Whitlox Wood-Fired Forge
by Pete Cecil of Bend, OR
Forges fired by wood charcoal have been a mainstay in blacksmithing history for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Regions in North America that did not have access to high quality coal and coke depended on wood based charcoal as a forging heat source. Wood charcoal is still a primary blacksmithing fuel in much of the world. In recent years there’s been a renewed interest here in the Pacific Northwest in utilizing our abundant wood resources to provide fuel as an alternative to coal for smithing. A good example of this is Oaks Bottom Forge located in downtown Milwaukie, Oregon. Oaks Bottom Forge offers hands on instruction in basic and advanced smithing as well as knife making. Central to their shop space is a large hardwood charcoal fired forge. Another example of wood-fired forge technology is the Whitlox forge.
Whitlox forges are made in Sandy, Oregon and have been on the market since 2013. This family owned and operated business has helped bring wood-fired forges back into the mainstream. They sell two sizes of forge, the “mini” and the “full” sized forge. The mini forge is well suited for beginners working in a small space and/or knife makers. The full sized forge is designed to be used in a small to medium sized shop. I recently had the opportunity to use a full sized Whitlox wood fired forge here at my shop.
The forge arrived well-packed and includes free shipping within the U.S. Overall, it appeared to be well-made and finished. Assembly took about an hour. The assembly instructions were fairly vague but it was pretty intuitive to bolt together. They do have several videos available on-line to help with assembly. The hand cranked cast blower is made in India but appears to be well-made. An electric blower is also available. The stand incorporates a pair of wheels which make the unit easily transportable. A hood cover is also available on both models. The body is made from eleven gauge steel.
Either forge can be purchased as a complete unit or as individual pieces. This is helpful if you already have a blower or want to mount your forge to a bench top. This can help hold the initial costs down.
The mini forge is sixteen by sixteen by nine inches. The full sized forge is twenty-four by eighteen by nine inches. Both are available with an optional stand, hood, and electric or hand blower.
The full sized forge has a simple adjustable fire bed oxygen control pipe that allows fuel savings if you desire a small fire for working on small items or a full sized fire for larger projects. The best thing about these forges is that you can burn free or low cost locally sourced wood scraps. Surprisingly, soft wood species are recommended over hardwood species for fuel. This is due to the fact that soft wood can be more quickly converted into charcoal which is actually the fuel that heats your metal. The size and dryness of the fuel is more important that the actual species. Smaller pieces generally will burn more efficiently than larger pieces.
I started out using two to four inch long scraps of dimensional framing lumber, however I have also found that pieces of seasoned tree branches work well. Using treated or painted materials should be avoided. Another benefit of using this system is accumulations of clinkers are not an issue as would be found in a coal forge. The forge quickly converts wood to charcoal. The V-shaped forge bed helps concentrate the coals at the bottom of the fire via gravity which creates a highly efficient heat zone. The brick lined and insulated fire box helps save on fuel and extends the life of the sheet metal body.
Much like a coal forge, the Whitlox forge requires constant attention to maintain and tend the fire. And, like a coal forge, there is a learning curve in finding the right balance between getting the correct fuel concentration and density and the proper amount of air. It also took me awhile to figure out where the actual hot spot was located since it’s not as easily visible as on my coal forge.
I haven’t paid a lot of attention to the fuel consumption of this forge. A big variable is how large a fire you set the combustion bed length for and how much air you apply to the fire. I’d guess that on average a five gallon bucket of wood scrapes gives approximately one hour of forge time. These wood scraps are free. Quality blacksmithing coal usually runs $25 – $30.00 per fifty pound bag and isn’t readily available in all areas.
I found the full-sized Whitlox forge to be a pleasure to use. Its compact and versatile design, coupled with its free fuel source made it a pleasant addition to my shop. After a little trial and error, I was able to create a forging heat that equaled my coal and gas forges. I haven’t tried to forge weld with it, but I’ve been assured that forge welding is definitely possible.
The Whitlox forge can be tailored to fit the needs of most budgets. It is especially appealing to smiths who want to work off-grid and/or who don’t have access to a steady source of quality blacksmithing coal. This forge may not have the allure or historic nostalgia of a traditional coal forge, but it can perform equally well all of the same functions while utilizing a renewable and often free fuel source. I was impressed with the customer service of this Oregon run family business, as well as the quality of their product(s). If you’re new to smithing or knife making and are in the market for a forge, you owe it to yourself to check out the Whitlox line of forges. If you’re an established smith you may also want to check out the alternative fuel source that much of the world is still using to forge with.