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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Clabecq (Belgium), continuous casting of the o...

Forges, Foundries, and Factories, by JIR

While you are deciding what to store away, don't forget about the needs of your grandchildren. They will need reference books. After TEOTWAWKI, any survivors in the USA will be living on capital. I am talking about capital in the form of basic commodities, like grain, legumes, clothes, fuels, and machines. Some of this capital needs to be replaced almost immediately, like food, for instance, but some of it will take generations to wear out completely. Until we can replace everything we use up, we will not be truly recovered. Eventually, we will need to replace our generators, tractors, firearms, cloth, etc. Within a couple of generations, we will need to replace our basic garden tools like shovels and hoes and plows. Finally, we will need to resume production of basic materials like steel. We may be able to lean on other countries during our recovery, but It's going to be a long backward road for a long time until we can build and replace the capital we have now.
We used to be a powerful industrial nation, but today, we are not. Most manufacturing capability in the USA has been "outsourced" to China. The metal fabrication shops in the USA evolved over time into larger and more sophisticated (and more efficient) factories and were eventually defeated in the global market by cheap labor overseas. Now, a generation later, we are running out of people who even know how to cast or shape metal. Even as late as 1960, mom and pop metal shops were fairly common in the USA. I remember back when I was a boy, my uncle needed a tractor part that was no longer produced. He simply went to the metal shop in town and handed them the broken part. They made him a new one in a few days and helped him install it on his tractor. This capability has mostly disappeared in the US.
Metal working has become complex and very exact since the 1950s. The tolerances have gotten so tight that manual lathes and mills can't compete with specialized machines anymore. The equipment has gotten outrageously expensive and largely depends on micro-chips. To compete in the global market, you have to use very specialized tools and machines, or cheap labor. The cost of production has dropped so low that local shops with basic equipment can't compete and have slowly been replaced by cell phone vendors or other service economy businesses. A major economic crisis or EMP event would likely destroy most of our remaining production capability (or make the products they currently produce obsolete along with their specialized production facilities).
We need to preserve and pass on as much industrial knowledge as we can to the next generation and the next, because it is our grandchildren who will have the leisure time and capital to rebuild. Our own generation will be too busy providing bare necessities. After TEOTWAWKI, who is going to make pumps and critical parts for important machines? The answer is: Your children and grandchildren. If you can't master and pass on these critical skills, at least buy and store some books. I have some recommendations under each topic. You probably also need to store school books of all kinds, and begin formal home schooling almost immediately after a collapse, so the light of knowledge doesn't flicker out. Make reading, writing and math important to your children so they will pass it on.
If you are able to do it, passing down the skills directly to your descendants is the best approach. Working with your kids to teach them metal working skills can be a powerful way to grow together and instills the child with a sense of empowerment. "Bending the black metal to your will" is a powerful feeling. Metal work builds character and makes you feel like you have some control over the world. You feel like you can accomplish anything.
I believe a basic machine shop with a foundry and forge will be almost immediately valuable after TEOTWAWKI if you can get it up and running again without the power grid. Critical machines in your community will need repairs and parts will need to be fabricated and other machines will need to be adapted to new uses. This is fairly easy work if you have a well equipped shop and some skill. I have no doubt your machine shop will be in big demand pretty quick. The good news is, you can set up your own basic metal shop for a few thousand dollars. For under $5k, you can have a very efficient one or two man shop. You can also acquire metal working skills for free in your spare time as a hobby. The bad news is, you probably won't be able to make much money casting and machining from your home shop. It won't ever pay for itself as long as your work has to compete with China and the throw-away economy. Metal work in a home shop is more of a hobby these days than a valid business plan.
Critical capabilities:
-Smelting. Not immediately useful. This is the ability to turn ores into finished metals. Usually, this is accomplished by cooking ores with the appropriate fluxes and adding elements you want in the finished metal. Some metals like aluminum also require complex processing like electrolysis. (There was no such thing as [large scale production] refined aluminum until 1825.) With all the refined metal we have laying around on the planet, I see no need to learn and practice these arcane skills for many generations after TEOTWAWKI. Visit any junkyard and you can pick up tons of metal better than you could produce yourself. Raw materials are not an issue IMHO and if you have a good supply of general reference books, that's probably all you should do to preserve this knowledge.
-Founding. This is the ability to melt metal and cast it into a rough shape. If you keep this simple it's much easier than you probably think and can be done on a tiny scale in your back yard. Each metal alloy has a different melting point (and obviously many other different properties). Casting aluminum alloys requires a foundry capable of reaching only 1,250F while casting steel requires a much more robust foundry that can reach close to 3,000 F. Casting Iron is probably beyond most people, but non-ferrous metals are not hard at all. Many machine parts can be made of aluminum, copper or bronze castings and work about as well as steel. While cupric metals are horribly expensive, aluminum is cheap. You can practice casting using aluminum for almost nothing. You can build a hobby-scale foundry for non-ferrous metals for under $200 and turn out small machine parts at least as good as any factory. A good reference for this is Stephen D. Chastain's two volume set "Metal Casting: A Sand Casting Manual for the Small Foundry". He also has a book called "Iron Melting Cupola Furnaces for the Small Foundry" that provides complete plans and operating instructions for a larger scale coke fired iron furnace.
-Forging. This is the ability to hammer metal and change the shape. It's much easier and cheaper to pound steel into shape than try to cast it. Blacksmiths heat steel, reshape it using a hammer and tongs and then heat-treat it to whatever temper is needed. A very professional forge can be home-built for under $400, even if you buy most of the parts. A decent anvil can be had for about $400 (or much less if you compromise). Most of your other blacksmith tools, you can make yourself from scrap steel. You can design a forge to burn propane, coal, or charcoal. To learn more, visit Ron Reil's web site and follow the links. I built a propane forge similar to the ones described on Ron's site from an empty propane tank and used a venturi burner made from plumbing parts for under $100. Four years ago I broke down a bought a professionally made burner from Rex Price. Rex is a great American who operates a "mom and pop" machine shop with his sons. He makes venturi burners that I can't recommend highly enough.
If you ever need to convert to another fuel, such as charcoal, it's pretty easy to do. I built a charcoal forge and a bellows in one day from an old grill. If you keep a few fire bricks, and a few pounds of satanite refractory cement on hand, you can build a new charcoal forge in less than a day. These materials are cheap and abundant now with internet shopping, but will be difficult to get after TEOTWAWKI. While you can do without them, they sure make your life easier.
There is no substitute for a good anvil. The bigger it is, the more stable it is and the more enjoyable it is to work with. But, if you need to, you can get by with using almost any heavy chunk of steel or even a big rock. My first anvil was a 16 pound sledgehammer head and it worked pretty well. The Vikings turned out some wonderful steel work with much less. The only specialized or expensive tool I recommend is a trip hammer. They are quite expensive, bulky and heavy, but you can do a lot more work with a power or even a foot operated hammer than you can by hand. It will triple your productivity and save fuel.
Blacksmithing is a lot of fun and easier than you probably think. I can recommend two great references: "The Blacksmith's Craft: A Primer of Tools & Method" by Charles McRaven, and "The Complete Modern Blacksmith" by Alexander Weygers. [JWR Adds: I also recommend Weygers' slim tome: "The Making of Tools"]
-Grinding and filing. This is the ability to abrade metal. Even something as simple as sharpening an axe requires this capability. There are a variety of power tools used for these operations. A good 8 inch Bench grinder costs about $150 and you can get a decent 4 inch belt grinder for around $200 for a home shop. These, of course require electricity and replacement abrasives. The old-school way was a foot powered stone wheel. To my knowledge, you can't even buy one of those anymore. Instead, if the power goes out for good, I plan to build my own, probably based on a bicycle chain drive and use existing abrasive wheels from electric bench grinders. An even older method was to use sand held by damp cloth or leather, but I would sure hate to try that.
Files used to be the most important tool in the machine shop. They were (and are) used to precisely shape and fit metal parts. 19th century machining depended almost entirely on files instead of lathes and mills and grinders. Steam engine parts were largely shaped using a lost art called "Flat Filing". While modern practitioners can't approach the accuracy and uniformity the machinists demonstrated in the age of steam, it's relatively easy to fit machine parts and castings using a set of good files. While you probably couldn't fit a BMW piston, you might be able fit cast parts with looser tolerances, like from a farm Tractor or old Ford truck. Unfortunately, files are extremely difficult to make yourself and they wear out with time. You will probably be able to replace them for some years after TEOTWAWKI by scavenging, but buying a good assortment now will cost less than $150. Buy top quality files. Craftsman (Sears) makes good files. Cheap files are useless. The best way to learn proper parts fitting technique is to just do it.
-Bending/shaping sheet metal: Sheet metal is amazing when you consider it. Imagine trying to beat a chunk of steel into sheet metal on an anvil and you will appreciate that to create new sheet metal after a disaster, you will have to have some large machinery. Fortunately, with millions of dead automobiles and appliances laying around, you should have plenty of raw material for a few generations. You can make almost anything you can think of with sheet metal. It's especially handy for making cooking vessels and containers of all kinds. You can do basic sheet metal work with only a pair of pliers and some tin-snips, but for serious work, you need a sheet metal brake and an assortment of vices and dies. Before you buy any tools read a good book on the topic. This is a great reference, but a little pricey: Sheet Metal Forming Processes and Die Design
-Tapping. This is simply cutting screw threads. Fortunately, taps and dies for cutting screw threads are still manual for the most part.
-Welding. This is the ability to join two pieces of metal by melting them into each other. There are basically 3 ways to weld. Forge welding, arc welding and torch welding. You can also use thermite to weld large pieces. Welding is a huge topic and a whole career field on it's own. Being able to join to pieces of metal with a weld joint is a useful skill.
1. Forge welding is used to mix or join two hunks of metal by whacking them with a hammer. It's useful for making axes, chains and other tools, but in the modern world, it's mostly practiced to make expensive pattern welded (damascus) knife blades. This is one of the skills you master as you learn to be a blacksmith and the techniques are covered pretty well in the blacksmith references.
2. Arc Welding. This is using low voltage-high-current electrodes to create an electrical arc that heats surrounding metal. Arcs are very hot, but they effect a relatively small area. Working with simple low-carbon structural steels, arc welding is pretty easy to learn and requires very rudimentary equipment. $300 dollars can buy a decent basic rig. The hard part is buried in the details of improving on this basic capability. To weld complex alloys to each other or to prevent oxygen absorption (and later rust), requires a lot of knowledge, skill and better equipment. I have the most rudimentary equipment possible and almost no skill, so I can't recommend a reference.
3. Torch welding. Oxygen and acetylene from large tanks are mixed and burned to form a hot jet capable of heating, welding and cutting steel. Getting replacement gasses will be difficult after a couple of years, but while they last, this is a great tool. Again, having very limited skill at welding and no torch of my own, I cannot recommend a reference.
-Brazing and soldering. This is non-ferrous welding. It can be done at a much lower temperature than welding, usually using a propane, MAPP-gas or oxyacetylene torch for heat. Soft soldering is much easier than brazing and is very useful for working on electronics. I don't often braze so I have no recommendations on learning this skill.
-Riveting. This is one of the easiest methods for fastening metal pieces together. Most people have used a pop-riveter. The problem is, pop rivets are not easy to make and the supply will someday run out. Also, pop-rivets are weak compared to heavy steel rivets. Real rivets can be made as thick and strong as you need. They are cut and hammered from steel rods using a forge, hammer and tongs. They are easy, secure and quick to use, so they were very popular in the 19th century. Forge riveting is covered in the references on blacksmithing.
-Cutting. This is the most common operation you will probably do in a machine shop. Everything you make will require you to cut metal. There are a lot of methods for cutting metal, and you may use all of them interchangeably, depending on the materials you have to cut.
1. Hot or cold chisel cutting. This is simply heating metal until it's soft and then cutting it with a hammer and chisel. You can also cut bars quickly and easily on a hardy (an anvil tool accessory). This will be a quite common way to cut bar stock and will be the only method easily available once all the saw blades and torches are useless. I have split a truck leaf-spring lengthwise using this technique. While it's very laborious, it works every time and requires nothing high-tech. For smaller jobs or softer metals. You can also cut with a cold-chisel without heating. Techniques are covered in the aforementioned blacksmithing references.
2. Hand saws. Hacksaws are still commonly used in metal work. They are the workhorse of some shops. With enough patience and enough blades, you can saw a car in half. Buy only good blades to cut hard steel and keep them cool using cutting fluid or oil to cool the cut and remove chips. Making or re-sharpening hacksaw blades is possible, I suppose, but I have never tried it. Once all the hacksaw blades are gone, hand cutting is going to get much harder, so make life easier on yourself and stock up.
3. Power saws or angle grinders. There are many different power cutting options out there and none of them are pleasant. I use a reciprocating saw, jigsaw, angle-grinder and a circular saw. All of them require proper blades which are expensive. After a crash, you may wind up trying to make your own blades or re-sharpen them. For that, the easiest is the simple reciprocating saw. If you get the balance or temper a little wrong on a chop-saw or an angle grinder you might get hurt or even killed. If you get a reciprocating saw blade wrong, you won't get hurt. Also, the blades are much simpler to make on a forge and the teeth are fewer and easier to cut with a chisel.
4. Torch cutting. If you have an oxyacetylene torch (or a plasma cutter) they make short work of cutting steel. Watch out about overheating any steel part that requires a known carbon content or accurate tempering. High temperatures cause loss of carbon and can result in spongy, brittle or soft steel. Some steel alloys react very badly to extreme temperatures and the finished part or tool will fail without warning if burned.
5. Shearing. This is the preferred way to cut thin metal, like sheet metal. A large pair of tin-snips or shears will make cleaner, easier cuts than any other method.
-Drilling. This is the ability to make holes in things. Making a precise hole in hard metal is a complex task. Drill presses with micrometer tables are indispensable to a good machine shop. A good drill press can easily cost over $1,000, but unless you need a very high level of precision, you can get by with a $300 press. If you are planning to buy a mill and your shop is small, you might not need a separate drill press. Drill bits are relatively easy to make yourself, but you will lose precision. There will probably be no problem with re-supply of drill bits for a number of years after a crash.
-Turning and milling. This is the ability to spin a metal part and symmetrically cut it to a perfectly round shape or precisely cut complex shapes into metal parts using a spinning cutter. Lathes are one of the most versatile power tools available and it will be impossible to do without them completely. Some method will have to be found to power lathes after a crash if we are to recover. A good lath or mill can be very expensive. But look closely at what you are buying. You don't want a computerized machine or digital anything. Precision is less important than reliability. For a small shop, a combination lathe/mill makes a lot more sense than two power tools and will save you a little money. A very basic, fairly accurate combo tool can be bought right now for under $1,000. This is the most expensive tool in your shop, so choose wisely. With a combo tool, you can do almost any turning or milling or drilling operation you can think of. (If you have a mill, then you don't need a drill press).
There are no hand powered drill presses, milling machines or metal lathes on the market today. 19th century mills used to power their machines using wide belts driven by water or steam. There are not many steam engines laying around these days and modern appliances are not easily convertible to other power sources. They usually have a belt drive, but it's not situated to make conversion to water or animal power easy, even if you are otherwise set up to do that. Once the power is off, you will need to produce electricity to use modern machine tools. Practically speaking, there is no easy way around this. You might be able to run a small mill off of a vehicle and alternator using a large inverter, but you really need more reliable and cheaper power than a vehicle can produce. You will need some kind of generator, at least 4000 watts to really have a working machine shop. Without power, you will be reduced to using a "brace and bit", anvil and forge and files or grinding stones for all your work and your efficiency will drop off to next to nothing.
So, what can you do with your cool metal shop?
Create a machine replacement part from scratch: Whatever metal part breaks on a machine, you have a pretty good chance of being able to fabricate a new part. If you have an example of the part you want to make, you can usually cast a blank part using your foundry. Even if a part is broken, or missing pieces, you can duplicate it if you can guess the missing parts and build a model from wood or something. Sand casting produces a rough shape only. When you dump your mold, you will have an object that vaguely looks like the part you want. It must be filed, turned, drilled or milled to final shape and then fitted carefully to replace the part needed. Some parts can be forged into rough shape and then filed or ground to fit. You can fabricate and fit a new part in a single afternoon with the right equipment. Useful? You better believe it.
Create a fixture. Often, you suddenly need a hinge, hook or lock or something from the hardware store. You can make mostly anything you can think of quite quickly using your forge and other equipment. I can't count the times I have quickly hammered out new fixtures using junk steel because I was too lazy to drive 10 minutes to Lowe's. Horse shoes and spike candle holders are easy. Fireplace furniture is a snap. Hinges, buckles, latches and hooks are pretty easy too. If you need it, you can probably make it.
Make a tool or knife: With a forge, you can bend and shape steel in many different ways. If you can think of a hand tool, you can probably make it. But, don't expect miracles, you are basically whacking a hunk of steel with a hammer. You cannot create small precision parts and tools on an anvil. You can, however rough them out and use a file to shape them into final form. You can also carefully control the temper of steel tools and produce superior cutting edges, all with primitive gear and no electrical power.
Making a pot, pan, colander, container, or set of dishes: You can make almost anything of this sort out of sheet metal taken from old appliances or cars. If you need a new tool box, just whip one out.
Turn junkyard steel into useful machines. Okay, this is harder than repairing an existing machine, but it's conceivable that you could design, cast, and fit your own steam engine or something equally impressive. The sky is the limit.
The quicker we can get rudimentary local industrial capability back in action, the easier restoration of society will be. - JIR