Down'n'dirty Blacksmithing/Introduction

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Diego Velasquez, The Forge of Vulcan.jpg

Why “down’n’dirty”?

Because to learn any manual art there is no substitute for actually "doing it". Because one of the roadblocks to doing blacksmithing is a presumption that a number of fairly expensive and difficult to find items of equipment and materials are necessary to even begin. The time to acquire the equipment and materials and the cost involved appears to be a large investment for a pursuit that individuals may not be sure they have interest or aptitude enough to justify.

"Down'n'dirty" as a phrase is slang for "getting to the task at hand as quickly, simply and effectively as possible".

What we want to accomplish in Down'n'Dirty Blacksmithing is to get someone with time, space, desire and as little cash as possible from having an interest to actually doing blacksmithing as quickly as possible.

If the exercises and projects presented here are completed successfully, the reader should be in a position to decide if they have the aptitude and interest enough to justify additional expenditures and effort to continue pursing this fascinating craft.

"Down'n'dirty" is also something of a philosophy of empowerment. There is value in the doing of craft work at any level of ability and sophistication. This philosophy encourages individuals to not wait for the "right" tools but to get involved "hands on" with the processes and work involved. "Do what you can with what you have" and "better to have tried and failed than never tried at all".

It should be said that reason and common sense apply to blacksmithing as much if not more than in other crafts. The tools, materials and processes have an element of danger to them. And as there are exceptions to every rule there is one with regard to the "Down'n'dirty" philosophy: Safety must not be sacrificed for the sake of "getting on with it".

The simple forge described here can generate heat enough to burn steel. Steel at or near that heat is hot enough to inflict burns in human flesh so rapidly that there will be no initial pain as the nerves have been destroyed before they could register the injury.

The core of this craft is working with fire and metal. There is potential for accident and injury. Prevention of accidents and injuries must be a high priority for anyone pursuing blacksmithing. If nothing else, if you hurt yourself you can't keep going very well.

More will be said in the section on Safety and the reader is encouraged to read and re-read that section. Further it is advised that none of the exercises and projects here described be undertaken without appropriate safety precautions.

Assumptions[edit | edit source]

In the craft of blacksmithing, more so than in other crafts, there are many ways to "skin the cat". The challenge in writing this, as in teaching the craft, is that there are so many ways to accomplish the same task or objective, with no one right way to do it, that someone new to the craft can easily get lost trying to navigate the many possibilities. For this introduction a way is being chosen. The guiding ideal for that way will be "keep it simple". With access to a few basic tools, some scrap, and fuel our goal is to have a functioning forge - in the broad, yet basic definition of forge, a place where smithing is done - in the span of 4–16 hours. Projects will be simple as well. Something that is as discrete an operation as can be managed, with the understanding that it might be simple to do and not take much time, but much time and experience to perfect. The "standard" will be what can easily be scrounged, recycled, found and otherwise acquired in the northern midwest of the United States of America in 2005. Where you live may vary. What is available may vary. But that is where we will start from.

Primitive[edit | edit source]

What is meant by the term "primitive" in this document?

In this case we do not mean primitive in the sense of some kind of historical or ethnic reenactment. At least not directly.

What we mean is “simple”, and “minimal”, and, often, “as is.” Our goal is to get to the basics of the craft with the simplest, and sometimes crudest tools.

We believe that it is more important to “get doing” than to have the perfect tools in the perfect shop. It has also been our experience that even for experienced and skilled craftspeople and artisans that there is a satisfaction and sense of re-creation in returning to simplest forms.

What is Blacksmithing?[edit | edit source]

We recommend that you follow the links to Blacksmithing and Forging for more detail.

Briefly, blacksmithing is the craft of heating iron and steel to a temperature where it is "workable" and then using various tools to work the metal into useful and decorative forms. "Forging" can be used, for the most part, interchangeably with "blacksmithing" although "forging" tends to focus on those activities within blacksmithing that specifically involve heating the metal before working.

A "blacksmith", fairly obviously we hope, is a person who blacksmiths.

At its very simplest, blacksmithing requires three things: 1) metal—typically steel anymore, 2) some means of bringing the metal to a working temperature, 3) tools to handle and shape the heated metal.

Or as another smith put it "something to get the metal hot, something to hit the hot metal on, and something to hit the hot metal with".

The three requirements have been commonly met in Europe and North America with steel either from scrap or from the foundry; a forge using charcoal, coal, or gas as fuel; and with tongs, hammer, and anvil.

What is our working definition of "forge"?[edit | edit source]


"Forge" has two primary definitions in this work. 1) a device or combination of devices which allow for a fire to be controlled to produce a reducing fire with sufficient heat to bring steel to its working temperature and 2) a location where blacksmithing is done.

As the fire is so central to blacksmithing, the name of the fire place in English has come to represent the entire workshop as well.

And after all that what are we going to do again?[edit | edit source]

Back to the objective, and more specific on that.

(In a future edit we will have a sketch here of the forge and anvil.)

  1. Keep a focus on working safely
  2. Collect the tools and materials needed to build the forge and anvil and begin the projects
  3. Build the forge. The forge, in a word will be as simple as dirt. For the forge we will clear an area of ground and dig a hole, packing the earth tight to form a fire pot. A piece of scrap pipe will act as the tuyere to get a blast of air into the fire so the fire will burn hotter. The bellows or blower can be provided by a used vacuum cleaner set up to blow rather than suck, with the hose put into the pipe. Alternatively a hair dryer might work.
  4. Build the anvil. The anvil will be a piece of scrap steel. For purposes of this book we're going to assume a 6" x 6" x 24" block of mild steel salvaged. Alternatives abound.
  5. Do the projects. These will progress from basic exercises in hitting the metal and the simplest operations to making some things.

Next chapter: Tools, Materials, and Supplies