If you’ve attended the annual Firefly Gathering in the past, there’s a few folks you’re sure to have seen regardless of the year. One of these beloved recurring presences is most often found beside a steady fire, hands and bare shoulders tinged with the black residue of heated iron- the “firescale” from which blacksmiths get their name. Whether you’ve ventured to sit in his tent to learn, or you’ve simply heard the echo of a hammer striking metal as you wandered by one of his blacksmithing classes, Tod Kershaw is a pivotal thread in the intricate web that makes up Firefly.
Like many of the instructors who come to offer their expertise in traditional skills, Tod’s journey to teaching blacksmithing is a curious, diverging and inspiring one. What is it that brings an engineer to make their own forge out of clay and stone, or bellows of harvested wood and self-tanned leather, rather than designing energy storage devices for vehicles? As a returning Perennial Workshop and long-time Annual Gathering instructor, we thought it high time to celebrate this beloved instructor and close Firefly friend, as well as his winding way toward blacksmithing, dumpster diving, and the heart of the Earthskills community.
Tod at the Firefly Gathering in 2017
The very first sparks of Tod’s connection to metalwork came early on. At six years old, Tod and his father attended a craft show. As Tod’s father would tell him in his later years, a certain fascination kept Tod glued specifically to the blacksmith’s shop. While Tod himself has no recollection of this, one of his own earliest memories certainly rings true to his work today. After seeing a dumpster full of toys in the courtyard of the military housing complex he lived in at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, “I hopped right in and took everything I wanted. I have continued scavenging other people’s trash my entire life.”
While hanging around blacksmiths and finding treasures in dumpsters would become a familiar scene in Tod’s life in the many years to come, the path there was far from linear. After spending some years welding and working at an industrial foundry, Tod’s interest in metallurgy was mostly left to simmer as he pursued a career in the sciences. It wasn’t until he neared graduation that a clear decision came alive.
“Just before I finished my M.S. in Engineering, I went to one of the professors on my thesis committee – the one whom I really considered a mentor,” Tod recalls. “I went there to explain to him why I was going to quit engineering and learn to make friction fires and things like that.”
Expecting a serious attempt from his professor to talk him out of such an idea, Tod found that as he offered his reasons for wanting to learn to live without so much technology, all he heard was agreement. Surprised, “I finally asked him why he was still teaching engineering if he agreed with what I was saying. He hung his head and said, ‘I don’t know, sometimes I still think there might be some hope…’ And he then went on to encourage me to do exactly what I was talking about doing.”
After letting go of his Masters Degree program, he dove into metal work through classes at the Campbell Folk School, as well as the Echos in Time and Wintercount gatherings out west. Tod then moved to Wildroots, a small off grid, earthskills-centric community nestled in the misty mountains of western North Carolina, where he lived for the next 12 years.
“Living that lifestyle allowed me to unwind from the programming and stress of being a good consumer and to develop a relationship with my world that is not entirely based on modern technology,” Tod recalls. He makes it clear that the word “entirely” is very important. “I don’t imagine I could survive without modern technology, but I no longer need it for everything I do.”
These kinds of distinctions are also echoed when asking Tod about what spending time in nature is to him. “Nature is a word and concept created by humans,” he says. “I’m not really sure what it is.”
Tod at the Firefly Gathering in 2019
As his knowledge in traditional skills grew, Tod could be found teaching classes on friction fire, vegetable tan leather making, crosscut saw sharpening and use, and tool handle making. His draw to metalwork is the focal point of his time spent teaching as of about five years ago. When asked what it is about this skill that stands out for him, he’ll tell you:
“Besides just enjoying metalworking, I’m attracted to blacksmithing because it is so useful and can be done with very little money. One can make one’s own tools and trinkets, and do it almost entirely by scrounging through society’s surplus stuff…I have always used steel and iron that I find in junk yards or just lying around.”
As a result of his hunter-gatherer approach to material harvesting, Tod describes what he primarily practices and teaches these days as “Neo Pre-Post-Apocalyptic Blacksmithing.” The “Post” comes from the capacity for this skill to be applicable in a post apocalyptic world, while the “Pre” addresses that fact that we’re not there yet. Finally, Tod adds, “The ‘Neo’ is just to make it sound more pretentious.”
Tod’s blend of formal training, alongside years spent crafting and teaching around the country have led him to be one of our most beloved teachers at Firefly. As an Annual Gathering instructor, he continues to be inspired by the high energy that is created when people come together with so much wisdom to share and such eagerness to learn.
Today, Tod teaches throughout the year with Firefly, in addition to selling all manner of creations and taking custom orders through his online store. If you’re interested to learn more about Tod, or experience metalwork for yourself, check out our Perennial Workshops Page or read more about the Annual Gathering Here.
Here’s to the many folks who make Firefly burn so brightly!
Photos by JP Goguen and Austin Lottimer