Basics of Blacksmithing: Getting Started
This article builds on a number of other articles I have written about blacksmiths and blacksmithing over the past couple of years. In this article you will learn about and see (detailed video belwo) exactly how blacksmiths perform all the basic techniques that are used to work metal and you will also learn about all of the various tools blacksmiths use to conduct their work. I will also supply a very comprehensive list of educational materials that will help you learn and grow as a blacksmith. So let’s get started!
Where and When it all Began
The modern blacksmith finds roots in ancient history as the Bronze Age collapsed, giving way to new technology that emerges to form what we now call The Iron Age. The Iron Age began somewhere around 1200BC primarily in the near and Middle East in the areas we know today as Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. All the evidence tells us that it spread in all directions from there. Of course there were pockets of people in many different areas who arrived at this technology earlier along the course of time but there is no specific date or place where we can say the working of iron first emerged. But generally speaking, this is the consensus on when and where the Iron Age really begins to show itself in history.
By 500BC this technology has reached the edges of the known world from what we now know as Europe, down into Central Africa and all the way to the Far East including modern day Japan and China. The working of iron and steel will continue to expand until it reaches the southern regions of Africa and will never cease to gain influence among the many cultures of the world again.
In The United States, as in other nations during the early years of development, the blacksmith was an integral part of every community. He was the engineer, the mechanic, the weapon maker, the tool maker and sometimes even the veterinarian or dentist. The blacksmith was held in high regard for his understanding of how things worked and his mental aptitude for creating and repairing things.
Today’s blacksmiths hold on to traditional methods while embracing the new in order to preserve and share the craft with people curious about the development of creative and sustainable life skills like the working of metal.
Start Working Metal – Find an Expert
Of the four elements, air, earth, water, and fire, man stole only one from the gods; fire. And with it, man forged his will upon the world. – unknown
When I first began dabbling with the idea of dabbling in iron work, I spent quite a lot of time doing research on the craft. Once I had enough information to decide it was something I wanted to try, I began seeking out skilled blacksmiths all over the country and reaching out to them. I live in Oklahoma but began by contacting a blacksmith who works in Colonial Williamsburg. He referred me to a more skilled craftsman who lived in Vermont who referred me to yet another who lived in Missouri who lo and behold as luck would have it told me the best people I could hope to contact was a group of blacksmiths right here in Oklahoma. In the end I was lucky enough to be allowed a phone conversation with Gerald Franklin, owner of Black Bull Forge in Duncan, OK. Gerald liked what I hoped to do with this project and invited me to a blacksmith meeting in Elk City, OK at an amazing Blacksmith Museum where a number of his fellow craftsmen have spent years, developing, growing and perfecting their art.
In the weeks following, I was able to meet with Gerald a number of times, at his home and be taught on his own personal forge. This is where he was gracious enough to share some of his wisdom with me. I’ve compiled the essential aspects of the interview into the video below and welcome you to view and share it.
This video will explain and give great visuals of everything found in this article. Check it out!
The Tools of a Blacksmith
I saw a smith stand with his hammer, thus, The whilst his iron did on the anvil cool. – William Shakespeare, King John
Over the years many types of blacksmith tools have been developed, modified and improved. But despite these changes, one thing remains the same – the blacksmith’s need for a quality anvil, hammer and forge. In this section I will discuss these most essential tools of the blacksmith trade as well as some tools of secondary importance that make working with metal more efficient.
Today’s blacksmiths find metal in a number of places. You can buy it from a metal supplier or scrap yard or you can find it in any number of possible ways. People throw away all kinds of metal objects that are broken or of no use to them and you can use this to make creations of your own. Finding suitable metal to work with does not have to be difficult. Car springs, old tools, railroad spikes and any kind of iron object is probably suitable for a project of some kind.
- Bellows or Blower – creates airflow into the fire
- Fire Pot – a depression in the middle of the forge where the fire is centered
- Tuyere (tweer) – at the bottom of the fire pot is a grate that functions similarly to a drain. This grate along with the pipe below it that carries air to the fire is called the tuyere (tweer)
- Chimney – open air forges do not need a chimney, or vent pipe, as the smoke from the fire is simply released into the open air. However, indoor forges need a means of collecting the smoke and removing it from the building and this is done by means of the chimney which acts just like a chimney in a house.
There are two primary types of forge. There are coal forges and gas forges. Coal forges burn coal, the most common solid fuel, or commercially prepared coke. Coal and coke tend to be the standard, or most preferred method of fueling a forge. Coal allows the blacksmith to achieve fire temperatures of around 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
Gas forges tend to operate on propane or natural gas, with propane being the more portable of the two. While they burn “cleaner” and produce less smoke, they tend to lack the high temperatures achieved by a coal forge. Gas forges tend to the used for smaller projects like knife making.
A quality anvil is not necessary to begin practicing the craft. However, as you work with iron over time, you will want to acquire a high quality anvil because it will allow you to work better with less physical stress to the joints in your shoulders, elbows and hands. A high quality anvil will have a flat “tool steel” face. Tool steel is a very hard, high quality type of steel that does not absorb the energy from a blow of the blacksmith’s hammer. Tool steel will force that energy back onto the bottom of the iron being worked and allow you to do double the work for your efforts. Quality anvils can last for hundreds of years and the most sought after anvils tend to be eighty years of age or older. The video accompanying this article explains anvil variations in more detail.
- Face – where you will hit the iron and do most of your iron work
- Step – an area on some anvils that is great for cutting metal
- Horn – long pointed part of the anvil used to bend and shape iron usually in a circular pattern
- Heel – the back of the anvil face opposite the horn
- Shoulder – the bottom area of the anvil’s horn
- Body – the thick part of the anvil below the face
- Waist – the slender part of the anvil’s middle that transitions from body to base.
- Base – the bottom center portion of the anvil where most of the weight is centered
- Feet – on either end of the base to give the anvil stability
- Hardie hole – square hole where Hardie tools are placed to do specific jobs
- Pritchel hole – round hole used to punch holes in metal without hitting the anvil’s face
Hardie (or Hardy) Tools –
Cutting Tool – this is the original hardy tool. It’s a wedge-shaped piece of metal that stands vertically, with the sharp edge facing upward. A blacksmith will place a piece of hot metal on the cutting tool and hit it with a hammer, cutting the piece of metal in two at a very specific place.
- Bending Tool – this tool allows the blacksmith to bend hot metal perfectly by acting as a mold for the metal to bend around.
- Swage – this tool is used to give metal its ultimate form after it has been roughly shaped using other tools. They are commonly used in top and bottom pairs in order to mold hot metal into very specific shapes.
- Fuller – There are many kinds of fullers ranging from those that look like a dull chisel to the spring fuller, which I have shown here that allows the blacksmith to place “U” shaped indentions on both sides of the metal without needing assistance.
These are four of the most common hardie tools in the blacksmith’s arsenal of tools. They are all designed to allow the blacksmith to work and shape the metal more simply and quickly.
The rounding hammer is a primary hammer of any blacksmith and is used to pound iron into shape. When the iron is hit with the round face, the rounding hammer moves the iron equally in all directions. Most rounding hammers have a flat face opposite the round face. The flat face is used for planishing, or smoothing the metal. The round face is also used when making an interior bend in the metal where the flat edges of the flat face would leave unwanted marks on the iron. This is a staple hammer for most blacksmiths especially when they first start shaping a new piece of iron.
Cross Peen Hammer
This hammer has a flat face much like the rounding hammer, but also has a pointed end that extends laterally along the back of the hammer essentially forming a point. This is the cross peen. This hammer is used to move metal in a direction perpendicular to the peen. So, if you were to hit the iron with the cross peen, the peen would hit it in a left-to-right manner and the metal would then be moved up and down, or perpendicular to the peen. This is the hammer used most often by most blacksmiths.
Straight Peen Hammer
This hammer is much like the cross peen hammer but the peen is vertical instead of horizontal. Depending on the angle a blacksmith is working the metal, certain peen orientations would be more advantageous. The straight peen hammer hits the metal in a top-to-bottom line and therefore causes the metal to move straight out to either side.
Ball Peen Hammer
This hammer has what looks like a ball on one end. This is called the ball peen. This hammer is used in situations where the blacksmith wants the metal to move outward from the strike equally in all directions. The ball peen is very useful for spreading iron when making things like spoons or leaves. It also used to work with rivets.
Diagonal Peen Hammer
Forging metal is challenging work and getting the right angle when striking the metal is important. Diagonal peen hammers allow the blacksmith to work hot metal at various angles that other hammers make it more difficult to access.
There are many other types of hammers that are used in various parts of the world, but this article entails the typical hammers you will find in blacksmith forges around the world.
Leg Vice (Post Vice or Blacksmith’s Vice)
It is called a leg vice because it has a long leg that extends downward toward the floor. This leg is placed on the floor or on a solid piece of metal so that the ground will absorb the force delivered to a piece of iron being hammered in the jaws of the vice. A typical machinist vice will not withstand the long-term pounding that a blacksmith will place on it so the leg vice is the ideal type of vice for blacksmiths.
A cone mandrel is a large cone with a wide base and pointed top. It is used to ensure circular pieces of metal are perfectly round. A hot loop of metal will be placed on the cone mandrel and the blacksmith will hit it with the hammer until there is no visibility between the iron and the cone mandrel. The term “beat the daylight out of it” fits this tool perfectly. The blacksmith is looking to see if any light can be found between the cone mandrel and the loop of iron. If there is light showing, he hits the iron closing the gap. This will produce a perfectly circular piece of iron.
Tongs of various shapes and sizes are used to hold the hot metal as the blacksmith works to shape it using methods such as forging, bending and cutting. It is vital that the tongs fit the work properly so that control of the metal can be maintained for work efficiency and safety.
Flat Jaw Tongs
This pair of tongs is the most basic. Like all tongs they have long handles. The difference is that these tongs have flat jaws that are designed to hold flat pieces of iron while the blacksmith hammers it. These are very common and tend to be easily found for a decent price. They are also rather simple to make once proficient at the blacksmith craft.
V Bit Tongs
These have a “v” shape on the bottom and top jaws. This allows them to very precisely clamp down on things that are round or square. There is a large open section behind the gripping section of the jaws that allows room to grab things with a large end like a bolt.
Box Jaw Tongs
This set of tongs forms a box around the piece of flat strap metal when it is held. Because the bottom jaw has sides, the iron must fit within the bottom jaw in order for this tong to work. Most blacksmiths will have various sizes of box jaw tongs for various sizes of metal.
Wolf Jaw Tongs
This type of tong is extremely versatile and is a favorite of many blacksmiths. Each jaw has ridges built into it that allow the jaws to act as a mouth holding metal both straight on and from the side. Here you can see the wolf jaw tong allowing the blacksmith to secure the hot iron in its jaws in order to move it as necessary. The wolf jaw tong allows for great control of the iron because of the ridges that are visible on the jaws in the illustration provided here. You will almost always find a variety of wolf jaw tongs in any well equipped blacksmith shop.
This type of tong is used to help the blacksmith bend iron into a scroll. A scroll is basically a bend that spirals around a central point and is usually used in a decorative manner. Scroll tongs make scroll creation much simpler for a blacksmith and allow them to work with metal that needs to be bent quite easily. The pointed jaws have rounded sides allowing for quick and simple bends to be made during the short period of time that the iron is hot. Scroll tongs are one of the more versatile types of tongs and can be made to make bends in almost any situation.
This tong is designed to pick up small flat objects and hold them securely. You could easily pick up something as thin as a dime with a pair of pick-up tongs. These are used to work with very intricate pieces of iron.
Some additional tools that any well supplied blacksmith will have are chisels, hold down tools, punches, rasps and swage blocks. These are all detailed in the video featured near the beginning of this article.
A chisel is used for many applications and are primarily useful when slitting metal. The blacksmith simply places the blade of the chisel in the desired location and hits the back end with the hammer creating a slit in the metal.
Hold down tools
These specialized tools are very useful for the blacksmith who is working alone. Sometimes the iron is hard to control which makes it dangerous. It is very hot and can cause great injury if it gets away from the blacksmith. Hold down tools were developed, as you may imagine, to hold the iron still while the blacksmith works it. Two common hold down tools are the pritchel hold down and the chain hold down.
Pritchel Hold Down
The pritchel hold down is made of spring steel and will slightly bend when placed under pressure. One end of it is placed firmly into the pritchel hole of the anvil and the other end is placed onto the hot metal. The pressure contained within the spring metal of the pritchel hold down ensures constant pressure is placed on the metal which allows the blacksmith to work the hot piece of iron safely and with total control.
Chain Hold Down
The chain hold down is simply a chain that is anchored on the front side of the anvil and has a weight on the other end of it. The blacksmith will place the weighted chain across the anvil and the weight will hold the metal still as the blacksmith works with it.
A punch is a tool that looks like a hammer, but has a very pointy face. This pointed face is placed on a hot piece of iron as the blacksmith strikes the back end with a hammer until a hole is created in the hot metal. It is important to note that a punch should be cooled, by dipping it in water, after every second or third strike so it does not become overheated which will dull the pointed face.
A rasp is used to file down rough edges on metal. These rough edges left behind when a blacksmith cuts a piece of iron in two is called a “rag.” In order to finish the work nicely, a rag must be filed and smoothed to ensure it does not catch on something or possibly even cut someone. The rasp is essentially a very rough file and is ideal for smoothing the rough edges on metal. It has larger teeth on it than a file does and is a main tool of farriers – the people who shoe horses.
A swage block (pronouced “swedge”) is a solid piece of iron with any number of specific shapes cast into it. The swage block is used to help shape a piece of iron into one of these shapes. Common shapes found on a swage block may be spoons, ladles, bowls and particular shapes common to ironwork.
Now that we have all of the essential, primary and common tools of a blacksmith well outlined, let’s discuss the different techniques a blacksmith will use to work iron.
- Drawing – drawing is a technique used to hammer a piece of metal and make it longer and thinner. This practice is called “drawing out.” As the blacksmith draws out a piece of metal it will lengthen and inevitably get thinner, decreasing its cross section. This may be done for any number of reasons. Some common uses of drawing out the iron may be to make the stem of a flower. If you played with Play-Doh as a child, you may remember taking a clump of it and rolling it on the table until it was very long and thin.
This is the same concept blacksmiths use when drawing out iron. The photograph to the right shows a piece of iron that has been drawn out and then tapered.
- Tapering – tapering is when the blacksmith brings a length of iron to a point. It is often used along with drawing out. This looks very much like a pencil once it has been sharpened. A blacksmith may taper a piece of iron for a number of reasons. This is done to make hooks and anything else with a point perhaps like an ornamental leaf. The photograph to the upper right shows a tapered point on metal that has been drawn out.
Bending – this is pretty easy to understand. There are a number of ways a blacksmith will bend metal. Bending may serve a functional purpose as in the design of a coat rack, or it may be simply ornamental as you see various types of bending when you see ornate wrought iron gates and fences.
- Upsetting – this is an old word that essentially means pounding the end of a piece of iron back onto itself in order to make it thicker, increasing its cross
section. The blacksmith will literally hit the end of the iron, causing it to shorten and inevitably grow thicker. This may be done for any number of reasons. One common reason for upsetting iron is to create a larger and thicker foot at the bottom of a table leg.
- Spreading – this is the act of spreading the iron more widely that its current width. A blacksmith will hammer the iron and it will become thinner and wider.
This is called spreading the iron. Spreading, like the other techniques, may be done for many reasons, but a common reason for spreading iron is to create a “fish tail” look on the end of a piece of iron for ornamental reasons. When making a leaf or a spoon, a blacksmith must use spreading to widen the metal in these situations as well.
- Punching – punching is the act of driving a hole in a
piece of iron. A blacksmith will hammer a special tool called a punch through the hot iron creating a hole. This is done for many reasons but is often used to connect two pieces of metal together or to allow one piece of iron to pass through another. The photograph to the right shows a piece of flat strap metal that has had a hole punched through it. Note the “biscuit”, or round metal piece that is left over from the punched hole.
Slitting – this is the act of cleaving a piece of metal to make a slit. This is often done at the end of a piece of metal to make it fork into two directions. When creating a fleur de leis, or a fire wood fork, a blacksmith will use the slitting technique. This technique requires the metal to be held very still and is often done using a hold down tool, as shown here, or may be done in a leg vice. When slitting metal, a blacksmith may perform what is called a…
Convenience Bend – this is a type of bend that is done to temporarily allow the blacksmith to work on another area of the iron that is being blocked by another piece. For example, a blacksmith may be making a forked creation and may need to work on one of the points but that point may be too close to the other point. The blacksmith would convenience bend one point to move it out of the way until the other point is completed.
Twisting – typically used to give iron an ornamental look, twisting hot iron is done by placing the iron in a vice and carefully twisting it so that the desired pattern is achieved. You can see this on metal stairwell banisters or on wrought iron fences. Twisting is sometimes challenging and may require some time and effort to perfect. When a blacksmith has to twist a long or large piece of iron, he may have to reheat the metal a number of times. If this is the case, he will then cool the portion of metal he is satisfied with so that it will no longer twist and continue twisting the other portion until the entire piece looks the way he wants it to look.
Quenching – this is a rather specific aspect of blacksmithing that requires a lot of study to ensure it is beign doing properly. Quenching follows a logical progression that starts with a heated piece of metal. The blacksmith will work to keep the heat of the metal rather uniform prior to quenching to ensure uniform hardening of the work. Once the metal is heated and ready to begin the hardening process it is then “quenched” typically in a liquid like water or oil. Different quenching media provide different characteristics to the metal so it is vital to research the ideal quenching material that should be used for any metal work you are crafting. Water is the most common quenching media when maximum hardness is desired, but depending on the type of metal and other factors, a water quench may cause the metal to become more brittle or crack. For some grades of metal, a water quench is ideal and for others it is not – research the craft. When absolute hardness is not the primary goal, oils like whale oil, cottonseed oil and mineral oils are typically used. As oil based fluids are used, they will oxidize and form a sludge during quenching, which will eventually reduce the efficiency of the process so it is important to refresh your quenching media as needed.
Now that we understand the tools, techniques and all the basics needed to begin blacksmithing, let’s discuss making a forge fire.
To make a fire, it is common to take about four pieces of newspaper and roll them into a donut shape. Once in this shape, poke a large hole in the middle so that air from your bellows or blower can pass through and place it in the cleaned fire pot of your forge. Set the paper on fire and slowly begin to place a more sustainable form of fuel on top of it so that you can develop a well-formed fire ready to forge hot iron.
Green coal is okay, but coke, a rock-like substance left over after burning coal, is best. Save coke from a previous fire to light the next. Coke is high in carbon and low in other substances commonly found in coal like sulfur. Coke burns well and is ideal for developing a forge fire. Commercial coke such as “farrier’s coke” doesn’t burn as well as coke you previously burned from green coal. Once the fire takes, add coal as needed. If using a gas forge, just turn on the gas and provide a flame to ignite the forge.
Now you’re ready to get started! We’ve covered all the tools of a blacksmith, you understand how to use them and how to maintain quality fire while working iron. Now all there is to do is practice to become proficient. Just to make sure you have all the info you’ll need, I have compiled a great list of books that are really helping me understand more and can help you learn how to work iron as well. See below. Thank you for taking time to read this article view my video. I hope you find them interesting and useful and invite you to share them.
Please let me know what you think.