Tuesday, July 27, 2021

      Williamsburg Update #10

Josh Rachita, Historical Interpreter  

*Josh is interning for the summer at Colonial Williamsburg.*

July 26, 2021

Hello all!

            It was another great week here in Williamsburg. I got back from the Outer Banks earlier in the week. My family was supposed to attend the Roanoke Lost Colony play, but it unfortunately got rained out. It was cool to be able to see where those infamous events took place. In the shop this week I worked on a flesh fork, and I am very pleased with how close it is to the piece I was copying.

            This week I also went to the Rockefeller Library here at Colonial Williamsburg. The library is open to the public and has some really great resources. I, of course, enjoyed the books on ironwork and blacksmithing. While there, I skimmed through a few sources that I knew we talked about in the shop. It’s always good to have read them yourself instead of just regurgitating information from other people. I also checked out a book on enslaved blacksmiths in Louisiana in the 19th century, which I am hopeful will help me understand Joshua Houston better.

            There is a lot of muscle memory involved in blacksmithing so with tooling changes, it can be a challenge to adjust. I had just gotten used to my new nail header I had made (which was the third time this summer I’ve changed headers) when I chipped it last Sunday. I’m not completely sure why that happened, but I reforged it.  I will start tomorrow trying to clean it up to be able to use again. I will try and temper it back farther this time, so it won’t be quite as hard.

            As for the flesh fork, I am very pleased with how close I got to the original piece. The “original” is actually a copy another smith did of the 18th century fork back in 2008. It is a complex item to file because the tines are round and there are several bends in them. In the picture, you’ll notice that my tines are slightly longer. This was purposeful because the master of the shop noted that the 18th century piece likely wore down over time. Though I am still shooting for a more exact copy next time, I am pleased with the improvement throughout this summer.


Tuesday, July 20, 2021

   Williamsburg Update #9

Josh Rachita, Historical Interpreter  

*Josh is interning for the summer at Colonial Williamsburg.*

July 18, 2021

Hello All,

            This week was a very special week for me! My family got to visit and see me working in the shop. This week I started some new projects. I kept working on the fireplace shovels, and I also am working on a flesh or meat fork for cooking. I also took a trip to Wilson, North Carolina with my host this summer. In Wilson there is a collection of large pinwheels/weathervanes, called whirligigs, made by a local farmer. When he died, they were brought to a park downtown.

            The first Rachitas came to Williamsburg in 1957. My grandfather, who was thirteen, was here with his parents on a family trip. This was also the first year that Queen Elizabeth came to visit. When my dad was four, my grandfather decided to start a family tradition by coming back every summer. With the exception of last year, there has been a Rachita in Williamsburg every year since 1971. I think that is quite an accomplishment and has certainly impacted my path in life. I first attended the family trip in 2005. My sister and I dressed up as colonial people and did all the sight-seeing. I also came back in 2017 and met with the master blacksmith, Ken Schwarz. We discussed career paths, blacksmithing technique, and he suggested that I apply for the summer internship someday. I know for a fact that meeting helped me to narrow my focus on the type of blacksmithing and my career.

            Vollis Simpson was the farmer that made the whirligigs. He lived in the 20th and early 21st century. As he aged, his huge collection of towering sculptures fell into disrepair. In 2010, the city moved many of them downtown and made a park so people could enjoy them. Because many had broken down from years of exposure, they had to reproduce some of them that could not be restored. I thought that this was very interesting as it is essentially what we do in the blacksmith shop every day! A reproduction of an 18th century object has the same principles as 21st century reproductions. They also are in the process of creating a formal museum near the park. It was very cool to see the establishment of a new museum and see new history being written. It’s a great reminder that the events happening in our present day will one day be remembered by those of the future.


    The photos this week are me in the magazine in 2005 while wearing a costume my grandmother made for me, my grandfather in the stocks at CW in 1957, and then whirligigs at Vollis Simpson Park in Wilson, North Carolina. 

Saturday, July 17, 2021

    Williamsburg Update #8

Josh Rachita, Historical Interpreter  

*Josh is interning for the summer at Colonial Williamsburg.*

Hello All,

            I had a really great week last week! I continued working on the fireplace shovels, and I filed my first one. Though there is a lot to improve I am happy with how it came out. I also got to go to Monticello this week. My host worked with the man who portrays Thomas Jefferson for over 30 years before he went to Monticello. We got to visit with him after one of his performances which was a great treat!

            Monticello was a very interesting place to go. Jefferson designed the house several times. He always seemed to be in debt because of all the building projects that he would partake in. My favorite part was “Mulberry Row,” the area where his enslaved workers lived and worked. Jefferson experimented with a variety of industrious ventures like nail making, wine, and textiles. I of course enjoyed reading about the nail making done on site and brought lots of questions and thoughts back to the crew at CW.  

            I also toured around CW on my other day off this week. I visited with the cabinet makers, farmers, founders, tailors, and shoemakers. The master shoemaker gave a lecture in the afternoon about the tradition of concealing footwear in newly constructed buildings as a way to ward off evil spirits and encourage safety and prosperity. While visiting with the farmers, they showed me around in the model farm. They pointed out what the different tobacco leaves felt like and at what texture they are ready to harvest. I immediately felt the tar leaching out of the tobacco leaves which really surprised me. I always thought tar was a modern additive in tobacco products. I finished the day with a tour of the George Wythe home. George Wythe was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and one of Thomas Jefferson’s law tutors.

            I’ve been working hard in the shop. I’ve been trying to absorb as much as I can while I’m here with such great smiths. I’ve been able to get the process on the fireplace shovels down but I am still hoping to get them much cleaner. I’ve also been relearning the process of making nails since making a new nail header. Much of nail making is muscle memory so trying to be efficient in a new tool can be very challenging.


            The pictures this week are Elaine and me at Monticello with Bill Barker/Thomas Jefferson, a finished fireplace shovel, and a close up shot of the handle detail.

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

                                    Williamsburg Update #7

Josh Rachita, Historical Interpreter  

*Josh is interning for the summer at Colonial Williamsburg.*

July 5, 2021

Hello all,

            First, I’d like to say Happy Independence Day! It was really neat to get to celebrate our nation’s founding in an area that is so significant to that period in history. I was working on the fourth, and we certainly had a large number of visitors come through the shop. It’s been great to see things return to normal so places, like Colonial Williamsburg, can share their story again!

            On Saturday, I attended a concert of the Air Force Heritage Band of America that was hosted by Colonial Williamsburg. I really enjoyed hearing both the classic patriotic songs and some modern, well known ones. On the fourth, in addition to working at the blacksmith shop, I was able to catch the Fife and Drum Corps practicing before a performance at the Palace. I capped the evening off by watching the fireworks with some coworkers away from the large crowds.

            This week I started some new projects. One was a nail header, which is a tool used to help form the head of the nail in the final stage of production. It is made from two pieces; the body being wrought iron with tool steel being jump welded on. This project is particularly challenging because it requires an extremely small hole to be punched through a very large, hot bar. If made correctly, a good nail header should be able to make tens of thousands of nails or more in its life.

            I also started working on a fireplace shovel. I practiced how to make the handle shape first. With that test piece, I made a spatula by welding a blade to the other end. I have been getting some great practices with forge welding, and they have been going really great recently.  I started these new projects because I messed up the last trivet I was working on. I decided to move on for the sake of time and hopefully return to it later.


The photos this week are me filing up a trivet, the finished nail header, the shovel and spatula while in progress, and the Fife and Drum Corps practicing.

Saturday, June 26, 2021

 Williamsburg Update #6

Josh Rachita, Historical Interpreter  

*Josh is interning for the summer at Colonial Williamsburg.*

 June 24, 2021

This week was a short week for me as I am traveling to my sister’s wedding this weekend. I did spend a couple days in the shop where I continued working on the trivet project. I finished one that I am really pleased with, so now I am working on another using historically correct material which is wrought iron. Also, after 5 weeks and probably 1000 nails, they have improved enough that I can start contributing to the Brickyard shed project, which really makes me excited to be able to benefit the shop in that way.

            The material I am making the latest trivet from is called wrought iron. Wrought iron is a relatively soft material, so it moves very nicely under the hammer, and it forge welds much better than modern day steels. It is no longer being produced commercially because of technological advances that make mild steel a better material to use for modern applications. Any wrought iron used today has to be salvaged from old buildings, bridges, iron tires, and other similar sources. Due to the high cost and limited supply, apprentices very rarely get to use the material, especially for practicing. It is pretty extraordinary to see how big of a difference the material makes while constructing and using these items.

            Due to its semi-homogenous and soft nature of wrought iron, it is not suitable for a tool surface. Something like a cutting edge or hammer face is often made from hardenable steel with a body made from the softer wrought iron. Historically, this was done as a cost saving measure. Steel, which was most often imported from England in the 18th century, was three times the cost of iron. Iron was also readily available in the colonies, as the Thirteen Colonies accounted for the third largest iron producing region in the world, on the eve of the revolution. This source of iron was one of the reasons England set up the colonies in the first place. While England had plenty of iron ore, they lacked the timber needed to smelt the iron ore into usable iron bars.

            I’m excited to get back to Williamsburg and finish up the trivet project. I think a nail header will be the next thing I work on. I am very excited to learn how to make another tool that I can add to the tool kit.


The pictures this week are a photo of a finished trivet and that same trivet on top of the original drawing.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

 Williamsburg Update #5

Josh Rachita, Historical Interpreter  

*Josh is interning for the summer at Colonial Williamsburg.*

June 20, 2021

Hello All,

            I had a great week here at Colonial Williamsburg! I got the trivet project well under way, and I am very pleased with my progress. This week was of course Juneteenth, and it was neat to see Williamsburg, along with the rest of the country, celebrate a very Texan tradition. I also got to stop by the silversmith and tinsmith shop on my day off. I really enjoyed the silver shop because silver is very similar to iron in the manner that it is manipulated.

            Last week when I went to Archeology and Collections, I started to think about a social media post I had seen several years ago. In 1995 Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, was captured by a photographer, smashing a 2000-year-old vase from the Han dynasty. The purpose of the act was to question how society values things from the past. While I would never condone destroying a piece of history, I do understand Weiwei’s ideas. A poorly made vase 2000 years ago is still a poorly made vase today. So, what gives things value if it’s not just age?

            While in Archeology, I kept hearing one word from everyone I interacted with “context”. The archeologists use clues when digging to understand where they are in the timeline. An aluminum can may give us a hint that we are in the context of the 20th or 21st century. Digging deeper may reveal an item that can be specifically dated, and thus, everything around it becomes informed because of its context. These items help answer questions about who was here and what they were doing. Often times, the paper record is found to be supported by the archeological evidence that is found. These items can give us clues about the specific location, not just a generalization about the period or region. A good example of this is the Anderson cabinets. The paper record shows that the shop focused heavily on military items and repair during the Revolutionary War. Pieces like gun parts, sword guards, and entrenching tools were all found at the site. Now as an interpreter, I can tell the public about those items firsthand. Having read about and seen these artifacts in person now has strengthened my interpretation and hopefully adds to the guests’ experience.

            Collections is a different story. For the most part, Collections contains very well-preserved pieces which aren’t necessarily from Williamsburg. The purpose of these are to help the craftsmen, architectural historians, designers, and other interpreters make informed decisions on reproducing what 18th century life was like. The value in these objects is that they are so well preserved we can gain an understanding into how things were used and exactly what they looked like. While working on the trivet, I am practicing the process of analyzing one of these pieces and using them to create an accurate reproduction. Historic trades give so much value to a museum’s mission. Unlocking how items were made can tell us so much about the people and societies that interacted with these objects. We can infer their values on work, material culture, economics, differences in classes, etc. There is so much to learn about these processes that have been largely lost.

            The trivet I’m making is peculiar enough that we think it could be a custom piece. It immediately caught my eye as being something that I haven’t seen before. It is very neat to think that I could possibly be one of only two smiths that have ever made this shape. It makes me wonder if the smith previous to me thought about the lifespan of his work. I’m sure he would find it amusing that a smith 250 years later is studying his work so closely that he’s measuring to a 64th of an inch to get it just right.


            The photos this week are a picture of the original trivet, my recent attempt at the reproduction, and a photo of me working on the ring of the trivet.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021


Williamsburg Update #4

Josh Rachita, Historical Interpreter  

*Josh is interning for the summer at Colonial Williamsburg.*

June 13, 2021

Hi Y’all,

            This week was a very cool week! I got to visit with both the archeology and collections departments and get up close and personal with some real pieces from the 18th century. I’ve finally graduated from the spoons so now I am working on the steps of reproducing a period piece. I selected a small trivet used for cooking or holding hot items like pots or irons. I also attended a music performance that used 18th century music to show the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and one of his slaves, Jupiter. This week the Curator of Collections at the Sam Houston Memorial Museum, Mikey Sproat, also stopped by and said hello, which was nice to see a familiar face!

            At archeology, they have artifacts from the excavations they’ve done around the city. I was especially interested by the artifacts that came from the Anderson Armoury site. There was evidence of the things we speak about which was cool to see. There were many items that as a blacksmith I could tell that there was something wrong with them which explained why they were thrown away in the first place. Things like tear out in the iron were very common. (“Tear out” is a technical term that means "tears in iron" or "the tearing of iron".) There were also a lot of gun parts which is evidence of the shop serving as a public armoury during the Revolutionary War.

            In collections they keep the pieces that are period correct but weren’t found here in Williamsburg. Often these pieces are in great condition and are used by the museum as references for reproduction. This is the process that I am learning and practicing through making the trivet. I spent three hours taking notes and measurements and also drawing the artifact. Collections dated the piece between 1740 and 1780. It is a very unusual piece and there are several clues that help me understand how it was made. Having attempted it multiple times, I am encouraged to see my mistakes developing in the same places as the original. This leads me to believe that I am taking roughly the same steps the smith 250 years ago took as well.

            I am also seeing that my nails are getting better as well which is very exciting. I am making some that will probably be contributed to the 15,000 needed for the new brick drying shed, which is a very modest number for a new building. I am also getting more comfortable with interpreting here and learning a lot between interactions with other smiths and interpreters.


The photos this week are a picture of me pumping the bellows, courtesy of Fred Blystone. A photo of the palace in the evening and a picture of the trivet and notes I took for reproduction.  And, the last photo is of myself with Mikey Sproat, Curator of Collections from the Sam Houston Memorial Museum.

Until my next update, I hope everyone has a great week!