I'll be going into more detail in the next few posts on the essential equipment needed to smith, following up those with sample projects that you can work on.
As I said in my first post, there are some essential elements that you will need to begin forging metal and the heart of it all, is the forge. While not an exhaustive discussion of the types of forges available, this post will give you the major pros and cons of each and give you enough information to look further into what type of forge will work best for you. I'm partial to a few select suppliers, so I'll toot their horns a bit here, but an internet search can provide a multitude of options and prices for you. But be aware of quality and material when you are looking for a supplier of blacksmithing tools.
How to choose the right forge
There are three most commonly used types of forges, though any combination of a heat source and fuel can result in metal getting to forging temperature. Some can be as primitive as a hole in the ground into which a bellows blows air, or a hairdryer pushes air. Most are more practical and easier to use. For those of you looking to build your own forge there are several YouTube Videos that will describe various ways of making a forge out of objects like a brake drum or from brick, but be mindful of safety and use common sense before trying to hook up a hairdryer to a trash can in your bedroom 🙂 These are the most commonly used, available, and safe types of forges. I will give a brief description of each, its pros and cons, and links to where you can find them later on in this article.
One of the most common types of forges nowadays, and the cleanest, is the propane forge. Essentially a box of fire brick with injection ports for propane torches, this kind of forge allows for most common sized objects, is able to attain suitable forging temperatures for any kind of project, including forge welding, and is easy to operate. Propane is a readily available fuel source and can be found at any grocery store with a Blue Rhino exchange (www.bluerhino.com) or most hardware stores. The major drawback to a propane forge is that it can be an expensive upfront cost, and the cost of propane can be hefty if you use it a lot. A single smithing session can use an entire 40 lb. tank - at $20-$35 a tank, that can add up fast. But a propane forge can also allow you to control the temperature more accurately and doesn't require a blower since the torches already produce a flame of suitable temperature to heat the metal to its malleable state. You also don't need a chimney flew to exhaust propane gases, though a well ventilated space is still needed. Here is an example of a propane forge in use - it's much like this one by Centaur Forge.
Coal and coke are very similar in that they are the same material in a different state of burn. Coal is likened to wood as coke is to charcoal. The typical blacksmith forge nowadays uses coal for a few reasons. First, it is easy to use. Coal doesn't spark and burns very evenly for a relatively long period of time. It is therefore very cost effective - a master smith I learned from said he could forge everyday for a year on a single ton of coal. Many also like the traditional aspects of forging with coal.
However, there are some drawbacks to using coal. First, it can be dangerous. Coal burns very dirty and the elements that are frequently found in coal seams are present when you burn coal in your forge. Sulfur and Mercury are a couple of the most common, and most toxic, elements in coal. (If your coal burns with a yellow cloud, you know these are present). Coal by its very nature can also be dangerous if you inhale too much coal dust - think Black Lung on a smaller scale, though some blacksmiths do develop this condition if they forge long enough in a poorly ventilated area, so a chimney and flew are vital unless you are in the open outdoor air. It's also very dirty and can require quite a bit of cleanup after use – coal leaves clinkers behind – pieces of melted elements that don’t burn all the way and “clink” when you shuffle them. These leave a bad build-up in some pieces and clog the airway at the bottom of your forge.
The other drawback is that coal can be hard to find in some parts of the country, or you have to order it by the ton. Quality of coal also varies depending on the region from which it was mined, and whatever elements are in the coal can have an effect on the steel you forge with as chemical reactions in the heat can transfer some of these elements into the steel and change its properties. The only real difference between coal and coke is that coke is a little harder to come by unless you make it from coal yourself, and it forges at a higher temperature so you need to be sure your firepot (the part of the fore where your fuel is set and burns in a coal and charcoal forge) is thick enough to withstand the heat. Centaur Forge has a number of options for forges in coal or coke.
This option is for purists, the go-to medium for generating heat, and I admit, I use this fuel as well. For most of forging’s history, charcoal, not coal, was the sole source of fuel as coal only became readily available in the 17th Century. So for those of you wanting to forge a Viking sword in the traditional way (blood quench aside), charcoal is what Scandinavian and all medieval and ancient smiths used. It was used as far back as the bronze age and was the source used by the Japanese smiths until the 20th Century.
Charcoal is easy to come by - you can get hardwood chunk charcoal at WalMart, but be sure not to get charcoal briquettes. They are NOT for forging as they are very impure and can be dangerous to metal crafting, and you will wait a long, long time to get a heat source from them. Many smiths simply make their own charcoal and there are a number of YouTube videos that you can look up that will also show you the process to make charcoal, so it can be virtually free to come by.
But charcoal has some drawbacks too. It sparks. A lot. Sparking may not seem like a big deal, but when you are trying to forge a small object and a shower of sparks greets your hand each time you reach for your metal, it can be downright annoying - sparking charcoal actually burns your skin and stings like a bugger, but with gloves and eye protection, as well as long sleeves, this can be overcome.
Charcoal also burns fairly fast, so you will use a lot more of it in your forging process. But charcoal doesn't have the impurities of coal, it doesn't have the health dangers of coal, and it is able to reach temperatures higher than coal in some circumstances, so it is in my opinion, the best choice. For these reasons, I chose to go with a charcoal fuel in a coke firepot in my Centaur Forge and it works just fine.
You can make a forge with any number of diagrams available on-line, but essentially you need a firepot, a shelf (where you store your coal/charcoal and where the firepot sits - this is subject to high temperatures so don't make it of wood), a means of lifting it up to your forging height (unless you want to sit on the ground and bend over a hole all session long), and a blower or bellows that will allow air to be injected into the firepot for the necessary high temperatures.
In a future post I may go through the process of making a forge, but for now, know that it is possible, but may be easier and more cost-effective (and less frustrating) to simply purchase one.
Cost and whether to buy new or used
The costs of forges tend to remain fairly high - if they were an investment, I'd never lose a dime - but they need to be considered for their age and the wear and tear on them when buying a used forge. Blacksmithing is coming back into vogue it seems, and a quick peruse on Craigslist can result in either a fruitless search for pieces of equipment that don't seem to be available, or for forges that are substandard due to rust or sitting in a barn under a tractor for 50 years, so be cautious. Costs of used forges can also be the same as new ones as demand is far outstripping supply. I searched around for months to find a forge but eventually asked why I would drive 3 hours one way to buy a used forge for $700 when I can pay for a new forge that will ship to my home for $750? Ultimately it is up to you and you will need to ask yourself what matters most to you and what you can afford, and be sure to take into account that a forge will need to be connected together and may need some additional pieces of equipment (like a connector for your blower or a collection bucket to empty your firepot).
For used forges, look on Craigslist or Ebay. You may only find a few local results, so you may need to drive for a while or have them ship it (costly as most forges weight well over 50 lbs.) For new ones, I've been tooting Centaur Forge's horn as I buy from them, but there are a few other on-line suppliers of parts and compete forges.
Just be sure that what you are buying has all that you need (Fire pot, shelf, blower, etc.) when you order it. I’ve ordered supplies from the following suppliers and highly recommend any of them for your forging needs:
Centaur Forge - www.centaurforge.com
Blacksmith Depot - www.blacksmithsdepot.com
Pieh Tool Company - http://www.piehtoolco.com
I’ll cover some more of the essentials of the forge in the next post, but if you have any questions or need help setting up your forge, just give me a shout in the comments section below.
Looking for the other installments in this series about blacksmithing? Here you go:
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