Adventures in Blacksmithing: Holiday 2014

Ah the holiday season – time for giving, time for family, time to get coal! Okay, truthfully, I don’t use coal in my forge. I live in a suburban neighborhood with an HOA, so all of the smithing I have done so far has been powered by charcoal. While coal would certainly get me a much hotter fire, much more quickly, I’m already striking metal with a hammer. I have a sneaky feeling that if I make the neighborhood smell like Tweetsie Railroad someone will probably complain and I’ll surely be found out. But no one’s going to say anything if I make the community smell like a barbeque, even if it’s eight or ten hours out of the day.

Back to topic – this holiday season, I decided this year was high time I presented a couple special people with handforged gifts. My brother’s gift became obvious when my mom told me he broke his fire poker, stomped about, and cursed the shoddy workmanship that went into it. Fire poker it was. For my friend Josh, I decided on a bottle opener because I had made one a few weeks prior, and it just seemed like a good fit. The day I forged these projects was exhausting because I had only one day to produce them or abandon my plans. A front was moving in, bringing rain with it for several days prior to Christmas. My forge is outdoors.

Mike near the end of the night.
Mike near the end of the night.

Of course, I didn’t get started until after lunch, but fortunately, Mike got us take out for dinner, built a fire in the pit, and drug out the work lights since it was dark by 5:30. By the end of the night, I could barely keep my eyes open, had been burned several times, and even caught my shirt on fire once, but the results made me and a couple special guys in my life very happy.

The twisting wrench Mike made me.
The twisting wrench Mike made me.

The Twisting Wrench
I can’t really talk about these projects without mentioning the twisting wrench. While I was starting my forge fire, Mike made me a twisting wrench out of an old pipe wrench and some scrap metal. (He’s good like that. I counted it as my first Christmas present.) He used a plasma cutter he had borrowed for another project, cut a handle, and welded that to the pipe wrench. No, it’s not fancy, but it works so well, and uniform twists make most almost every forged item look better.

Finished fire poker.
Finished fire poker.

The Fire Poker
As soon as I decided to make the poker, I decided to use only one piece of stock, and that it should be extra long. My brother is a tall man who likes hot fires. I made it about a foot longer than normal. While a forge weld may have made the project easier in some respects, I was afraid it would be very hard for me to get 3/8ths stock to forge weld temperature in my charcoal forge. And if the weld didn’t hold, I would surely never hear the end of it. Instead, I decided to do a split for the prongs. I squared the round stock and flattened it some. I then used a chisel to cut through the stock and form the two prongs, tapering both. For the handle twist, I had to square the stock again but only did it in the six or so inches that were twisted. After twisting and doing the handle scroll, I textured the rest of the shaft by heating the stock to red and tapping it with my lightest hammer. This was the first poker I’ve made.

Twist in the fire poker handle.
Twist in the fire poker handle.

The Bottle Opener
Josh’s bottle opener was a bit more challenging than it should have been. This was my own doing because I started with round stock. Because I’d already made a bottle opener, I had a round ¼ piece that was already cut to length. In hindsight, I would have saved time had I just gotten some square. However I’m enough of a novice, I saw it as good practice. After squaring the entire piece, I flattened one end and did two scrolls to create the fulcrum. These are tight scrolls, so even though I started them with the hammer, I finished with pliers. Like my brother’s poker, I twisted the handle and, finally, tapered the end and added a tight scroll just because I liked it, looks a bit like a ram’s horn. Yes, I tested its functionality on a nice stout before I deemed the piece finished.

Josh's bottle opener just after quenching.
Josh’s bottle opener just after quenching.

The Finishes
I’ve always struggled with a good finish for items I’ve forged. Many of my early projects are simply unfinished. But pieces are more beautiful and last longer if they have a finish. I used boiled linseed oil on the poker and have decided I don’t like it. Despite applying it when the piece was hot and being quite careful to not overload it, the finish was still a bit tacky even after 24 hours of curing. Not to mention, linseed oil soaked rags have a bad reputation for spontaneous combustion. I prefer to control my fires.

Fire poker - wrapped and ready.
Fire poker – wrapped and ready.

For the bottle opener, I didn’t want the finish to be heavy. I also didn’t feel comfortable using a finish with chemicals, so the boiled linseed oil was out. Everything I read said that any food grade oil would work as a finish. I have used vegetable shortening on the forks I’ve made. The results have been okay, very like the thick seasoning that develops on cast iron pans, but it didn’t let the true color of the metal shine through. So I tried olive oil. It was an abysmal failure, even though I kept the metal hot for several hours so it would season. The finish was not consistent. It looked spotty and portions of it felt tacky too. So I stripped the olive oil off with steel wool. I found some raw linseed oil in the supplement section of a local supermarket (no chemical additives obviously since you’re supposed to swallow it by the spoonfuls) and gave it a try. Apparently, this is what I should have been using all along. Like I did with the olive oil, I heated the bottle opener in the oven, applied a thin coat, then hung it back in the oven for a few hours.

Finished bottle opener.
Finished bottle opener.

I will be using this on all of my kitchen friendly pieces from here on out and likely some of the others too. The result was beautiful, consistent, and wasn’t sticky.

Bottle opener - up close.
Bottle opener – up close.

 

And so ended the holiday blacksmithing. My brother was completely surprised, and Josh retired his shark bottle opener. (If you know him, that’s actually a big deal.) For next year, Mike and I already have a holiday card planned – one with a picture where he’s filthy, I’m covered in soot, and Korra (our dog) is gnawing on a shrub. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a photographer on hand at sundown, but the scenario is recreated often enough, I’m sure it won’t be a problem. It’s just how we do life.

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