about technique.

“It’s a finesse thing. People think it’s brute force; nothing could be further from the truth,” he says.

Little twists the stem of his piece to add some artistic flair.   Andrew Bethune

Little says pieces made by hand are quite different from industrial, machine-made objects like cast-iron pieces. They are made with what he calls “dead energy.” With the hammer strikes and physical effort, a bit of the smith goes into every piece made.

“The energy of the smith goes into the piece; living energy,” he says.

Little’s almost-finished product sits in the fire a little longer before the final touches are added.   Andrew Bethune

After a few hours of work, a piece of discarded scrap metal has become an artistic bowl for pistachios.

Little says being a blacksmith is hard work, but there’s nothing in the world he’d rather be doing. That’s why he still works, despite being officially retired.

He often receives visitors who are looking for a unique Nova Scotia experience. Sometimes these are referrals from other artists.

“I just love the process and I love the people I meet because of blacksmithing,” he says. “You probably can’t name a country on Earth that we haven’t had a visitor from.”

The finished bowl, with Little in the background.   Andrew Bethune

4 comments

  1. Fabulous story and great tribute to both the Spirit of Blacksmithing that inhabits humanity’s call to create and especially to John Little who so willingly and enthusiastically engaged his wife Nancy, daughter Becky, and all the resources of his environment to celebrate this fiery craft. Great pictures, beautifully told story and most worthy subject committed to that passion to create. Bravo!

    1. Thanks for the comment Steve, it is a very interesting story. Blacksmithing is an interesting method of creating.

  2. You really did a fine job with this piece Andrew. Two VERY TRIVIAL corrections: the Czar is a cast iron power hammer, not a ‘press’ and I normally forge steel at a light yellow heat, about 2,000 degrees F, not 3,000. When I say ‘trivial’, I really mean trivial! Your images are spectacular! WELL DONE ANDREW!!!

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