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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Around four years ago the world was up in arms over the first gun to be 3D printed. The hype was largely due to the fact that most people don’t understand how easy it is to build a gun without a 3D printer. To that end, you don’t even need access to metal stock, as [FarmCraft101] shows us with this gun made out of melted aluminum cans.
The build starts off by melting over 200 cans down into metal ingots, and then constructing a mold for the gun’s lower. This is the part that is legally regulated (at least in the US), and all other parts of a gun can be purchased without any special considerations. Once the aluminum is poured into the mold, the rough receiver heads over to the machine shop for finishing.
This build is fascinating, both from a machinist’s and blacksmith’s point-of-view and also as a reality check for how easy it is to build a firearm from scratch provided the correct tools are available. Of course, we don’t need to worry about the world being taken over by hoards of angry machinists wielding unlicensed firearms. There’s a lot of time and effort that goes into these builds and even then they won’t all be of the highest quality. Even the first 3D printed guns only fired a handful of times before becoming unusable, so it seems like any homemade firearm, regardless of manufacturing method, has substantial drawbacks.
Any way you look at it, blacksmithing is a punishing trade. Heavy tools, a red-hot forge, flying sparks, and searing metal all exact a toll on the smith’s body unless precautions are taken. After proper safety equipment and good training, a blacksmith may want to invest is power hammer to replace at least some of the heavy hammer work needed to shape hot metal.
Power hammers aren’t cheap, though, which is why [70kirkster] built one from an old engine block. You’ve got to admire the junkyard feel of this thing; it’s almost nothing but scrap. The engine block is a straight-6 from an old Ford pickup stripped of everything but the crankshaft and one piston. An electric motor spins the crankshaft and moves the hammer against the anvil through connecting rods and a trip arm fashioned from a trailer leaf spring. Everything looks super solid and the hammer hits hard; the videos below tell the tale of the build and show the hammer in action. Not bad for $100 out-of-pocket.