What is blacksmithing? A Blacksmith? A guild? What are some of the basics needed to start? Some very common questions, which I hope to answer and more.
For just under a decade I was a metal fabricator, I had to cut, weld and bend steel to a set of blue prints, or an image in my head. I’ve also had the pleasure of being a minor part in starting a blacksmith guild in SWVA, appropriately called Southwest Virginia Blacksmith Guild. I’ve beat red hot steel with several members over the years, and it is an experience that can’t really be described with just any one word. Satisfying, exhilarating, fatigue, pride which often gets checked into being humbled.
Blacksmith is a smith, or craftsman/woman whose trade is to create object out of iron or steel. The practice is believed to have started in 1500 BC in the area of Syria, which lead to the Iron ages in 1200BC.
From weapons of war, Suits of Armor, chain mail, swords, axes, spear tips to the farm with plows, nails, rims (metal band on the outer side of a wooden wheel) scythes and so much more. Every item made, a blacksmith would take the raw ingredients, iron ore, coke, sinter, and limestone, and smelt them into an Iron blank. Over the centuries they refined the process and added more carbon to the indigents to make steel.
In other words, it took a lot of work to make, what is considered today, simple everyday items. Nails, doorknobs, hinges all were valuable. In fact, so valuable it was not unheard of to burn down domiciles to collect the metal objects that were used.
One could go one and write entire books on the in-depth history, and practices of blacksmithing. In this article I intend to focus on how to get into blacksmithing the easy way. Sure at the minimum you need a hammer, way to heat the steel and a hard object to hit the hot metal on.
The forge, there are two main types of forges used, coal and propane, both have their benefits and cons. A coal forge uses burning coal, and forced air to heat the steel. There are many types of coals that are available, and most will work up to a point. The best coal to use is called Bituminous, that’s not the same stuff you use cook with or heat houses, that is mostly anthracite.
The coal forge itself is a shallow pan (2 inches deep is plenty) with an inlet for air on the bottom. I’ve seen modified wheelbarrows, with 2 in black steel (common drain piping) with a way to force air up though the burning coal. There are hand crank blowers, I’ve seen squirrel cage blowers with adjustable flow, even hair blow dryers.
he propane forge Is an entirely different beast. Most commonly propane is used to heat the steel in an insulated box or tube. The box, our tube should be insulated with kaowool that’s soaked in refectory cement, if done properly that will lead to a long life and most importantly handle the heat that the burner puts out.
Now that we have the steel Hot, we need to pick it up to get out of the forge, Tongs! You’ll come to find no two are made the same, there are many different lengths, styles and designs, each evolves around the shape of the material you are using, square, round, light, heavy. It is highly recommended that your first project is to make a set of tongs, for it includes all your basic blacksmithing skills drawing out steel (making longer or wider) twisting, punching (punching a hole through steel) and rivet (a fastener to hold two pieces of steel together, in this case also used has the pivot point.) Some beginners use pliers to handle steel until they make a set, the biggest complaint is the heat, tongs tend to be long 18 inches or more, and the pliers don’t grip well, another reason for the length, leverage.
With the hot steel firmly held in the tongs we move to the anvil! Anvils are a blacksmith pride a joy, a good quality anvil consist of a steel face, a horn pritchel hole and hardy hole, most importantly mass. Mass is important to an anvil for a few reasons, mostly it makes moving steel easier and faster. The face is where you’ll be doing most of your work, the pritchel and hardy holes are very useful for holding tools the pritchel is the round hole, mostly used for punching a hole or to hold a clamp so you don’t need hold the material with tongs. The hardy hole is incredibly useful for a method of hold various hardy tools probably most commonly a hot cut.
Don’t get overzealous on the size because you can only move steel with the hammer, but do pay attention to the material of the face. Cheap ASO (Anvil Shaped Object) like from harbor freight will not withstand constant blows and will chip, break and even shattered. A chunk of high carbon steel, like a forklift tine will be much, much better. Choosing an anvil is yet another book in itself, you need to look at rebound (measured by dropping a steel ball onto the face and seeing how much it bounces back, 75%+ rebound is a good goal) material of the face, weight and more. These days $3 or $4 a pound for a anvil with good edges is a fair deal. I’ve seen, what I call, collector anvils go for 7 or 8 dollars a pound. It kills me when I see a newbie pay more than $5 a pound for a used anvil. There are many quality new anvils that can be shipped to your house for about that cost.
The hot steel is on the anvil, now to hit with a hammer. Well, what hammer, how much should it weigh? Just like tongs and hardy tools, hammers have many different types sledge, ball peen, straight peen, cross peen, and flatters to name a few. Let’s look at the weight. A hammer is mass hitting hot steel into more mass. So naturally, the first common thought is “heavier the hammer the better.” No, not at all. First thought should be “What can the anvil handle for maximum life span?” The recommendations float around 50 to 1 or 100 to 1. If your anvil weighs 100 pounds then your hammer should weigh 1 to 2 pounds. Most smiths I know use a 2-pound hammer on 85-pound anvil and up. Which leads to the second aspect, fatigue. You follow specs, have a 250-pound anvil (lucky you!) and swing a 5-lb. hammer. You will get worn out quickly, over time you will develop tennis elbow, and other medical conditions. Sure, there are time you need a sledge and a good friend to swing it, but not every project.
I would recommend starting with a ball peen 1.5lb. You can move and manipulate the metal a lot with it, a very versatile hammer, yes others will do a specific job better, that will do a lot of jobs okay has you develop skills. With a properly dressed face that is. Most stock, brand new
hammers have sharp, crisp edges. Those leave the dread hammer marks in your work. Dressing your hammer, or knocking off those edges, will go a long way.
Now you know the basic, needed items to start smithing! Well, at least start trying. There are quite literally hundreds, if not thousands of difference sources of information, the information I have provided tends to be the most common, and accurate suggestions. After 15 or more years of research, a few guild meets, and on hand experiences. A great source of free information I’ve come across is a face book group called “Blacksmithing for Beginners” compiled of professional and semi pro along with hobbyist readily available to help you. Along with there files section. It truly is an invaluable source. With all that reading and talking to others that will help tremendously on ideas and suggestions. There is nothing more helpful than learning at the hands of someone more advanced than you, ABANA is one of the biggest guild in North America, there are closer guilds to you, active weekly, monthly, quarterly a quick google search or asking in blacksmith for beginners can lead you to a local person. Even an hour or two drive and an hour or two spent with them your skills will jump leaps and bound. Learning from someone, learning from the time-consuming mistake they’ve made will help greatly. I suggest getting your basic equipment tighter and reaching out.
I’ve left out a great deal on information, specific equipment, specifics of work metal, and safety. I’ll leave some of those for you to explore, far as safety I’ll insists on three things.
You will get burnt, some suggest gloves, I do not. The reason being is it takes one time of forgetting you have gloves on and grabbing hot steel. It sucks. By no gloves you learn to get into the habit of testing the heat (slowly, with the back of your hand approach the steel to feel if it’s hot.)
Galvanized metal. Easily identified by it’s flaky paint-like appearance. Some people will suggest burning it off before working it, stay away from the fumes. I suggest throwing it in the trash, it can and will kill you, horribly. Breathing, digestive issues for the rest of your life, weather it be minutes, or years. Yes, many get away with it. There also have been highly respected and experienced blacksmiths died because of it. A few dollars of steel is NOT work your life. Throw the dang thing in the trash.
Lastly, but not of any lesser than the first two, your eyes, always the most important thing to protect, wear safety glasses, they are cheap, if you keep them on your face they don’t get scratched up as quick if on and off. I’ve worn safety glasses on a daily basis for over a decade, I’ve had several scratches or melted by “this will just take a second” touch ups. Wear them.
Stay tuned for more articles regarding blacksmithing, in more details!