This article was translated by John R. Bopp
Basques and iron have been joined since time immemorial. Until the Industrial Revolution, the production of iron was disseminated throughout Basque territory in an immense network of forges. Iron ore was extracted from the country’s mountains, transformed into metal, and then those forges would turn it into farming tools, nails (a traditional Basque farmhouse needed thousands of nails, and these were manufactured, one by one, by hand, at the forge), elements for the home, parts for boats, or weapons.
Basque forges produced iron pieces that were famous across Europe, even being mentioned by Shakespeare. For centuries, the Basques were famous on the continent and outside it for three things: iron, whales, and ships.
This industry was of such importance that a whole legal corpus was created around it, whose objective was to develop the industry and protect it.
Basque ironsmiths, with their knowledge and experience, even managed to open forges in other parts of the Iberian Peninsula, mostly in the north. Using their technical knowledge, Basque customs, and even Basque vocabulary, they were adopted by very different cultures in different places.
Starting in the 18th century, this production method, this industry, began to decline in the Basque Country. Many of these factories or forges start closing throughout the 19th century as ironmakers, making room for the steel industry that would be born of the Industrial Revolution. It was a transformation of the economic structures of the country which affected other sectors, such as the shipbuilding one.
A few forges that survived by manufacturing tools, implements, and domestic objects finally disappeared in the middle of the 20th century. This was very lucky, since their survival meant that in some cases, the whole structure that the ironsmiths used to work iron were for centuries was preserved.
One of these cases is the forge of El Pobal, in Muskiz, Biscay, which closed in 1965 after almost 500 years of uninterrupted activity. Now, it is a museum owned by the Biscay government, a “living” museum in the most literal sense, because the normally they give demonstrations of how iron was worked there.
We went to this forge one Saturday to learn about this process and to be able to share it with our readers. We’d like to thank the management of the museum for working with us, and ironsmith Luis María Turuelo for his excellent explanations on the guided tours, full of fun details, and for his patience with us in dedicating his time to showing us the details of the shop so we could make this video.
Our recommendation: visit it! Hopefully on a day when they’re giving demonstrations. You won’t regret it.
All the contact info is here.
We’re sharing this (4K!) video and some pictures we took during our stay.