Blacksmithing For The Uninitiated: Your First Time At The Anvil

For the past few months we’ve been running this series of Blacksmithing For The Uninitiated posts, exploring the art of forge work for a novice. It’s based upon my experience growing up around a working blacksmith’s business and becoming an enthusiastic if somewhat inexpert smith, and so far we’ve spent our time looking at the equipment you might expect to need were you embarking on your own blacksmith work. Having assembled by now a basic forge of our own it’s now time to fire it up and take to the anvil for our first bit of smithing.

Lighting a forge is easy enough. Some people do it with a gas torch, but I break a piece of firewood into sticks using a hammer with the fuller set in the hardy hole on the anvil as an impromptu splitter. Making a small fire by lighting some paper under my pile of sticks placed on the hearth next to the tuyere I start the blower and then pile coke on top of the resulting conflagration. After about ten minutes I will have a satisfying roar and a heap of glowing coals, and as they burn there will be some slag collecting in the bottom of the fire that I will eventually need to rake out. Continue reading “Blacksmithing For The Uninitiated: Your First Time At The Anvil”

Blacksmithing For The Uninitiated: Hammer And Tongs

Regular readers will recognise this as the third part of a series exploring blacksmithing for those who have perhaps always fancied having a go but have never quite known where to start. It’s written from a position of the unusual experience of having grown up around a working forge, my dad may now be retired but he has a blacksmith specialising in architectural ironwork.

So far in this series we’ve looked in detail at the hearth and anvil that you might find in a typical forge, and delivered some pointers as to where you might look to find or even construct your own.Those are the signature pieces of equipment you’ll find in a forge, but with them alone you can still not be a blacksmith.

If I Had A Hammer…

An array of hammers of different weights and types.
An array of hammers of different weights and types.

Given an anvil, a hearth, and a vat of water to quench hot work in, and you’re almost set for your forge, but not quite. Most of a modern blacksmith’s workshop is the standard metalworking assortment of welders and angle grinders, but there is a set of tools that remain essential for blacksmithing alone. Your hammers are what connect you to the work, and can be as individual as the preferences of the blacksmiths themselves. There is no “right” answer to the question of what hammer you should use, instead you should use the one that works best for you. I instinctively favour a round-faced ball-peen hammer  because that’s what my dad mostly used, but for example my Dutch friends use square faced cross-peen hammers. Blacksmiths will often make their own hammers to suit their needs, for example my dad made more than one using the high-quality steel of vehicle half-shafts as a starting point. Hardening them is a specialist skill in its own right, and I remember quite a few experiments before he perfected it.

It may well be stating the obvious, but the weight of the hammer influences how much energy it can impart to the work, and in turn the size of work that can be done. Casting an eye over my dad’s hammers the three workaday weights were 2 pound, 3 pound, and 4 pound (roughly 1 kg, 1.5 kg, and 2 kg), allowing a variety from fine work to heavier hitting of larger pieces. In a recent project, making a mediaeval nail, I selected an unsubtle lump hammer to draw out the larger square stock, and a much smaller one to finish it up, create the fine point, and relatively thin head. These are only a subsection of the hammers at his disposal though, like most blacksmiths he has a variety for all tasks, up to sledgehammers. I have frequently taken my turn either holding a piece with tongs while he used a sledgehammer, or on the sledgehammer myself.

Tongs, for Hot Gripping Moments

A selection of tongs, including some designed for very specific tasks. Our thanks to [Igor Nikolic] for making this picture possible.
A selection of tongs, including some designed for very specific tasks. Our thanks to [Igor Nikolic] for making this picture possible.
The constant companion to a blacksmith’s hammer is a pair of tongs. These can be bought from blacksmith’s suppliers, but making a pair can be a task within the reach of most smiths. Two identical sides are made from pieces of stock, with long thin handles, a flat piece to form the hinge, and whatever jaw piece is required. It feels like cheating to form the hole for the hinge on a drill press rather than on the anvil with a punch, but riveting it with a short piece of bar is a straightforward enough process. Blacksmiths will have a huge array of tongs with different jaws for specific jobs, built up over years as jobs demand it. If you cast your mind back to the Finnish smith pictured halfway down the first installment of this series, you’ll find several racks of tongs. A later episode of this series will look at making a set of tongs, though we can’t promise in advance the quality of the finished article.

Keeping yourself clean, safe, and not on fire

My usual forging attire of steel toecap workboots, spark-resistant overalls, and blacksmith's leather apron. The forge is outside Hack42 hackerspace, Arnhem, and is set up a bit too low for me. Photo: (c) Martina Short, used here with permission.
My usual forging attire of steel toecap workboots, spark-resistant overalls, and blacksmith’s leather apron. The forge is outside Hack42 hackerspace, Arnhem, and the anvil is set up a bit too low for me. Photo: © Martina Short, used here with permission.

A final moment for today should be spent on the subject of protective equipment. The hazards of blacksmithing are relatively uncomplicated, but some basic protective clothing is still very much worth having. The most obvious hazard is heat, you will be working in a noisy environment with red hot metal and fire. Though you will generate fewer sparks than you’d expect, I have a blacksmith’s leather apron and a set of fire-resistant overalls. Both of these are readily available from blacksmith’s supply stores, and are well worth the investment. There are also a lot of heavy and sharp items involved, not to mention hot particles on the floor. For that reason I also have a set of steel-toecapped workboots rated for hot particles. They aren’t the most elegant of footwear, but they have saved me from a few nasty moments.

I do not have any face protection specifically for blacksmithing, but depending on the work in hand there may be some sparks created. A polycarbonate face shield rated for hot particles should be available from any safety equipment supplier, and shouldn’t cost too much, and is an essential thing to own if you are doing any grinding or rotary wire brushing. Beyond that, there are also leather gloves designed for handling hot metal. I don’t use them because I prefer the feel of  the hammer directly and am happy to use a pair of tongs to hold hot pieces of steel.

We’ve taken you through the basic workshop equipment of a blacksmith over the last few episodes of this series, and you should now have a basic idea of the safety kit you would be well advised to own. From this foundation we’ll next take you into the forge and start looking at a few blacksmithing techniques and simple projects, and along the way we’ll see some of the materials involved, too.

Blacksmithing For The Uninitiated: Let’s Talk About Anvils

When you grow up with something as the constant backdrop to your life, it’s easy to forget as an adult that not everyone else shares your instinctive knowledge of the subject. My dad is a blacksmith, he’s now retired, but as I was growing up his very active forge was in a workshop next to our house. This is the second part of a series based upon that experience, exploring blacksmithing for people who have maybe always fancied a go at the anvil but have little idea where to start.

The Most Obvious Blacksmithing Tool: The Anvil

Having considered the hearth in our previous outing, it’s time to turn our attention to what is the signature piece of blacksmithing equipment: the anvil. This has the function of providing a high-mass hardened working surface against which metal can be forged, and it has a distinctive shape with various parts for particular metalworking tasks. There are many minor and major variations of anvil design depending upon where in the world your anvil hails from, but since my experience comes from the English counties, the anvil I will be describing is the pattern you’ll find in the British Isles.

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Blacksmithing For The Uninitiated: What Is A Forge?

Blacksmiths were the high technologists of fabrication up until the industrial revolution gained momentum. At its core, this is the art and science of making any needed tool or mechanism out of metal. Are you using the correct metal? Is the tool strong where it needs to be? And how can you finish a project quickly, efficiently, and beautifully? These are lessons Blacksmiths feel in their bones and it’s well worth exploring the field yourself to appreciate the knowledge base that exists at any well-used forge.

I had an unexpected experience a few days ago at the Hacker Hotel weekend hacker camp in the Netherlands. At the side of the hotel our friends at RevSpace in The Hague had set up a portable forge. There was the evocative coal fire smell of burning coke from the hearth, an anvil, and the sound of hammering. This is intensely familiar to me, because I grew up around it. He may be retired now, but my dad is a blacksmith whose work lay mostly in high-end architectural ironwork.

Working the RevSpace forge at Hacker Hotel, in not the most appropriate clothing for the job.
Working the RevSpace forge at Hacker Hotel, in not the most appropriate clothing for the job.

The trouble is, despite all that upbringing, I don’t consider myself to be a blacksmith. Sure, I am very familiar with forge work and can bash metal with the best of them, but I know blacksmiths. I can’t do everything my dad could, and there are people we’d encounter who are artists with metal. They can bend and shape it to their will in the way I can mould words or casually solder a tiny surface-mount component, and produce beautiful things in doing so. My enthusiastic metal-bashing may bear the mark of some experience at the anvil but I am not one of them.

It was a bit of a surprise then to see the RevSpace forge, and I found myself borrowing a blacksmith’s apron to protect my smart officewear and grabbing a bit of rebar. I set to and made a pretty simple standard of the dilletante blacksmith, a poker with a ring on one end. Hammer one end of the rebar down to a point, square off the other end for just over 3 times the diameter of the ring, then bend a right angle and form the ring on the pointy end of the anvil. Ten minutes or so of fun in the Dutch sunshine. Working a forge unexpectedly brought with it a bit of a revelation. I may not be a smith of a high standard, but I have a set of skills by virtue of my upbringing that I had to some extent ignored.

Where others might have put effort into learning them, they’re things I just know. It had perhaps never occurred to me that maybe all my friends in this community didn’t learn how to do this by hanging round the forge next to the house they grew up in. If I have this knowledge merely by virtue of my upbringing, perhaps I should share some of it in a series of articles for those in our community who’ve always fancied a go at a forge but have no idea where to start.

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Blacksmith Elevates The Craft With This Fabulous Strongbox

For most of human industrial history, the blacksmith was the indispensable artisan. He could fashion almost anything needed, from a simple hand tool to a mechanism as complex as a rifle. Starting with the most basic materials, a hot forge, and a few tools that he invariably made himself, the blacksmith was a marvel of fabrication.

If you have any doubt how refined the blacksmith’s craft can be, feast your eyes on [Seth Gould]’s masterpiece of metalwork. Simply called “Coffer”, [Seth] spent two years crafting the strongbox from iron, steel, and brass. The beautifully filmed video below shows snippets of the making, but we could easily watch a feature-length film detailing every aspect of the build. The box is modeled after the strongboxes built for the rich between the 17th and 19th centuries, which tended to favor complex locking mechanisms that provided a measure of security by obfuscation. At the end of the video below, [Seth] goes through the steps needed to unlock the chest, each of which is filled with satisfying clicks and clunks as the mechanism progresses toward unlocking. The final reveal is stunning, and shows how much can be accomplished with a forge, some files, and a whole lot of talent.

If you’ve never explored the blacksmith’s art before, now’s the time. You can even get started easily at home; [Bil Herd] will show you how.

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The Forgotten Art Of Riveted Structures

If you are in the habit of seeking out abandoned railways, you may have stood in the shadow of more than one Victorian iron bridge. Massive in construction, these structures have proved to be extremely robust, with many of them still in excellent condition even after years of neglect.

A handsome riveted railway bridge, over the River Avon near Stratford-upon-Avon, UK.
A handsome riveted railway bridge, over the River Avon near Stratford-upon-Avon, UK.

When you examine them closely, an immediate difference emerges between them and any modern counterparts, unlike almost all similar metalwork created today they contain no welded joints. Arc welders like reliable electrical supplies were many decades away when they were constructed, so instead they are held together with hundreds of massive rivets. They would have been prefabricated in sections and transported to the site, where they would have been assembled by a riveting gang with a portable forge.


So for an audience in 2018, what is a rivet? If you’ve immediately thought of a pop rivet then it shares the function of joining two sheets of material by pulling them tightly together, but differs completely in its construction. These rivets start life as pieces of steel bar formed into pins with one end formed into a mushroom-style dome, probably in a hot drop-forging process.

A rivet is heated to red-hot, then placed through pre-aligned holes in the sheets to be joined, and its straight end is hammered to a mushroom shape to match the domed end. The rivet then cools down and contracts, putting it under tension and drawing the two sheets together very tightly. Tightly enough in fact that it can form a seal against water or high-pressure steam, as shown by iron rivets being used in the construction of ships, or high-pressure boilers. How is this possible? Let’s take a look!

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When Is Wrought Iron Not Wrought Iron?

I grew up with a blacksmith for a parent, and thus almost every metalworking processes seems entirely normal to have as part of everyday life throughout my childhood. There seemed to be nothing we owned that couldn’t be either made or repaired with the application of a bit of welded steel. Children of blacksmiths grow up with a set of innate heavy hardware hacker or maker skills that few other young people acquire at that age. You know almost from birth that you should always look away from the arc when dad is welding, and you also probably have a couple of dictionary definitions ready to roll off the tongue.

The first is easy enough, farrier. A farrier makes and fits horseshoes. Some blacksmiths are farriers, many aren’t. Sorry, my dad made architectural ironwork for upmarket houses in London when he wasn’t making improvised toys for me and my sisters, he didn’t shoe horses. Next question.

The second is a bit surprising. Wrought iron. My dad didn’t make wrought iron.

But… Hang on, you say, don’t blacksmiths make wrought iron? At which point the floodgates open if you are talking to a blacksmith, and you receive the Wrought Iron Lecture.

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