Day in the Life: Raivo the blacksmith

Raivo Jänesmägi working in his workshop at his farm in Päka village. 14 March 2019.
Raivo Jänesmägi working in his workshop at his farm in Päka village. 14 March 2019. Source: Aili Vahtla/ERR

After decades of working for someone else, being your own boss, while it demands discipline, is very rewarding, especially when you can use it as a means of promoting your people, your language, your history and your culture. My name is Raivo Jänesmägi, and I am a Seto blacksmith.

My day typically begins when my alarm goes off. I put the electric kettle on for coffee and prepare breakfast. After that, I let the dog out in her pen, and get a fire going in the wood-burning stove that heats our house. By this time, my wife has woken up as well, and we eat breakfast together.

After breakfast, I do some chores that I suppose are unique to life in the countryside, like haul in firewood and fresh water from the spring on our neighbour's property. Our house has running water, which we use to shower, wash dishes and do laundry, but nothing beats fresh spring water for drinking. The pail sits next to our refrigerator in the kitchen. Once these chores are done, I check my emails and read the news, and then it's time to head out back to my blacksmith's workshop, which I have built in one of the outbuildings on our farm.

Blacksmiths are funny in that they don't just make things; they also make the tools that they need to make those things. Sometimes I'll have to forge a tool I only need to make one thing, or even for just one step of making something, and I have no idea when I'll use that tool again. We also MacGyver some of the things we need too, such as an electric-powered fan for our forge. You can't just go to a regular hardware store and buy ready-made kits of blacksmith's tools. Even some of Estonia's agricultural museums don't have proper sets of tools on display, by the way, or they'll have them displayed with the tools grouped in a way that doesn't make sense, because the person setting up the display just doesn't know any better. The Saatse Seto Museum has proper, quality blacksmith's tools on display, though; I recommend it.

Light a fire

When I step inside my workshop, I flick on the lights and then the first thing I do is get a fire going on my forge. One of the things I have MacGyvered for myself is an electric-powered fan operated with a dial in lieu of bellows — the large leather and wooden thing that looks a bit like an accordion and is pressed down with a big lever — which is more convenient for controlling airflow in order to increase the temperature of the fire in my forge. If I have a project in the works, I will place the working end of the metal in the hot coals and let it heat up until it's red hot — or, more precisely, bright white. At that point it is ready for me to work.

Depending on what I am making, my next steps will vary. Sometimes I will place the metal rod on which I am working in my heavy-duty blacksmith's vice to bend it into the shape I want. Other times I will skip straight to working it against my anvil, hitting it over and over again with a hammer. Each time I only really have a matter of seconds to work on it before it cools down too much and I have to place it in the coals to heat up again. Depending on what exactly I am making, there can be a seemingly endless cycle of steps like this involved. Smaller, simpler items like hooks can take a matter of minutes to make; larger and more complicated things can take even days or weeks to make, depending on several different factors.

People often wonder what on earth a blacksmith even makes nowadays. They might picture horseshoes, or swords. I actually have a collection of them in my workshop; I collect interesting used horseshoes. But I don't make them. Every blacksmith has their own specialties, but I generally make practical, everyday things — door hinges, hooks, bottle openers, paper towel holders, fire pokers, candlesticks. I will also sometimes make jewelry, including brooches and rings. Mass-produced items surely cost less, but the things I make are not only clearly handmade — no two are exactly alike — but they are better quality. I make them for life. Every blacksmith develops their own signature style, too, but many of us also mark our pieces. I mark mine with my initials — RJ.

Being your own boss

Before I started doing this for a living, I had been involved in farming for some time, and later worked in a furniture store. After that I spent 12 years working for the Estonian Border Guard in the Setomaa area, which was followed by work in Finland. Upon my return to my native Southeastern Estonia, I realised I wanted a job where I could be my own boss and would not have to rely on anyone else, and being an independent blacksmith was a good fit. By now I have been at it for nearly ten years.

What I like most about this work is the freedom to decide things for myself — my schedule, what I want to make, where I want to go sell my items. I also love knowing that my products have made it all over the world by now, and I really enjoy talking to customers. The high season for fairs, most of which are open-air, is from spring through autumn, although indoor fairs take place in Tallinn and Tartu during the colder months as well. At the last fair I attended as a seller, a previous client recognised me and came up to thank me for an item they had previously bought from me; that felt really good.

Most of the time when I am selling at a market or fair, which I always consider to be a holiday of sorts, not to mention payday, I am dressed in my Seto folk costume and talk to customers in my language — the Seto language — which is not only enjoyable for me, but gives me a chance to promote the Seto people, culture and language all over the country. Back when I worked in Finland, I was actually told that the Seto language was easier for them to understand than Estonian! Seto and certain dialects of Finnish have more in common than standardised Finnish and Estonian do.

A customer at a fair once scolded me and told me to speak to my customers in Estonian, but for the most part, people like it. I can also talk to customers in Finnish, Russian and Estonian as needed. English — I can get by. Really, with some hand-waving you can get by in any language. Once I even had Japanese buyers; I wrote down the price of the item they were interested in on a piece of paper, and when they didn't like it, I just wrote a smaller number.

What I like least about my job is the adverse effects this line of work has on my health. Another tricky aspect is the flipside of being my own boss and working from home — the fact that I can be easily distracted, and sometimes end up "rewarding" myself with something like mowing the lawn, or something else equally distracting. But because I set my own schedule, I can dedicate time to working on renovations around my farm, which are among my biggest current plans. My latest project has been renovating our sauna, which is coming along quite nicely.

Long hours, young visitors

Depending on whether I have a fair coming up, my workdays will sometimes stretch long into the night. As I complete items, I stow them in heavy-duty boxes I keep in the front entryway of the house for easy loading and unloading from the car. I keep a mental checklist of items I've already made and have ready to sell, just as I keep a checklist during fairs of items that are in greater demand or that I need to make.

Occasionally I will have visitors at the workshop too, including schoolchildren from nearby schools. When it's younger kids visiting, I have to think carefully about what I can teach them and how I can make it interesting enough to keep their attention. Sometimes the kids will all diligently be working on something until one of them sees one of my cats out the window, yells, "CAT!" and suddenly everyone is scrambling to see him out the window. Most of them have cats of their own at home, but you'd think in the moment that they'd never seen a real live cat before in their lives.

I would actually like to discipline myself to make better use of my workday, which would leave me more free time for involvement in sports and my hobbies, which include taking my boat out fishing on the nearby Lake Järvepää. I have also been an active member of the volunteer Estonian Defence League (Kaitseliit) since 1992, and like foraging for wild mushrooms in the forest besides.

The borders of Setomaa

My family and I live on a farm just a couple of hundred metres from the border of both Setomaa Municipality and the historical Setomaa Parish; I can actually see it from the edge of my property. My wife and I have three grown children, each of whom has gone their own way. One is actually currently staying with us for a while after returning to Estonia following some time living in Australia and China. Our current permanent residents include two "second-hand" cats, one of whom was found next to a rubbish bin in Tallinn and the other of whom just showed up at our doorstep and refused to leave. On Valentine's Day we also celebrated the first birthday of our dog, a Laika named Tuula.

The farm itself actually has a sad story attached to it — the family who originally lived here was deported in the 1940s. But the deported family had relatives end up in Australia and the US, and some four or five years ago, while they were in the area for a family reunion, they came by and asked if they could come in and see the house. Of course they were welcome.

My wife's parents are from Hiiumaa and Harju County, so the other end of the country, but my family is of purely Seto background — originally from the Petseri region, which is now occupied land on the other side of the Estonian-Russian border. My parents are both buried there, and I visit their graves there on a regular basis. There is a special visa for that, although in the meantime I have taken a cultural visa instead, through the Seto Käsitüü Kogo, or Seto Handicraft Association, in connection with my work.

I think it is important that we Seto continue visiting our historical lands on the other side of the border, including on important traditional holidays. I still have many relatives there, and we keep in touch; they speak an entirely different dialect of the Seto language. The younger generations there unfortunately don't speak it at all anymore; we can only talk to them in Russian at this point. I was supposed to inherit land, too, but that also fell on the wrong side of the border. Not much I can do about that, is there. Setomaa being split by the border like that is a very difficult subject for us, and the effects are unfortunately very real.

Live somewhere else

That being said, I also think it's important for people to spend some time living elsewhere, so that they can better appreciate everything we have here, and whine less. Travelling has become so much easier during my lifetime, too, and brought the world so much closer. I'd like to travel more myself as well. I spent time working in Finland, as I said, but now I am living on a farm just up the road from where I grew up; even the village school where I first started attending school as a child is right nearby.

At this point, I have zero interest in living in a big city again. You know, we actually have it pretty good here; we actually have everything we need nearby. Even the roads are paved. We do most of our grocery shopping in town in Räpina or Põlva, but just up the road is a small cafe that sees quite a lot of business during the summer months. Of course, living in the countryside, you have to work hard, too. You grow what you can, you forage what you can, you dry, store and preserve what you can, and you don't even waste the ash left over from a fire; I store it in metal drums to fertilize my onions and garlic. But you have to take it easy as well, and remember that everything will fall into place somehow.

At the end of the day, before I go to bed, I usually take one last walk around my property — survey my kingdom, so to speak. I take stock of what I have accomplished that day, whether it's things I have made in my workshop, or firewood I have stacked out back, or repairs I have made to a building. When you live in the countryside, there is always something to be done. When you work for yourself, payday also depends on how much you get done. Thankfully there is plenty of room in my workshop for raw and scrap material, and I've always got ideas for what to make next.


Day in the Life is a near-weekly series by ERR News telling the stories of everyday Estonians, their livelihoods, and their lives. If you know someone whose story you feel should be told, email us at [email protected].

Editor: Aili Vahtla

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