Choosing a Gas or Coal Forge for the Small Farm Shop
by Pete Cecil of Bend, OR
See author Pete Cecil demonstrate basic blacksmithing techniques in our 3 part Farm Drum video series, Blacksmithing with Pete Cecil:
Farm Drum #29: Blacksmithing with Pete Cecil – Building a Fire
Farm Drum #30: Blacksmithing with Pete Cecil – Basic Techniques
Farm Drum #32: Blacksmithing with Pete Cecil – Finishing the Hook
After you’ve built a small farm blacksmith shop, one of the first decisions that you’ll need to make is which type of fuel you’ll be using. Most people choose either gas (propane) or coal, however, wood fired forges are also an option. All three fuel types have pros and cons. The final decision will likely be based on the type of forging that you plan to do and the local availability of the fuel.
Gas forges are popular and readily available. A new basic farriers forge starts at around $400 and can be found at farrier supply houses or on-line at Centaur Forge. If you have access to some basic welding and shop equipment you can build your own gas forge out of a 2-1/2 to 5 gallon propane or air tank. I built mine for less than $100.
The convenience of a gas forge is that it provides an instant and constant heat that requires little or no attention after it’s lit. You simply light it and can then concentrate on the forging project at hand. Gas burns cleaner than a coal forge and is readily available. Some of the drawbacks to using gas is that it’s noisier, and it makes the shop hotter in the summer time. Depending on the type of smithing that your doing gas is also generally considered more expensive than coal. The biggest drawback to most gas forges is the limited size of the forge itself. My gas forge has a 4-1/2 inch by 6 inch opening, and is 12 inches deep. It works great for forging smaller items such as horse shoes, knives, barn door latches, etc, but it is impractical to forge larger items such as dinner bells, farm machinery repairs, etc. Another drawback is most gas forges will not heat your work to a forge welding temperature.
Coal forges are still being manufactured and range from small portable farriers or rivet models to large permanent forges. They start at around $500. Centaur Forge carries a wide selection. Used coal forges are also readily available. A functioning used coal forge will start at $400. It’s possible to fabricate your own brake drum forge for less than $100.
A coal forge takes longer to bring up to a working temperature compared to gas. With that being said, I can usually bring my forge up to a usable heat in under five minutes. It also requires greater skill, constant attention, and more physical effort to maintain an even heat. With practice you’ll be able to adjust the size of the fire for the project at hand and can reduce the amount of fuel that you use. Because coal can bring metal to a forging temperature and beyond, it is possible to accidentally melt your project. If you’re new to blacksmithing it can be frustrating to maintain a coal fire and work on a project simultaneously. Many people enjoy using coal because it’s more traditional. If you plan on forging in public a coal forge will usually attract more interest than a gas forge. They’re also much quieter than a gas forge. Because a coal forge isn’t enclosed like most gas forges it’s easier to position your metal so that only the area your working on is in the fire. Most coal forges can also accommodate larger projects than gas forges.
Depending on where you live finding a source of good quality blacksmithing coal can be problematic. Here in the Pacific Northwest I buy blacksmithing coal from Farrier’s Supplies located in Monroe, Oregon.
A third option that is gaining in popularity is a wood fired forge. The main advantage to this type of forge is that the fuel is renewable and is readily available. I’ve never used one but think they are worth investigating. They generally require a greater volume of fuel when compared to coal. Whitlox Wood Fired Forges are made in Oregon and start at around $300.
So what’s the best forge for you? It really depends on the finished product, and the skill set your trying to achieve. If your new to blacksmithing and want to jump right in to hammering hot metal, a gas forge definitely has an easier learning curve. If you’re interested in working smaller pieces of metal such as making knives, horse shoes, etc., a gas forge will be a good choice.
On the other hand, if you’re interested in traditional skills, and/or might want to forge larger projects — a coal forge may be right for you. If you happen to catch the blacksmith “bug” you’ll probably end up with both a gas and a coal forge. In my shop, I generally use my gas forge for smaller projects, or if I need to produce a product quickly. I also have two coal forges. One is a World War II era U.S. cavalry forge that is portable and is used for demonstrations and public events, the other is a medium sized shop forge that I use for larger projects. In the future I plan on exploring the possibilities of using a wood fired forge.