When we picture the Medieval world, it conjures up images of darkness, privations, and sickness the likes of which are hard to imagine from our sanitized point of view. The 1400s, and indeed the entirety of history prior to the introduction of antibiotics in the 1940s, was a time when the merest scratch acquired in the business of everyday life could lead to an infection ending in a slow, painful death. Add in the challenges of war, where violent men wielding sharp things on a filthy field of combat, and it’s a wonder people survived at all.
But then as now, some people are luckier than others, and surviving what even today would likely be a fatal injury was not unknown, as one sixteen-year-old boy in 1403 would discover. It didn’t hurt that he was the son of the king of England, and when he earned an arrow in his face in combat, every effort would be made to save the prince and heir to the throne. It also helped that he had the good fortune to have a surgeon with the imagination to solve the problem, and the skill to build a tool to help.
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…
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
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
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.