It was beautiful, sunny, cold, and quiet. A perfect day for me to go outside and suck up some winter sunshine.
For a while, I’ve been thinking about blacksmithing. I got a couple of books and a DVD on the subject, but am short a forge and anvil. Today was one of those “Aw heck with it” days. Why let that stop me?
I actually got started on this from watching an online video about fluid couplers, which reminded me that I had an old torque converter in my scrap metal pile. I took a look at it with the idea that maybe it could be the firepot for a small forge, but I quickly discarded that idea after seeing how hard it would be to take apart. But that DID remind me that I also had a brake drum. I’ve often heard of people building forges from brake drums.
All the stores are closed. My only workspace is my driveway out in ten-degree weather. Did I have what it took to whip up a forge and start blacksmithing just with what scrap materials I had?
Turns out I did.
I poked around to find what bits of scrap metal I had that might work. I dug up the brake drum, some 1.25″ diameter steel pipe and a pipe floor flange, and a weird red truss (originally part of a display at a hardware store.) After brushing down the brake drum, I welded the pipe and flange to it. I attached a pipe tee and two pieces of pipe coming off that – one for incoming air, and one for clinkers and ash clean out.
Once I had the device together, I set it down into the truss as a stand, with the clean-out pipe sticking straight down into a can of water. That makes an air-tight seal, but wouldn’t rust on the way a pipe cap would. Plus, I didn’t have a pipe cap… On the other pipe off the tee went my hair-dryer. I also took a dimmer switch that I had and wired it up with a piece of old extension cord to make a stand-alone dimmer. That gave me variable speed on the hair dryer, so that I could control airflow to the forge.
To go with the forge, I also need an anvil. Somewhere, I had a foot-long section of rail-road rail. I have no idea where it went. Instead, while rummaging through the garage, I noticed an old vice that was my grandfather’s. Part of the base is cracked off, but the face of it is a decent anvil, and it even has a horn. I trekked through the back yard and dug my firewood splitting stump out of the snow and rolled it into a sled. I dragged that back up to the driveway, and mounted the anvil vise to it with three lag bolts.
One thing I found out real fast is that coal doesn’t light easy. Nope. It’s black rocks and amazing that you can light those things on fire at all. After a bad starting attempt or two, I reconsulted my book, crushed some coal into dust, mixed that with newspaper, and after saying some incantation, was able to get the coal to burn.
Part of my interest in blacksmithing comes from the “living history” aspect of it. I’ve always been fascinated by it whenever I saw a smith at the Renaissance Faire or Rendezvous. Those places have always been magic to me. Characters from another time and place coming alive right before my eyes, complete with the costumes, sounds, and even smells.
There’s something you don’t learn about in books or YouTube videos. Once I had the coal fire, my driveway SMELLED like the Ren Faire. What? How’s that possible? I realized that besides the odors of mud and roast turkey legs, the particular scent of a coal fire is one of those rare smells we find in just a few locations in our modern age. The only place I ever notice that particular scent is at living history events with a BLACKSMITH.
And now, I was one of them. Well, sort of. At this point, I just managed to cobble together some scrap materials and build a coal fire in the middle of my driveway. Time to make something.
I had a few old-fashioned square nails around. Those are small, and plain iron, and should be easy to work with. I experimented a bit, placing a nail in the coal, fumbling left-handed with the tongs, and adjusting the hair-dryer speed. Once the nail was glowing, I banged on it a bit on the anvil. With a little work, I was able to flatten it, and then bend it. I played with a couple more nails, and found that I was able to get an acceptable bend out of them around the anvil horn.
When I dug out the anvil vise, I also found that I had a rail-road spike. Hmmmm. That’s just a big nail. And I’d already learned a little something banging on some small nails… Into the fire it goes!
By this time, I think I finally got the fire more or less figured out. Coal is pretty amazing. It’s just black and dirty, yet once it heats, it glows like … like…. aw I dont’ know. What do I compare it to? Have you seen the LORD OF THE RINGS? Mt. Doom. Volcano. It’s like that. Some sort of magical molten goo that can create something precious.
I turned the blower up a notch to heat the extra mass of the spike. Once it was glowing, I pulled it out. (Hmmm. Note to self, the one pair of tongs I have is NOT good for holding a railroad spike. First REAL project? Make a pair that CAN hold a spike.) One the anvil, I pounded the spike into a rough blade, over several heats. The outdoor winter weather wasn’t helping me. The heat was being pulled right out of the spike the moment it touched the icy anvil. Usually, a quench bucket is kept nearby. Mine was already frozen over since I filled it less than an hour earlier.
I formed a blade, and sideways flattened the head. I also really wanted to try a twist. That’s such a common blacksmithing technique, but I’ve seen how it’s done, and I already had a vise handy. I heated the middle of the spike as best I could, and grabbed my extra large rummage sale monkey wrench. I pre-set the spacing on the wrench to match the head of the spike, and opened the vise just big enough for the blade. I pulled the spike from the fire, dropping the blade end into the vise and closing it. Then, I slid the money wrench onto the head and rotated it as steadily as I could until I felt the metal cooling and really starting to resist the torque.
I decided that was about it for the day. I still had other things to do, including cleaning up, and converting my “blacksmith shop” back into a parking space for my wife’s car for the evening.
I ran a wire brush over the spike to clean off the carbon. Not bad.
Not GOOD either. I need a LOT more practice, and in all truth, a little better forge. Although I was able to just throw this one together, it’s a bit small, and not entirely stable-looking. The anvil and stump aren’t bad though. I slid the stump off to the side, to await the next time I can tinker at the forge a bit more.
I was feeling pretty good about myself. In one cold and clear day, I was able to put together the tools and create something from iron and fire and will.
Looks like it’s going to be a good 2013. Happy New Year everyone!