10 Tips for Beginner Blacksmiths

Forks heating in the forge

As it was a skill I had wanted to acquire for quite some time, I began blacksmithing a little less than a year ago. Of course, I’m still a newbie and learn each time I fire up the forge. Though honestly, I hope that when I have been doing this for ten years I am still learning. Progress is my goal here.

Forks heating in the forge

Forks heating in the forge

Despite my newness, I have acquired a few tidbits I wish someone had shared with me (or I had listened to…I did hear one or two of these) when I started. So for all of you beginner blacksmiths, especially those who have yet to strike, this is for you. If you are doing your homework, hopefully you can learn from my mistakes and rough patches. And do note that some of these are only applicable with a coal or charcoal forge.

1)  Get your stock hot! – Heat it to at least dark orange. I, like most beginners, was super excited to hammer, so I pulled it out way too soon. Barely cherry red is not a good forging temperature and is good for little other than putting hammer marks on your stock. This can be useful if you’re finishing a piece and going for a “hammered” look, but it is fairly worthless when it comes to any sort of shaping. Resist the urge, and leave it in the fire a little longer. You’ll be less frustrated in the end. And heads up – you can break poorly heated stock if you use too much hammer force.

2)  Don’t fall for the “you can’t really see the glow in the sun” myth. – True, you will be able to see the metal glow better if your forge is in a dark place, a.k.a. inside. But even if you are working outdoors, as I do, you should still be able to see glow. Use your hand or your body to create a shadow to get a more accurate observation, but forge temperature is, at very least, dark orange even in direct sunlight.

3)  Tend to your fire. – Yes, timing is crucial to shaping metal, and you have now realized the true meaning of the old adage “strike while the iron is hot”, but if you can’t get your iron hot, striking is really pointless. If you don’t tend your fire, it will burn out, and the burn out will probably sneak up on you. I recently did a very large project that involved 118 pieces. I struck a great rhythm but unfortunately didn’t work the fire tending in as well as I should. I ended up, having to empty the forge and completely restart. That was a half hour/hour completely wasted.

4)  Empty your ash trap. – A clogged ash trap will send sparks flying everywhere. Yes, your fire is going to spark. Yes, it’s going to pop on you, but if it looks like one of those “golden shower” glorified sparklers that law-abiding citizens shoot off at 4th of July instead of the real fireworks, you probably have a backup somewhere.

5)  Have a shovel handy. – Especially if you’re outside near leaves or other combustibles. Sometimes, fires pop out. Or perhaps you’re focused on the next step and not on your fire, so rather than turning the airflow down, you increase it! (Stop and digest that for a second.) Whatever the reason, coals end up a foot or two away from the forge on top of some leaves. You’re going need to do something about it pronto.

6)  Keep your tools accessible. – Put them in the same place every time…unless that place just isn’t working. Then, find another spot. If you are searching around for a tool after you’ve removed a piece from the fire, it’s cooling, and you’re losing precious time.

7)  Strike a rhythm. – I return to blacksmithing is all about good timing. Striking well heated stock at the right time yields more results than all the muscle power in the world. Find what works and replicate.

8)  Brush fire scale away from you! – Fire scale is a black coating that forms on hot stock as its temperature changes. It is a form of oxidation. It’s flaky, and you need to brush it off because you don’t want it popping on you when you hammer. You also don’t want it left on your finished piece. It pits the surface and makes the finished product very rough. I have a few pieces I didn’t brush well, and they don’t look pretty. Use a welding brush to get rid of it. However, be sure you brush it away. It’s easy to make this mistake on a curved surface. Fire scale is hot and metallic, meaning when it hits your skin it sticks. When you finally get it off your skin, you will probably be bleeding.

9)  Quench slowly. – This is not only a safety tip for you but also for the metal. Remember that heat drives molecules further apart while cooling brings them closer together. What happens if you stick a super hot jar in ice water? It shatters. Metal will do the same, and while you’re probably not getting your stock hot enough to create such an explosion, cooling too quickly will weaken the piece and make it brittle. Heating and cooling your stock can also strengthen it if done correctly. Unfortunately, I am not accomplished enough to give you those recipes. Someday…

10) Have fun making mistakes. – I know this is very general, but don’t be too hard on yourself. You’re a beginner, not a professional. I have to remind myself of this constantly because I do like my work to be quality. That said, so what if it didn’t turn out right? Try again. You’re not making a living doing this…and if you are, you’re not a beginner and just reading this for giggles anyway.

Adventures in Blacksmithing: Day 12

Making a hanger

For the first time in a month and a half, I lucked up with a sunny Saturday. Though Mike rented a stump grinder and we had some work to do cleaning out the woods, blacksmithing was definitely in order. I had two projects on the agenda for the day. 1) Finish two forks, and 2) attempt a hanger.

So the past few blacksmithing days, I have been preoccupied with making forks. Most of them haven’t turned out so great. This can be attributed to two factors – my inexperience and my gigantic tongs. I have a pair of 1/4 inch tongs and a pair of 1/2 inch tongs. Neither of which are well suited to working with 3/16 inch stock. So after some frustration and a conversation with Mike, I decided to shape my next forks cold, and with such thin stock, it was a very doable strategy. Using Mike’s vice and a pair of needle nosed pliers, I shaped two of them. For the twist, I folded the stock in half around a 1/4 inch round piece. After it was folded, I placed it in the vice, cinched it down, and twisted the two arms, being careful to use uniform force on each side. With the pliers, I shaped the prongs, and rather than trying to taper the prongs on the anvil, which really didn’t go well last week, I just used the grinder to sharpen them. The second fork was better than the first.

Fork in the forge

Fork in the forge

With the fire built and Mike in the woods grinding stumps, I heated the first fork. My goal at the anvil was to flatten the piece, albeit only a little, and to give the handle that curved shape characteristic of forks. I used the less shapely fork first. The process was still challenging because my tongs are still too big, but by being strategic I was able shape it with relative ease. The second fork is smaller and was a little harder to manipulate but turned out even better. I was pleased, and my mother has now requested a dozen.

The good fork

The good fork

Forks done, I moved on to the hanger and realized very quickly that actually making one was a little harder than I anticipated. I began by tapering both ends of the stock. The scroll to accommodate a rod was fairly simple, but my stock was too short to make a full size hanger. So I was left trying to make a small one that might hang ties or scarves.

Making a hanger

Making a hanger

My first mistake was not bringing out the vice and my bending forks. Instead, I attempted to shape it using the horn. My curves were not as exact as they would have been with the forks, so I ended up having to reshape a couple different times. In the end, I had excess stock and had to go back in the garage and cut it off with the grinder. Back at the anvil, I tried to smooth the final twist, but the result was less than satisfactory to me. Finally, in frustration, I called it a day because the hanger was as good as it could get in the circumstances.

Mike declared that it was fine, especially for a first attempt, but in reality, it was not the version I had in my head when I started. Oh well. Live and learn. Next time, I will bring out the bending fork, I will need longer stock, and I may try some stock that is smaller diameter as well. It was, after all, a pretty hefty hanger, especially if I am to be hanging scarves from it.

The hanger

The hanger

Though the end of the day may have been more frustrating than I would have liked, I still got to play with fire and bend metal. What do I really have to complain about?

Adventures in Blacksmithing: Day 11

Day 11 Project: a Fork

Lately, the weather in Charlotte has been broken…Okay perhaps that is a bit of an overstatement. It is spring, and rain is to be expected, but it has seemed a bit more like London around here recently than North Carolina. Chilly too, unseasonably so. As a result, when we had some hours with no rain last weekend, albeit overcast, I hustled out to fire up the forge since the weather had thwarted me the weekend prior.

So last time I blacksmithed, I had attempted to make a fork. I wasn’t very successful. It turned out lopsided and covered in fire scale. Fraught with all sorts of beginner pitfalls, I changed my approach to making it no less than three times during the process, and I finished the day frustrated. But frustration and mistakes can be quite valuable if you learn from them, so I began last Saturday with much smaller diameter stock (3/16ths), a new wire brush, and bending forks that were already positioned correctly.

I made a fire.

Fire!

Fire!

These charcoal pieces are gigantic, so my fire ended up flaming a good bit and took a while to start. That said, once it was going, it got arm hair roasting hot.

I began just as I had last time – tapering the ends. That said, 3/16ths stock is very hard to taper, especially for a beginner. I did the best I could and resolved myself to using the bench grinder to make them pointy. Step two was twisting. Try as I might, I still didn’t get the side exactly even, despite starting the bend on the anvil rather than right on the forks. The saving grace here was that, with the diameter being so small, it was much easier to manipulate on the bending forks. With a some strategic, not-quite-even twisting, I was able to make them roughly equal.

I would like to say that, this time, I just whipped the fork out and smiled about it. That would be a lie. I actually made two of them. The first was still crappy, but I realized that I was not twisting the arms tight enough. So I shaped the prongs and tried again.

The second fork turned out much better. The numerous twists yielded something of which I was much more proud. That said, it still has room for improvement – getting the initial bend dead in the middle so my twits can be even would be a good start.

Heating up

Heating up

Nearly two thirds of the way through the second one, any doubt that I needed different tongs was eradicated. The tongs I have fit ¼ and ½ inch stock respectively. You can squeeze a small piece between the surfaces that actually connect, but the stock still slips. Because it was so hard to get a good grip, my arm muscles throbbed, and my patience was tried over and over again as I twisted it many more times that it predecessors. The whole process took probably three times longer than it should have. Note to self: you need tongs for smaller pieces…and some scrolling tongs would be helpful too.

Guess which one I made first...

Guess which one I made first…

Nine twits and a little prong bending later, I had a fork – not a great fork but a better fork. After a short visit with the bench grinder, the piece was ready to be a fork.

Day 11 Project: a Fork

Day 11 Project: a Fork

I’m sorry to say that I haven’t used it yet. It is currently hanging out on my kitchen counter, waiting to be seasoned. But this one, I will definitely use. And with just a little more tweaking, I think I’ll have it where I want it.

(Mis)Adventures in Blacksmithing: Day 10

Trying to fix a mistake

So this past weekend was the first time in nearly a month that I had the opportunity to do some smithing. I pounced on it. I decided that I wanted to try something a bit more complex than some of my previous projects. I wanted something functional, a tool, and thought “Why not a fork?”

Heating metal

Heating metal

When I say fork, I do mean the utensil used for eating, but I also mean fork in the strictest sense. I wanted to be able to make my fork out of one piece of stock, no forge welding, no regular welding. This meant, a fork with two prongs. In theory, it sounded easy. I would taper both ends of a round piece of stock, fold it in half, twine the halves together, and then shape the prongs.

In theory, it was easy. In actuality, its execution proved a bit more challenging.

Trying to fix a mistake

Trying to fix a mistake

I will go ahead and be honest. This project did not come out nearly as well as I had planned, neither did the process. Fortunately, I learned a lot, and my next fork will be better. So rather than just describe what I did (since it was pretty much wrong), I will just let you know what I learned.

 

1)     ¼ inch stock is really big unless you’re making a serving fork – get some smaller stock for a dinner fork. It will be easier to bend too.

2)     When you bend the stock in half, start the bend on the anvil rather than a bending fork. It’s less likely to slip, so you actually get it folded in half.

3)     Get the arms even. Seriously. If you get them uneven, it will throw the whole fork off, and you won’t really be able to correct it without redoing.

4)     Think the process all the way through, and think quickly on the fly. I had to change my approach and reset my tools several times.

5)     Twining the arms is easier from the top. My bending fork won’t currently fit in my anvil because I haven’t ground it down yet, so I use the bench vise to anchor it. Rather than the arms pointing straight up, I rotated so they were parallel to the ground. I got much better leverage, and the piece was much easier to keep steady.

6)     Get a new wire brush ASAP. There’s fire scale stuck all over this piece because my brush is worn out.

 

The lopsided fork

The lopsided fork…do better next time.

So yeah, I’m not proud of this, but I’m definitely trying again. Trial and error, live and learn. I can assure you I will be doing all six of these next time, and I’m confident the difference will be noticeable.

Adventures in Blacksmithing: Day 9

Hammer hanger doing what it does best

So recently, I’ve not blogged regularly, and as you can probably guess, this blacksmithing adventure didn’t happen last weekend. But I started the post a week and half ago, and I really wanted to finish it. So…

I began Day 9 of blacksmithing with an incomplete project. Though the bulk of the work on Sarah’s flower basket stake was complete, I still wanted to texture the straight stake. It really looked weird to me otherwise.

Where there's smoke, there's fire.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

I began by moving my forge back outside. Mike had cut openings in the sides with the grinder, allowing longer pieces better position in the fire, so the forge was still in the garage. After a little set up, I started my fire (which was super smoky initially this time), but it was ready in no time. Texturing the stake was a long process simply because the piece was big and cumbersome. I didn’t heat the metal as hot as I did while scrolling it. I have found that the hotter I get the metal, the less likely it is that the hammer leaves marks, and this time, I really wanted them.

Forge modified for longer pieces.

Forge modified for longer pieces.

That said, even though the iron wasn’t glowing, it was still quite hot. Important lesson learned: Do NOT reach underneath a piece of hot metal to retrieve a tool. It is too easy to raise up too quickly. The result was not a bad burn, but I still had a mark on my wrist days after.

Having finished Sarah’s piece, I decided I wanted to make something practical. A couple weeks ago, Mike made hammer hangers by simply sinking screws into my anvil stand. While they worked fine, I thought it was time for me to make something functional for myself.

Make shift hammer hangers...a.k.a. screws

Make shift hammer hangers…a.k.a. screws

Using a small ¼ inch piece of stock, I began by tapering one end. (No more of that awkward tricky tapering after awkwardly weighting the other end of the project.) Honestly, this wasn’t my best taper. It wasn’t awful like the first ones, but for some reason or another, I couldn’t seem to get the taper as sharp as I would have liked. Convinced I had done as well as I could in the moment, I finally moved on to bending. Using the forks, I made three bends. It took a couple trips to the fire and some awkward maneuvering to get the stock in the right position on them, but I was pleased with the result.

I knew that both Sarah’s stake and my hammer hanger would need to be protected against rust. There are several options for combating rust on non galvanized metal. When we first strapped my anvil down, Mike looked for form oil at Lowes, and had we actually procured some, I would have tried that. We did not however, so I just got some clear Rust-Oleum rust stopper in the spray can. I sealed both pieces.

While all of this took some time, I still was not ready to shut the forge down for the day. So I made it my mission to make my tightest scroll to date. Using a flat piece of stock, I am happy to report, I made nearly a complete circle. Fun but not practical.

Tightest scroll to date

Tightest scroll to date

Hey, I had just been practical.

Mounted hammer hanger

Mounted hammer hanger

At that point, my parents had arrived, and while they talked, I was busy taking the screws out of my anvil stand and replacing them with my hanger. Mission accomplished. With my stomach growling, it was time to call it quits. I shut the forge down, my dad helped me move tools back into the yard, and after a shower and putting aloe on my burn, it was time to find dinner.

Hammer hanger doing what it does best

Hammer hanger doing what it does best

And thus ended Blacksmithing Adventure Day 9.