An Insider’s Guide to Blacksmithing
by Michael Dionne of Gainesville, VA
“Whatsoever Thy Hand Findeth to Do, Do It with Thy Might.”
The great, tornado-like roar of the forge wanes soft in the head-splitting hammering on the steel. Orange, flaring sparks fly through the crisp, spring air as the smith wreaks vengeance upon the red hot iron. The smith, of only two months experience, maneuvers his workpiece left and right and angles it up and down as he strikes it. Gradually, the red-hot steel bar deforms flat and elongates. Then, a piercing tip forms. Holding the piece close, almost singeing his nostrils, the smith is satisfied with his creation. He plunges the glowing knife into the ice cool water. The smith feels the crystal structure rearranging as the water instantly boils away, vibrating his hand. PING!! A shot of energy flies through his arm and the smith immediately pulls out. Holding the knife in his hands, the smith can see a long fissure reaching through the middle of the blade: a catastrophic failure that dooms the knife to be nothing more than a letter opener. Recalling every move, the smith scratches his head. Was it hardly practicing the most basic techniques that damned him? Was it not performing enough research? Was it not having a mentor? This Icarus of blacksmiths is me, a bold novice who knows a good deal of something, and yet nothing.
Starting out blacksmithing can be tough, but by doing a few simple things can bring about great things. First, push through hardships to find the joys of blacksmithing. Despair is all too easy to fall into and by pushing through its sickly membrane we can find greater purpose. Second, do anything you can to save on costs and be thrifty. Blacksmithing is expensive and cutting expenses early on is wise. Finally, continue to keep the fire of intrigue alive by continually challenging yourself. Do not expend all your energy just for ambition’s sake; be wise and bridle your passion to find greater skill in yourself. Here will be found the secrets to success in starting the ancient craft of blacksmithing and keeping startup and operational costs low.
The ancient practice of blacksmithing is full of many terms used to describe many different things. The complete setup a blacksmith uses is called the smithy, and is comprised of the forge, anvil, and any necessary equipment. A forge is the furnace a blacksmith uses to heat up his steel. They typically are fueled by coal or charcoal in a semi-enclosed structure with an air intake somewhere beneath the fuel, but propane gas can be used too. Do not confuse the forge with forging. Forging is the act of fabricating metal. The anvil is a large and heavy object usually made of steel that provides a base to forge the work. The anvil stand is just a table where an anvil is securely fastened to. Steel, iron, bar stock, or metal are terms that all describe the same piece of work being acted upon to make something. Forging in a bevel means angling the work and the direction of your hammering to create a bevel in the steel. To forge in a cutting tip means pinching the work and elongating it at the same time to create a singular point. A hot cutting chisel is a special tool that can be attached to an anvil for use in a hot cut, where metal is cut via the chisel and a hammer while heated beyond glowing red. Blacksmithing tongs are grabbers the blacksmith uses to hold the glowing hot metal without burning his hands. They can come in various shapes and types to grab certain shapes or generalities. Tongs are generally held together by what is known as a pinion, or a small metal pin that securely fastens two pieces of metal. Warping is a term that describes how the metal moves beyond its original design from heat distortion. Warping is quite common and can be fixed with various jigs. A jig is a basic machine or tool that can be manipulated to make a task easier. Hopefully, these terms can clear up the blacksmithing jargon a little: though this list barely scratches the surface.
Push Through Hard Times
I open the door and walk into the garage with nothing but a vague plan. All I know is that I need to make a table, a forge, an anvil stand, and find somewhere to store all these. “I don’t want to spend any more money than what I have to,” I repeat to myself. I know what materials and equipment are on hand: plenty of timber leftover from my father’s projects, hand tools, and screws. I know I will need to spend money on an anvil and bricks for my forge. I whip out my notebook and start drawing concepts. Space is not something I have the luxury of, I have a small allotment adjacent to the deck for the storage of all these things under a tarp. I decide these things should be able to fit in a third of that space and I will accomplish that by storing the anvil stand under the table which can double as a charcoal forge. I work tirelessly for two days, learning how to drill in holes before putting in screws and that power tools work so much faster than hand tools. The table is as wide and long as my arm and comes up to my waist. I construct the anvil stand modularly, so as to be able to remove the anvil before stowing under the table. I get my bricks, an anvil, and a random iron pipe from local sources. In the morning the next day, I lift the table off the ground and try to stagger over to the middle of the glade. BOOM! The table lands and I realize that carrying something so heavy was not something I calculated. “Oh well, I’ll try out the furnace design,” I muse after I drag it over. Laying the bricks down carefully on the bare wood, I take care not to leave an exposed gap. I push the pipe through a pre-made hole in the side of the brick hearth to feed the air through a blower. I light the charcoal and turn on the blower. Within five minutes, I feel the blaze of a dying star upon my face. I let the fire burn out and after twenty minutes, I can clean the wood ash and bricks off. One by one, they fly into the dew-laden grass. SSSSSSssssss! The wet grass boils and hisses. I take the last brick off and I curse as I see the charred wood. My hard work literally up in smoke as I see a massive depression where hardy wood once was. I throw my hands up and sit down, my hopes shattered.
My overkeen ambition drove me to go beyond what I thought I could do and it was then I discovered that it was important to not let ambition strangle fledgling intrigue in a new craft. When starting out something for the first time, take care of your pride and interest or it will come back to bite you through your lack of foresight and abundance of impulsiveness. A peer I look up to, a respectable gentleman named Mr. Sam Findlay, does blacksmithing too and has done so for many seasons. He notes, “To [say] the truth, it is very much a trial and error skill. As long as you forge weekly, or [even] monthly, you will learn the skill for the forge. I am still not a master [of] the trade but everyday I get closer. Blacksmithing is a skill and as with all skills, takes time to master. Don’t get frustrated when things don’t work out because [things] won’t work out all the time.” (Findlay)
An expert blacksmith I was able to contact, Lisa Kinzie, a mother of four children and who learned on the fly for a local Idahoan blacksmithing company called Old West Iron, told me in an interview about a great project they worked on. “One year in, I was asked to look at some plans for a very large job. They wanted a small high-end company to do the work. The plans were delivered in an 8×8 box almost as tall as me. I laughed when I saw them, then asked my son to help me get them out and on the table. They were a year behind on the process, so the normal 6 months to bid the job was down to 1 month. I stayed up many nights and submitted it on time. The job was ours. We tripled our staff and completed miles of ornate railing with real bronze cap rail, metal doors that were impressive. This job put us on the map, successfully.” (Kinzie) Thus we see that grit can push us through to the end of what might seem to be a daunting task.
My interest in blacksmithing quickly grows as the weeks go past, as do my expenses. Charcoal is $10 per forging session: I’m going through half a bag at a time. Steel is very expensive, and the local hardware store has it for $20 a plate. I feel the urge to buy equipment such as an angle grinder for dozens of buckaroos, and I do buy it, for I need to grind and cut faster than with the hand file and whetstone I use. I begin to fear for my bank account as money goes out and my feeble income as a delivery driver isn’t able to keep up. Seeing what I am doing will bleed me dry eventually, I endeavor to find better and cheaper methods of supplying myself.
Buying new equipment can soak up funds lightning fast, and blacksmithing supplies can dwindle a bit rapidly. It is imperative then to find alternative methods of supplying the blacksmithing adventure. It could be buying decent material from a junkyard instead of high grade material from the store. It could be finding better fuel or a more efficient forge. It could be making equipment from scrap on hand that just gets the job done. Whatever it is, the money saved is worth the extra time, especially these days when prices are soaring.
I deliver to an automobile repair shop late in the evening one day as I work, and I drive past a mountain of rusting parts. I walk up to the manager, and as I give him the order, I ask, “What about that junk you got, sir?” The manager looks at me, thinking what in the world this kid wants and replies, “Take what you want dude, that stuff is going to the dump.” Thanking him profusely, I sprint over and pull out only what I know I have room for. I throw several nasty brake drums, springs, and tire rods encased in heavy coats of rust in the trunk and rush back to work. My manager doesn’t say a thing, but I know he is thinking, “What the hell did that kid do to get so dirty?” I don’t care though, as I now am overjoyed in the prospect of never paying a cent for my steel. A few days later, I drive past a small company that deals in coal. Intrigued, I return after making my trip and look at the waist high bags. “A 40lb bag for only $7? Wow that’s really good compared to my 20lb charcoal bags for $14,” I say to myself, scratching my chin. Coming home, I stash two bags in my fuel storage, and I kick off my boots before sprawling out on the couch, knowing my needs are secure. Thus, I can obtain everything I need for blacksmithing at a heavily reduced cost.
Develop Passion, Develop Restraint
Setting up my smithy for today’s task, I take a deep breath and look over my notebook. A straight gray line turns to a straight line with a curve and then the end beyond the curve curves in the opposite direction. The design took me days to figure out what was best for my needs. A gray snake with a diamond head intertwines with another gray snake pinned to it via pinion, or a rod used to attach two things together, to represent a pair of round jaw tongs, or grabbers that the blacksmith uses for grabbing hot metal. I take a four foot rod of steel reinforcing bar and perform a hot cut in the middle. I stick both rods into the forge and pull one out. I forge in a single, 45º curve a little beyond the middle and then reheat it. Pulling out the other, I now work it in the exact same way. Each tong needs to be perfectly similar to work. My arms aching like Atlas, I finish bending the second opposite curve in and beating out the flat tips and lay them on top of each other. I see a pair of intertwining snakes that need their flat heads forged into half-circles and hole punched through their axis for the pinion to hold together. Arms holding up the world, I wonder if I can just push through the pain and finish the round jaw tongs today. Taking the first head out, I sloppily strike the surface with my hammer. Managing to round off the flat head, I put it aside to naturally cool and grab the other head. I hammer it like the other, only more haphazardly. Missing the spot sometimes and hammering the anvil, I go for one more hit. BOOM! The thin steel ruptures down the neck of the curve and I cringe like I walked on red hot spikes with glass shards embedded in my soles.
Hobbies are built on a foundation of curiosity and a love of making things happen, and not on backbreaking work. A hollowness of spirit can come from over-exerting oneself, and not a feeling of accomplishment. While it is important to show grit during hard times, one must not forget the strength they have, and not run before walking. Being too exhausted can result in easily preventable mistakes or injuries that would ruin anyone’s day, no matter how experienced.
I walk outside and set up my smithy in the midst of the forest clearing. The leaves are crisp from the morning frost and crunch loudly in the still March air. The forge awakens into life and summons the condemnation of the gods, roaring like the minotaur. I heat up my iron rod and begin pounding the hell out of it. I forge in the slender piercing tip and the first half of the sword when I begin to feel tired. I remember how bad things seem to happen when I overexert myself, so I shut down the forge and pack everything up for the next day. I begin the next morning where I left off, and I endeavor to finish. An hour in, and my form starts to get sloppy. I stop and pack everything up for the next day. The third day comes and I finish forging the blade. I look at it and I envision the great deeds it will accomplish. I feel amazing and full of adrenaline as I look upon my seemingly flawless creation. Bridling my ambition forced me to take more time in making the piece and allowed me to fabricate the sword with greater care.
The smith takes a coil spring encrusted in thick rust and pushes one end into the bed of coal flames. A few moments later, the smith grabs it out of the white hot coals with his blacksmithing tongs and brings the exorbitant sparkler over to his anvil. Like John Henry, his hammer moves as swiftly and as powerful as a machine. The smith straightens the coil out, then cuts off 10 inches with a hot cutting chisel before the steel cools down to red-hot. He carefully lays aside the main part of the coil and thrusts the 10-inch steel piece into the flames. The smith thins out the steel, then forges in the tip and bevels an edge in to form a blade. He flips it around and begins to forge everything behind the beveling to form the handle. The smith examines the knife for any defects that would hinder its function. Satisfied, the smith plunges the red-hot knife into oil. Smoke flashes and the knife hardens in an instant. The smith’s brow furrows as he notices the blade curving to the left a bit. Unperturbed, he sets it into a blade straightening jig, a blade straightener constructed out of square steel tubing with notches cut into it, and works the warping out by applying heat with a torch and gently pressing the warped portion. The smith takes out the knife and sees its glorious nature hidden behind black scale. I am the smith, and I have come a long way since I nearly shattered my first knife. Through thorough application of being thrifty, not overworking myself, and pushing through hard times, I have become a blacksmith for the better. Blacksmithing is an incredible art of ancient origin. In these modern times, it has become almost lost, carried on by a select few. These select few can be strengthened by those who consider pursuing a noble interest and can carry on blacksmithing lore for another generation.
“Interview with Mr. Sam Findlay”, Michael Dionne, accessed October 19, 2021, created October 15, 2021
“Interview with Lisa Kinzie”, Michael Dionne, accessed October 22, 2021, created October 22, 2021