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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Blacksmithing Primer, by Matt M.

1940Image by Coal and Ice via Flickr
The two greatest tools that mankind has, the tools that pulled our species out of the wild and still separate us from base animals, are fire and the blade. A blacksmith crafts and uses both of these tools.  Whether you live in a frontier situation where you have to make do with what you’ve got and make it last or you’re planning ahead for a potential TEOTWAWKI situation, knowing how to shape iron and steel to suit your needs without the use of electricity is a good idea.  This article is intended as the most basic primer to give you, the reader, an idea of what’s involved.  My future articles may include the differences between various types of iron and steel or even video demonstrations of how to forge specific items and tools.
It’s important that you, the reader, understand that while blacksmithing is a frontier or survival trade, it’s not something that can be easily done “on the go” unless one has a vehicle to transport his equipment in.  More importantly, it should be understood that ‘functional’ doesn’t have to mean ‘pretty.’  If a tool or item will do the job it’s intended to do, it doesn’t matter if it’s pretty enough to be art or not.  Concentrate on learning to create functional tools and your hands will naturally learn how to make them into works of art along the way.
What You Need
When you strip away all the non-essential things, all a blacksmith needs to work metal is a hammer, an anvil and a ventilated heat source.  The first of these things is easy.  A hammer can be found laying around in any old barn in the world, or bought inexpensively from a hardware store.  A carpenter’s claw hammer will suffice in a pinch, but a heavier, more specialized hammer like a blacksmith’s cross-peen or an engineer’s hammer will generally produce results with less effort.  While it’s possible to fall down a rabbit hole of specialist tools for any metalworking occasion, I’d caution anyone new to the craft against getting a hammer that is too specialized or too fancy.  There are still many reports of blacksmiths in Africa and South America that still make do with smooth river stones as hammers, so there’s little reason to assume that one must have one of every shape of hammer in the world to work metal and besides… with a little practice, you’ll soon be making every tool you want or need.
An anvil of some type is a requirement.  Most people will have a mental picture of the English-style anvil from such sources as the Loony Toons cartoons of our childhood.  That makes for a good anvil, but all that’s really required of an anvil is that it be strong, hard and heavy, and having a flat surface will be a significant benefit to the smith.  The anvil is easily the most expensive tool a blacksmith will have and while one doesn’t want to skimp on this if at all possible, buying a new anvil is not always required (or even possible in the event of TEOTWAWKI).  A heavy piece of railroad track will make a suitable anvil for occasional use.  Your local scrap yard will undoubtedly have a plethora of potential makeshift anvils that will serve just fine.  In a pinch, the head of a sledgehammer can be sunk halfway into a bucket of concrete, leaving one of the striking surfaces exposed to act as a small but effective anvil face.
The last thing that’s required for smithing is a ventilated heat source (often called ‘the forge’).  A basic campfire generally does not produce enough heat to work iron, but a steady blast of air from the underside of the fire will increase its heat output.  While many modern designs can be used for a forge, the simplest by far is a length of metal pipe that is buried in the dirt so that it points straight up into the bottom of a campfire.  This pipe has air blown through it using an electric squirrel cage blower, a hand bellows or even the smith’s own lungs.  The airflow will consume more fuel, but the fire will burn much hotter… hot enough to make iron as pliable as clay.
Modern blacksmiths are fond of using propane as a fuel but in a pinch, most anything that burns relatively cleanly will get the job done.  Charcoal (carbonized wood, not the grill briquettes from the grocery store) is the easiest solid fuel for most people to obtain.  It can be made just by burning hard wood to a black, carbonized lump and then dousing it with water.  Coke is another old-time favorite, and is made by burning mined bituminous coal until it stops smoking and the sulfur and other impurities are burned out of it.  Wood may also be used if nothing else presents itself as an option, but it will take a lot more wood to produce a fire hot enough to work iron.
Some other items, while not strictly required, will be very useful for the smith.  Tongs are a blacksmithing staple.  They allow the smith to hold and handle small pieces of metal that would otherwise get too hot for him to hold.  They’re among the first tool that novice smiths make for themselves, but a pair of long-handled pliers or vice grips will suffice in the beginning.  Metal files and sandpaper are handy to have around, especially for precision work or bladesmithing.  Heavy welder’s gloves will also save the novice smith a certain amount of pain as he learns to feel his way around the fire.
Working Iron and Steel
Everyone has an iconic mental image of a blacksmith with rippling biceps pulling a glowing red bar from the fire and wailing on it with all his might, using a hammer that’s half a step away from being a sledge.  This image may be iconic, but it’s also thoroughly wrong and attempting to imitate it will produce very poor results.
Temperature control is something that many blacksmiths struggle with, and it’s one of the first things that any new smith is going to have to learn something about if he’s to succeed in his task.  Wherever the air feeds into the fire will be the hottest part of the forge, and while it might bring the metal to a workable temperature more quickly, the smith also runs a serious risk of melting his metal into unusable slag by applying too much heat.  Keep an eye on your material and rotate it often to ensure that it doesn’t overheat.  Remove your metal from the fire when it has a yellow glow to it and do not hammer on it once the color has faded, or you risk cracking your work.
Simply pulling a piece of metal out of the fire and hitting it aimlessly with a hammer is useful only if you’re trying to produce a flat, featureless sheet of metal.  Take some time to consider your work in advance and then plan for how to best go about shaping the metal to the design in your mind’s eye.  Think of the hot metal as though it were a piece of modeling clay.  If you were to smoosh the clay with your hammer in a specific way, how would that affect the shape of the overall piece?  Once this mentality, this way of thinking, sets in, you will begin to place your hammer blows so as to move the metal in predictable ways, rather than blindly hammering and hoping for a magical end result.
Quenching and Tempering
Another iconic image of the blacksmith that many seem to have in their mind is of the smith plunging a tool or weapon into a bucket of water or even a snow bank to make it hard and usable.  This is an iconic mage that is half right, actually.  Once a piece is finished, it is dunked into a liquid to cool it down quickly and make it hard by tightening the molecular structure of the material.  This is called ‘quenching,’ but there’s more to it than meets the eye.  To boil it down to the basics, you place your finished project in the fire until it just reaches a temperature where a magnet will not stick to it and then you plunge whatever section of your project you want to be hardened into a liquid.  This rapidly cools the metal down, causing it to compress itself at a molecular level and become super hard.  The speed at which your metal cools is important because while cooling faster will produce a harder end result, it has a greater chance of cracking your metal, thus rendering your hard-worked project useless.  Water quenches at a very fast temperature… some people say it’s too fast for most applications.  By far, more professionals use some manner of oil, as it has a slightly slower quenching speed.  Kitchen oils such as canola or peanut oils are fine for this application, as are most common industrial oils, such as brake fluid, automatic transmission fluid or motor oil. [JWR Adds: The usual fire prevention provisos of course apply!]
Testing whether or not your project successfully hardened should be your next step.  The most common way this is done is to rake an old metal file across the material.  If it doesn’t bite into the metal and instead slides across the surface with a sound like it was skating across glass, then you have achieved a suitable hardness from your quenching.
However, quenching is only half the battle.  At this point, you have a super hard metal project, but it’s also super brittle.  Were you to slap it against your anvil or drop it onto a concrete floor, it might well break into several pieces.  You need to reduce the brittleness of your work piece.  This is done by exposing it to relatively low levels of heat, which removes brittleness by sacrificing a small portion of your item’s new hardness, a process that’s known as ‘tempering.’  This is most easily done in a common household oven or toaster oven.  Just insert your work piece, set the temperature to 400 degrees and walk away for an hour.  If that’s not an option, the work piece can be tempered in the same fire it was forged in, so long as the smith is exceptionally careful.  First, clean off a section of your work with a file, sandpaper or some other method to expose a shiny metal surface.  Then place your piece back into the fire, being careful not to force any air into the flames, as was done during the forging.  Keep the piece moving and watch the shiny metal spot for a line of rainbow color that will begin to creep across it as heat moves in.  The color you want to look for will depend largely on the item’s intended use, but the colors most easily seen will be gold, straw, purple and blue, with each representing more of your item’s hardness removed.  If the item heats to the point where it begins to glow, even faintly, you’ve gotten it too hot and you must repeat the quenching and tempering process again, so keep your work moving!
Example Forging: A Simple Knife
A knife is perhaps the most useful tool one will ever need, especially in a TEOTWAWKI situation, and any blacksmith worth his salt can make at least a passable blade.  In this example, we will make a simple blade with a relatively shallow belly, a single edge, a straight tip and a simple handle… not unlike a Japanese tanto blade.  As of yet, I have not discussed the various types of steel, as I believe that subject is beyond the scope of this primer article (future articles may well focus on this subject), but finding a suitable bit of metal to forge a knife should be a piece of cake.  Find yourself a flat metal mill file (sometimes called a ‘bastard’ or ‘mill bastard’ file) in the 8-12 inch range.  They can be had very inexpensively from flea markets and pawn shops, but if worse comes to worst, you can always buy one new at a hardware store.
Please have a fire suppression device nearby before doing this.
Get your fire started and stoked and have more fuel standing by.  Place the end of the file in the hottest part of the fire.  Once it takes on a yellow glow, remove it from the flame and position it on the anvil so it’s standing up on what will be the spine of the blade.  Hammer the corner of the file, pushing it into the file and forming the end of the file into what will be your knife’s tip.  Lay the file flat and gently correct any warping you may have caused before it loses its glow.  Place the file back into the fire and keep repositioning it every so often so that the entire file heats up relatively evenly.  Once this occurs, take the file out of the fire and lay it flat on the anvil so that the side that is to become the cutting edge of the blade is positioned facing toward you.  Begin to hammer out the edge using a circular hammer stroke that draws the metal toward you.  Work quickly, but evenly and make certain to hammer along the entire edge, leaving enough of the file unhammered to act as a suitable handle.  Place the file back in the fire and heat it evenly as before.  This time, place the side you hammered last time face down on the anvil with the edge facing away from yourself.  Hammer the edge out on this second side, using a hammer stroke that pushes the metal away from you.  Repeat this process as many times as is needed, alternating which side you hammer on each time.  Once you have drawn the edge of your blade down to roughly the thickness of a dime (and no thinner), make certain your edge is straight.  Further, sight down the file at all angles to make certain everything is as straight as you can possibly make it.  Take some time and get this part right.  Once this is done, place the piece back in the fire and heat it evenly just until a magnet doesn’t stick to the metal anymore.  Once this occurs, dip the blade of the knife into a waiting container of oil.  Hold it there without shaking or stirring it until all the bubbling in the oil stops.
Please have a fire suppression device nearby before doing this.
Once the bubbling stops, remove the knife from the oil and wipe it down with a cloth to remove the oil.  Be careful, as the knife is still probably hot enough to burn bare skin if it touches you.  Use an old metal file and rake it across the knife’s edge.  If it bites easily, repeat the quenching process.  If it doesn’t bite easily and simply skates across the blade, your work has been successful.  Heat a toaster oven or your kitchen oven to 400 degrees and place the knife inside.  Leave it alone for an hour, and then turn off the oven.  To be certain this process is performed with 100% efficiency, you might want to let the oven cool, then turn it back on to 400 degrees and let it run for another hour.
Once your blade is tempered and cool enough to touch, wrap the handle with rope, paracord or whatever you have handy.  Sharpen the edge with a metal file and/or sandpaper and then move on to sharpening stones until the blade is as sharp as you want it.  Congratulations!  You just made the most useful tool you’ll ever own, out of a worn out old file!