It would be thrilling to go to a real, working smithy—to see how metalwork was done and perhaps take up the hammer myself. Naturally, such an experience would be great research for a fantasy author. The next best thing, for those short on time or cash, is watching these two fascinating episodes of television.
From PBS Nova comes “The Secrets of the Viking Sword.” The seed idea is that, though all sword-swinging Vikings were to be feared, a select few of them carried a special blade that made them even more dangerous. This sword, called the Ulfberht, was stronger, more flexible, and more durable than other weapons of similar appearance. Modern metallurgical analysis has shown that the quality of steel used in forging the Ulfberht far surpassed that of any steel used in Europe for hundreds of years afterwards. How did they do it? Why was it so rare? Watch the program on the PBS site to see modern scientists and smiths try to re-create the process and forge the Ulfberht anew. If you look closely, you can see Aragorn in the background, taking notes.
The BBC created a great show called Mastercrafts, about five medieval skills that are considered essential to the historical identity of Britain, but which are now threatened with obscurity due to the advance of more efficient modern techniques. All of the episodes are great, especially the ones on working greenwood and stone masonry, but it’s the blacksmithing show I’m highlighting here. The format of the show involves taking several interested amateurs and apprenticing them with a master craftsman so that they can learn to perform the skill as it was done a thousand years before. Along the way, there are lots of little informative side-jaunts to fill in details about the period and the process. Luckily, the normally-stingy BBC has thus far ignored the fact that you can watch the entire episode on YouTube.