Getting Started in Blacksmithing
Article - May 14, 2014
As a woodworker, I often find myself learning about other skilled trades that complement my woodworking either by necessity or just for fun. Throughout my woodworking career, I have dipped my toes into many different skills, such as: upholstering, machine refurbishing, metal machining, leather work, resin casting; and the list goes on. Most of the time, I have been forced to educate myself in these related areas because of a project I am working on, but on some occasions I am just inclined to extend my skills and knowledge.
In many cases, the topics I want to learn about are interesting but aren’t important enough for me to actually take action on. Some are things that I am definitely going to do, but just haven’t known where to begin. Blacksmithing has always been on the “definite” list because the skills are totally practical and helpful to my woodworking. Not only will I have a better understanding of metals, which can help tremendously in the sharpening arena, but I will be able to make tools and even hardware for my woodworking projects.
The Spark That Lit The Fire
Although I have always wanted to learn more about blacksmithing, I somehow assumed that it would be really complicated or expensive to dive into. Where would you even begin? I know that there are some schools out there that you can learn blacksmithing at, but who has the time or money for that? Especially since it would be more of a hobby than anything. There is also the fact I don’t know anyone where I live who is a blacksmith. So, it remained on the list of things to do… someday.
That all changed when I ran across the following YouTube video that Tim Charles from A Slice of Wood Workshop created showing how to make your own anvil out of a piece of heavy railroad track. Check out how he just whips out an angle grinder and turns a random piece of metal into a functional anvil.
Tim’s video reminded me that there are many ways to skin a cat, and you don’t necessarily need to shell out a bunch of cash when you begin a new adventure. It turns out that Tim has only been smithing for about a year, and he is already producing some really awesome work. He forges iron in his backyard with a fairly simple setup and limited set of tools proving that your skills and motivation produce your end results, not a bunch of fancy tools.
After doing a little research online, I found quite a bit of information to help me get going, and I even found a local blacksmith in Reno who holds an open forge twice a week. Open forge is pretty awesome, and it allows beginners – literally zero skills – to not only learn about blacksmithing, but also get hands on experience.
Before I begin, I have to add a little disclaimer that I am definitely no expert when it comes to blacksmithing. Honestly, I’m a complete novice in this area. I have tried it once, and I am definitely not a natural. I can, however, share resources and some basic suggestions on what you need to get started.
Blacksmith Websites, Organizations, and Communities
The best (and probably safest) way to get started is to find other people who actually know what they are doing and have the necessary equipment. There are actually tons of resources available at the click of a mouse such as websites, schools, clubs, professional blacksmiths, books and videos, and more. If you are serious about getting into it, the best way to ensure that you will follow through with it is to get involved with others who are doing it already. They will help to motivate you to get out there and start forging.
For a great overview of getting started, I recommend checking out Anvilfire.com. They have an entire page on their website dedicated to getting started. It answered all of the questions I had, plus it answered some questions that I hadn’t even thought about yet.
ABANA – The Artists Blacksmith Association of North America
ABANA offers a wealth of information to help you get started. Their website has a ton of information to help you learn more about blacksmithing, metals, tools, etc. They also have a listing of all the ABANA local chapters around the U.S. The first step would be to take a peek around their site and get in touch with your local chapter.
As with woodworking guilds and clubs, they usually have regular meetings that are often held in members shops. This is a great way to dip your toes in to see if you enjoy it without having to spend a lot of money. With just a little digging I found a local artist, Brett Moten, who offers an open forge night for people just like me who want to dig in and learn about blacksmithing.
Brett operates Infinity Forge in Reno, and he is a local member of the California Blacksmith Association (we don’t have a chapter in Nevada). My first night at his open forge, there were three newbies there with zero experience. Brett showed us how everything works and even gave us projects to work on right off the bat – nails and wall hooks. In one night, I learned how to operate the forge, draw the metal out, proper hammer techniques, hot cutting, twisting, scrolling, and much more. If you can find a local artist in your area, definitely stop by if they have open forge nights, you won’t regret it!
iForgeIron.com is an online community and forum dedicated to the topic of blacksmithing. You will find a wealth of information and people who are willing to help you get started. Everything from tools, welding, safety, machinery, and everything in between.
Tools of the Trade
If you’re like me, you won’t be satisfied using other people’s tools for very long. I will definitely be going back up to open forge night at Brett’s shop to continue learning, but I’m the type of person who only gets so much out of the allotted time available during open shops and classes. Therefore, I plan to setup a forge at my own shop to practice whenever I want and for as long as I need.
I used to think that it was going to cost a small fortune to buy the necessary equipment; however, the truth is you can get started for well under $1,000. I initially assumed that I would need to build a massive brick oven forge, buy a ten thousand pound anvil, and amass a whole slew of random tools that I would have no clue how to use, let alone identify.
In reality, a small and inexpensive set of tools is all you really need to get started. I have put together a list of the bare necessities that you would want to have to get started.
The anvil is somewhat similar to the workbench in woodworking. It is what allows you to shape and form your workpiece. Something in the 75-500 pound range is the optimal weight, but you can get by with lighter if you have to. Bringing it back to woodworking, I would consider it along the same lines as workbenches. Sure, you can start out with a split top roubo made out of maple, but you will get woodworking done on a solid core door on top of saw horses.
It can be somewhat difficult to find a decent used anvil, and it’s by far the most expensive item on the list, unless you build your own from scrap. You can buy a brand new one, but it’s really going to cost you. The truth is, anything made from decent steel will suffice if you are just starting out. As Tim showed in his video, you can make your own anvil. Railroad track works, but you can just as easily piece together an anvil out of steel from a scrap yard or an I-beam. Buying an anvil will set you back a few hundred dollars, but if you take the time to make your own, you can be up and running for much cheaper.
For more information about anvil selection, check out this article by Jock Dempsey on Anvil Fire.
The forge is what heats your steel up so that you can work it. This is probably the most important thing that you will need, but luckily this one is pretty easy to piece together out of spare parts and scrap. Of course, you can buy one new, but that will definitely be much more expensive. You can build a simple forge out of an old car brake drum, some pipe, and a cheap blow drier. There are lots of videos on YouTube showing how to put one together, and I also found an article on Anvil Fire that covers building a brake drum forge.
One thing to keep in mind is forges can run on different types of fuel. The two most common are coal and propane, but you can also use oil. I know nothing about oil forges, so I won’t even go into it. Propane is by far the easiest to use, as it turns on and off quick, its cleaner burning; but it’s much more expensive than coal. Coal burning forges are easy to make, but it may be more difficult to find a source for buying coal depending on where you live. This is where getting to know others in your area will benefit a beginner.
A good vise will help out a ton with your work. Vises are used in many different ways, and generally, the heftier vise the better. You can get by with smaller machinist vises, but they will not hold up to the abuse of hammering on them. To get started though, just find the beefiest vise you can get and make sure it is secured to a sturdy bench.
Like most tools, the quality of vises ranges drastically. I can’t say that I have enough knowledge about the subject to really provide much help. Again, there are lots of resources out there to help you understand what to look for in an anvil, but again you don’t need perfect tools to produce good work.
Vise Photo by Penny Mayes [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Of course, most importantly you need to be able to shape the metal you are working on, so you will need a hammer. You can pick up a hammer at the local hardware or big box store that will work, but don’t pull out your claw hammer and expect to get good results. One of the most versatile type of hammer that you can use is a cross peen hammer. Generally, a 1.75 to 3 pound hammer will work fine. My main word of advice is to make sure you don’t start out with too heavy a hammer. At open forge, I started out with a pretty heavy hammer, and I ended up dropping to a lower weight pretty quickly.
As with any hobby, you need to play it safe. Blacksmithing is simply not something I would categorize as a safe hobby, but with a little safety practice I wouldn’t classify it as extremely dangerous either. Number 1 on that list is safety glasses – you definitely don’t want any hot sparks from your work and even from the forge landing in your eye. Ear protection is also pretty useful since the clanging of metal on metal is pretty loud. One other thing to keep in mind is that synthetic materials will melt to your skin if it gets too hot or lights on fire. Wear cotton instead. Also, leather aprons and gloves can be helpful, as well as proper footwear such as steel toed leather boots.
Like woodworking, blacksmithing comes with a healthy list of dangers. Make sure that you put safety first if you decide to give it a try. You are dealing with a very hot fire, sharp metal, and pounding on heavy objects. Keep your fingers out of the way, keep your fire controlled, and as Tim told me… “Even black metal is hot metal.” If you are looking to start something with less risk, there is always knitting (although you gotta watch out for those sharp needles).
There are tons of miscellaneous tools that are very helpful to the blacksmith. Many of which, you will be able to add to the toolbox as needed. In the beginning, however, it will be very useful to have a pair of needle nose pliers and something that you can use as tongs. The metal you are working gets pretty hot, and having something to grab the smaller pieces with is often necessary. Vise grips can work fine as tongs and will get you started, but you will quickly learn that they are really too short to be highly useful.
Luckily, there are number of tools that many people already have that can be highly useful when working metals. One of the first things I noticed during my first shot at blacksmithing is that there’s a lot more to it than merely swinging a hammer. In some cases, the workpiece will gain nothing by heating it up. In those cases, you will need items such as files, measuring devices, and and pliers. You’d be surprised to learn how many tools you already have that can be used in a blacksmith shop. One other somewhat important item to have on hand is a quench bucket. This one’s pretty simple – a bucket filled with water to cool the workpiece with.
As with woodworking, there are a lot of great resources available for those interested in learning more about blacksmithing on the internet, but one place to look (that we often don’t even think of anymore) is the library. Just about every resource I have found has a list of suggested books, and the California Blacksmith Association even has a lending library available for free to members. When I spoke with Tim Charles about where I should look to find out more about, he suggested checking out Mark Aspery’s books and videos as well. Aspery has a website where you can pick up his books, and he even has a YouTube channel.
So, if you’re interested in learning and starting blacksmithing, you’ll find it is not very hard to get going. If you are lucky to have a local group to join, you’ll be able to get started without even having to purchase tools. If you would like your own setup, you’re probably looking at a few hundred dollars to get up and running.
You may find, as I did, that you are absolutely horrible at blacksmithing the first time you try it. Keep trying and you will get better. Learn from others around you with more experience, and you will start to make some amazing things. I’m hoping to be able to make my own tools, furniture parts, and hardware some day. Thanks to Tim, I’m already on my way!
And speaking of creating woodworking-related tools, check out Marc and Matt’s review of Forging a Compass with Peter Ross.
So, how about you. Is blacksmithing something you would want to try out, or is it just something cool to watch from a distance? If you got started, what would you make?