You guys! I’m super excited this week to introduce you to my husband, Dan. He’s the fellow behind the anvil here at Wynterwood Farm & Forge, and starting with this post, he’s going to be sharing a steady stream of tips and tutorials for anyone interested in starting their own homestead forge!
Got a question you’d like him to address in an upcoming post? Leave him a comment below! ~ Anna
If you’ve ever felt an attraction to forging steel but felt too timid to ask what you needed to enter into the world of blacksmithing, join the club.
What do you need to start blacksmithing at home? Online sources and forums can be a good resource, but frequently they can be off-putting with curt comments and discouragement. Part of this is due to a genuine disbelief on the part of the Master Smith, looking at a newbie asking a question that is much bigger than they realize. Smithing is more than just the tools of the trade, and it takes a long time to build your skill. Someone asking how to make a sword at home for instance, has no idea what amount of work and years of skill it takes to be able to do that.
But some of it is also economic in nature – there is a very small market for hand-crafted iron and steel nowadays. For everyone that enters that market, it represents another competitor that may take away a portion of their meager business market. (Sorry to burst any bubbles, but modern smithing is not very likely to lead to a sustainable source of income – in short, don’t quit your day job and take up smithing.)
Smithing is more than a way to make some money – the odds are you won’t make much for a long, long time, so don’t think that you can earn $40k a year within 6 months of getting set up – you won’t. Smithing in today’s market must be done for love of the craft, not love of earning money from it. Even Master Smiths barely scrape by in the world of industrial mass production.
But it doesn’t have to be discouraging. Once the genuine love of the craft is expressed, and the fear of competition is assuaged, most practitioners are happy to share their experiences and advice about a craft they live for. But don’t expect to get smithing lessons for free – like all things, knowledge is power. Decades of skill has cost that smith a great deal, and it should be compensated through training. But one thing at a time.
Forging is at its most basic, making metal malleable through the application of heat and shaping it. It has been done for thousands of years, back to the early Bronze-Age, and had remained largely unchanged until the invention of machines to manufacture tools and products in the late 18th Century.
For those of you just beginning the journey to Master Smith, here are the basic items you’ll need to get started:
• A Forge
• Induced Air
• A Hammer
• An Anvil
• Metal to shape
• Safety Gear
• Quenching Liquid
The first element of blacksmithing is also the most critical. Heat is necessary to make all metals malleable, so if you want to start smithing, you’ll need a forge. There are many options. Anything from a brake drum forge made yourself (if you have some welding experience and tools) to a factory-direct one from Centaur Forge, to building your own by hand will do.
You will need to decide what kind of fuel you will be using, with what type of forge you want to use. Propane is a safe option, but it can be expensive and many don’t like the non-traditional feel of it. Coal is the most common fuel, but the methods of using a coal forge effectively and securing a clean source of coal can be challenging.
I choose to use charcoal for both its tradition, and it safety. It is also very easy to come by, and you can make it yourself. But be warned – charcoal sparks a lot so be sure you are safe and keep track of any fire hazards.
Induced air is usually accomplished by way of a bellows or fan. In order to get a piece of metal hot enough to shape, you will need to generate heat. A regular fire just won’t get up to the temperatures that you will need in all situations (especially when forge welding) and while you can heat up the fire poker to red hot by sticking it in the fireplace for a few minutes, that kind of thing simply takes too long and doesn’t get hot enough to forge with.
Save yourself the aggravation and invest in a fan or hand operated bellows. They can be electric or human powered and range from the traditional bellows that can take up 5 square feet of space, to a simply squirrel cage that is a few inches tall.
This is the way that you will shape all metal on the anvil. You can use other tools to assist you including a vise, bending forks, and various other tools (there is no shortage of tools both standard and home-made in the craft), but almost all work will begin with shaping hot steel with a hammer.
This will also become your most cherished tool, and I recommend you make a good investment in a new hammer. You’ll keep it for decades, so make sure it is one you enjoy using and get one to last.
Anvils are what form the base, onto which the hammer blows fall on the steel and reflect back the force that you use on them. They can range from simple Railroad track sections to cheap cast iron imports (I highly discourage you from getting one of these!), to 2,000 lb. monsters.
Most anvils will be in the 150-300 lbs. range, but consider where you want to secure it, and how much you can safely and comfortably move on your own. You will need to be able to install it yourself, but I’ll talk more about selecting and installing your anvil in another post.
Metal to Shape
Whether hardened tool steel or easily forge mild steel, or even reused bits from the junk yard, you will need to have some material to make into something. The main thing to consider with steel is what you are planning on using it for when it is finished, and learning about the dangers of selecting the wrong type of steel or other metal could fill a library, so I’ll delve into that later.
For now, consider only ordering new steel from a supplier. The last thing you want is to take a shortcut that may lead to a serious, even fatal, reaction. Forging metal is elemental, and the science and chemistry involved can lead to many things that are beautiful, but can also kill you if you do not know what you are doing. Don’t skimp on safety. Be safe!
Essential safety gear includes: an apron, gloves, eye protection, and ear protection. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is essential to smithing in safety. Metal can do all sorts of things when you are working with it in its malleable form.
Aside from burning yourself (you will, so get used to the idea), shards of metal can break off of pieces of steel not properly worked of cooled, edges can cut and sparks can fly. You want to learn and be changed for the better by smithing, not be scarred. Get a blacksmith’s apron, gloves, eye protection with wraparound sides or goggles, and ear protection.
Quenching liquid usually nothing more than a bucket of water. When your metal is formed, you want to lock in it s shape and make it safe to handle for finishing. A quenching bucket with water is necessary to avoid having a piece improperly cool. (You don’t want to work for hours or days on an elaborate shape and have it warp because you set it down hot and gravity took its toll.) It’s also a safety feature – hot metal is a fire hazard and metal can still be hundreds of degrees even when it looks cold.
I once grasped another smith’s work after their asking me to lift a piece off of their anvil. They neglected to tell me that it had been in the forge three minutes earlier and was still 400 degrees. You don’t want to do that.
Lastly, you will need a place to put all of this and forge! Many people dedicate a place in their garage or in a shop, but you can forge anywhere that you can safely vent the fumes and smoke of the forge. If you get a portable forge on wheels, you can even just move everything out under the sky and put it all away again when it cools. But be sure that where you forge is considerate of those around you. If you live in an apartment, you should probably find a shop where you can forge that is not located in your living room.
Other options for those that do not have a dedicated location is to use another smith’s equipment or a school that offers classes. Be mindful of the effects of forging on the environment around you – there will be smoke, toxic fumes, loud ringing of the hammer on the anvil, and hot metal and fuel with the forge. Think before you try forging in the yard if your neighbors are picky, and don’t try to shoe-horn a forge into a place that simply won’t work.
I will go into greater detail about these essential elements in the weeks ahead, so don’t worry. From selecting the right hammer to obtaining steel to finding a place to forge, I will show you how to get set up, what it costs, and how to begin your own Journey to blacksmithing at home.
Looking for the next installments in this series on blacksmithing? Here you go: