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Blacksmithing

A talk given to the Wabash County Historical Society November 14, 1994 at Manchester College, North Manchester, Indiana by Paul D. Moffett, President of the Indiana Blacksmithing Association, Inc. 1993-1998. Printed with permission.

Updated December 30, 2006.

Being President of the Indiana Blacksmithing Association, let me assure you, does NOT make me a leading blacksmithing expert.  It is my personal observation that there are very few blacksmithing “experts” because the craft requires such great breadth of knowledge.  The most capable smiths have just learned a bit more than others and may have a natural bent for a particular part of the craft.  Never-the-less, I hope I can open your eyes to an ancient craft which still survives today and is growing in the number of people who have shown an interest in learning more.  The Indiana Blacksmithing Association tries to satisfy this interest with monthly meetings and a monthly newsletter.  We also operate a lending library of books and video tapes and other materials which are available to our members to help them with their specific interests.  We also operate a store for difficult to find items for blacksmiths. We provide a weekend conference in June of each year during which we try to present experienced demonstrators of the craft.  In December we present a free mini conference usually featuring one demonstrator. All of the events are open to any interested person and I encourage you to attend if you think you might be interested in learning more about the craft.

The Indiana Blacksmithing Association, Inc. has approximately 250 members and the Artist-Blacksmith’s Association of North America, Inc., of which we are one of approximately 75 affiliates, has nearly 5,000 members in several countries.  The Artist-Blacksmith’s Association of North America, Inc. – called ABANA for short – is headquartered in Farmington, Georgia. ABANA holds a major international conference every other year – the next to be in New Paltz, New York in 2008.  ABANA publishes two quarterlies; the very professional Anvil’s Ring and the newsletter – The Hammer’s Blow. The latter is designed more for the beginning blacksmith. ABANA also operates a lending library and store offering special materials.

I have yet to meet a blacksmith, of any age or experience, who does not firmly believe that there is more to learn. It is a fascinating craft. So much has been done by so many over so long that much has been learned.  New tools, new materials and new processes are constantly changing the craft.  The need for a modern smith to keep up on these changes is just as pressing as it is for all of us to keep up to date in modern communication methods and medical advances.

Let us begin with a loose definition of what a blacksmith is.  The word smith comes from the German word “schmied”. The work of the blacksmith comes from the forge – black.  The blacksmith is one of many metal working crafts which are loosely related.  The blacksmith is really at the foundation of many of these other crafts. He must in most cases make their tools. 

There is, for example, the white smith. The white smith will take the work of the blacksmith and file and finish it until the base metal shines brightly. The is the tin smith or tinner, copper smith, locksmith, silver smith, gun smith, gold smith, saw smith, wheel right, ships smith, and so on to name a few. In other words there are many specialties in metal working – just as there are specialties in the medical field.  Smiths just specialized sooner because they required and developed specialized knowledge and tools sooner.

Let us not forget the specialist smith who is the horse’s friend – the farrier. This smith must know a great deal about an animal’s physiology in order to do a good job of applying shoes.  This is a highly skilled job and one of the few smiths who work with living things.

There is also a very wide branch of industrial smithing.  Because all these smiths required specialized tools – not to mention specialized knowledge – they all relied on the blacksmith to make these tools if they themselves could not make them.  It has been said, and with good reason, that the blacksmith is the only craft which makes its own tools. Some smiths even become tool smiths. Let me say here that women blacksmiths – and there are quite a few – make their own tools also.

It is a good thing that many smiths have the insight and skills needed to make their own tools because different tools are needed for almost every job.  An old blacksmith shop is cluttered with these specialized tools – the purpose of some long forgotten.  Some tools dropped in haste and not needed again have simply become part of the earth floor found in some old shops.

We are all familiar with a blacksmith’s anvil, but the one we probably think of is called the London Pattern. It has a sort of rounded horn on one end and a thinning tail on the other. It has two holes near the tail. The square hole is called the hardy hole, and it needs to be since a wide range of tools will be mounted in it. The other smaller round hole is called the pritchel hole and is used for punching holes for rivets or similar work. The top of the anvil is hardened and serves as a table on which most forging is done.  On older anvils the top was a piece of steel forge welded to the iron base.  The top edges of the anvil make changing the shape of material more possible and much work is done there. The horn makes it easily possible to make curved shapes or to change the curve of an existing shape.

Dozens and dozens of anvil shapes have been developed and in the late 1800s in Europe nearly every little valley and craft had it favorite shape.  I suppose that anvil makers were hard pressed to keep up with who wanted what.  Even today there is a wide range of shapes available. The farrier’s anvil is specialized to make animal shoes. It is lighter, has a longer horn or beak and usually has a protrusion on one side of the body for the special work of making shoes.

Anvils come in many weights – from a few pounds to nearly a thousand pounds. The weight of an anvil in a country blacksmith shop will usually vary from 125 to 500 pounds. The English developed an interesting way of marking anvil weights. It consists of three numbers. Pay attention now!  The first number is the number of hundred weights. A hundred weight is 112 pounds. The second number is quarters of a hundred weight or 28 pounds. The final number represents the number of single pounds.

Here is an example: The anvil is marked 214. NOT 214 pounds at all!!  2 times 112 equals 224 pounds to which we add 28 pounds – one quarter hundred weight –for a total of 252 pounds. Next we add 4 pounds for a true anvil weight of 256 pounds. More than one modern smith has puzzled over this system.

It is an ancient system and I can see the old Anglo Saxon weighing it with an ancient scale called a yard – what we, who still remember it, call a steel yard. The anvil hung on one end of the beam and two weights equal to hundred weights were hung on the other. Next a weight equal to a quarter of the hundred weight was added. Finally, enough small one pound weights were added to balance the beam.  In an age when most were illiterate, it was easy to see how much the thing weighed in small numbers related to the weighing system. 

Most modern anvils are marked in pounds or kilograms, but anvils have long lives if cared for and many made more than a century ago are still in use.

You can buy new today basic hammers in the Swedish, German, and French styles and these come in a generous range of weights. These are, however, just a drop in the bucket. Blacksmiths frequently make their own hammers to suit their personal taste. I know of two professional blacksmiths working in Indiana today who made very distinctive hammers as their general purpose working hammers. Old hammers are modified for specific jobs or new ones are made. It is often cheaper and quicker to make a special hammer than to buy one, if, in fact, one can be found in the special style needed for a specific task.

Of all the tools used by the smith the tongs are by far the widest in variety. Tongs are used to hold hot materials and a different set is required for each shape and size of material. As the work develops several different tongs may be required for holding it firmly. All serious smiths soon learn how to make tongs to suit the work they may be doing. Recently a number of suppliers have made a wide variety of newly manufactured tongs readily available.  An old shop which does a wide variety of work may have made a couple of hundred shapes of tongs of all sizes. They may be hanging on racks or the walls or lying on the floor.  Tong jaws have been developed to hold nearly anything and a competent smith will want the right jaw shape to hold the work firmly and most importantly – safely! While most tongs are easily held in one hand, some tongs have been made which are so heavy (because of the work piece to be held) that they must be held by a crane and a number of men.

You may also have noticed the invaluable blacksmiths vice. This vice has a long leg which reaches to a socket near the ground. The vice must be very sturdy because hammering, twisting, bending, and other work on both hot and cold material is constantly done.  To take this beating all vices are made of forged steel. A variety of sizes and types have been made.

The final major tool is the forge.  Forges have been made in many shapes and from many materials. They range from the very simple ground forges with goat skin bellows used yet today in Africa to sophisticated cast iron and steel or brick forges with electric blowers used in professional shops. Forges are arranged to get their wind (to fan the fire) from either the side or bottom. Each has advantages. Most American smiths use the bottom draft forge. The draft may come from the traditional bellows – which some smiths still prefer, or from a hand cranked blower (which replaced the bellows) or from an electric blower with speed control or damper.   To heat the material a variety of heat sources are used. Low sulfur bituminous Pocahontas coal is preferred by many smiths because of its flexibility. Charcoal and coke are also sometimes used. Each has advantages and disadvantages. The use of natural gas or propane gas is becoming more widespread especially for production work where many similar pieces are being made.  Electrical induction heating is sometimes used. Hand held high temperature torches are often used on intricate work.

Each smith will have the tools he needs for general work, but his success will depend on a great variety of other tools.  These include hot and cold hardys for the hardy hole. Hardys are used to cut hot and cold material. There will be punches of all kinds, fullers (used to reduce or spread material), flatters (for smoothing), cutters, mandrels (to form work around), bending forks, scrolling tools, bridges (used to work the top part of work which must hang down above the anvil), vee blocks, snappers (used to cut material by snapping it off), drifts (a form of punch or mandrel for enlarging holes), nail or bolt or rivet headers, and so on and on. The list can be endless.

There is also that curious block of steel which looks like a piece of Swiss cheese and is called a swedge block. These come in a number of sizes and shapes, but their purpose is to provide various shapes to form metal against or in. They are usually heavy and may be used flat or on edge as the need arises.  Modern smiths use modern tools such as arc and gas welders and cutters, plasma torches, electric and compressed air tools for drilling and grinding.  They also use hydraulic tools. For nearly 500 years they have used power hammers to move large masses or to substitute for occasionally needed helpers. These may operate from water power, steam, compressed air, or electricity. Hydraulic presses, developed within the last 150 years are also used. 

Some industrial smiths, working with new materials like titanium – a metal lighter and stronger than aluminum – have helped put spy planes in the air and men on the moon.  Today some work at massive hydraulic presses of up to 3,000 tons and more to push materials held by giant manipulators into rough forgings for industry.  The manipulators for these large presses are like giant two-story tall fork lift trucks with special grasping tongs on the front which can hold nearly white hot ingots while lifting, lowering, tipping, and rotating them quickly. These tongs also move independently forward and back to allow for changes in the materials length during working.

The modern smith does as his forbears did and uses the latest technology to keep up with competition. This extends to laser cutters or high pressure fluid cutters as well as numerous materials developed in the last century.

Why forge pieces when we could just as easily cast them or cut them out of solid stock?  The answer is easy – strength.  Using the proper materials and forging processes, parts made by forging are stronger per unit of weight than those made by other processes. This is of considerable concern in a great many machines and processes.  Aircraft would be heavier and carry less load if forgings were not available. The cost of air transport would rise. Highway vehicles would weigh more, carry less load, and be more sluggish were it not for forgings in many places.  Forgings made from the proper alloys, worked at the proper temperature, and cooled in the proper way make much of our present day civilization possible.

Let us now turn to the materials used by the blacksmith. Most blacksmiths learn to use a number of materials because each has specific advantages. You might use copper or brass (a combination of copper and zinc) or bronze (a combination of copper and tin) or aluminum, or titanium or any number of materials, but the primary material is iron in one form or another.

Iron is so important that I need to tell you a bit about how it has changed over the centuries.  Certainly the element iron or Fe has not changed, but the material used by the smith has changed greatly. Even today it is changing.  Changes in sheet steel are being made to satisfy the regulators who are demanding greater mileage in cars.  Lighter, stronger alloys are needed for this purpose while maintaining drawability – that is the ability to shape the material quickly in fewer forming dies.  Changes in construction steel are being made to permit architects to design lighter and stronger buildings.  

These changes affect the blacksmith, who is no longer the primary user of the output of the iron and steel industry. Only a small part of current production now goes to the blacksmith, where once nearly all would be shaped by him.

The ability to change steel at will to meet various requirements is a comparatively new ability.  Less than 100 years ago we really knew very little about iron and steel when compared to current knowledge.  Today we learn more each year, probably more is some years than was learned in some centuries.  Some of the old alchemist would be astounded and delighted. The science of metallurgy has developed at a rapid rate and new instruments have made that advance ever faster.  The blacksmith has benefited in some ways and lost favorite materials, especially wrought iron, in others.

We do not really know how iron was first discovered. It may have been a cooking fire in just the right spot which first made a material harder than any other material known. It may have been a lightning strike.  Whatever it was, people discovered a better material and began a search for more.

It is thought that iron working developed about 6,000 years ago in the Caucuses of Europe from which it spread rapidly both east and west.  In fact a piece of wrought iron was found in the great pyramid in Egypt. It is now in the British Museum. Iron finally replaced bronze in isolated England shortly before the Romans arrived.  We know that the Romans required about 320 tons of metal to build the Coliseum at Rome. This is a rather large quantity beyond the iron needed for other purposes such as supplying the army.  It is an indication of the health and growth of the metal working industry at that time.  The extraction of iron from the earth has been a process long in development – a development which continues today.  Early American iron – that which was not shipped in – was made of bog iron. Bog iron was so named because it was often found near the surface near bogs in the Eastern United States.  It was once mined near Rochester, Indiana.

In the early Americas a facility was built at Saugus, Massachusetts near Boston. Here water power operated bellows and hammers. Reconstructed by the National Park Service you can see this first American effort today. It produced pig iron which had to be further refined to make wrought iron. It built on much earlier work in iron refining going back at least as far as the eighth century and well developed in Coalbrookdale in England. 

The making of iron in the period from about 1700 to about 1990 required really large quantities of charcoal. Scotland today has few trees because they were cut for this use. In England the problem became so bad that the Crown set aside certain forests so that there would be wood available for the building and maintaining of the great English navel fleet.  These remain today.  In the United States much of the Eastern half of the country was stripped of trees to make charcoal for iron refining.  What you see today are mostly second growth trees. As and example:  four square miles of forest were consumed each year for a furnace producing just fifteen tons of pig iron a week. Furnaces were erected wherever ore, limestone (used as a flux), and trees were plentiful.  It helped if water or road transportation was nearby.  Besides those sites operated by the National Part Service, an interesting site is Fayette, Michigan in the upper peninsula, which operated until 1891 making charcoal iron.  This facility had its own harbor and railroads branched out to bring wood to the beehive ovens for conversion to charcoal. Ships would take away iron and bring in limestone. Place names abound in certain parts of this country recalling these furnaces.

The product of all this effort was wrought iron, a unique material no longer produced except occasionally in the museum facility a Coalbrookdale in England. Unlike all other irons it contains a silica slag which becomes bonded intimately with the iron improving its ductility.  Wrought iron was produced in this country until after World War II when it went into decline and was discontinued because of the high cost of making it.  It has a high degree of resistance to corrosion.

Today smiths still value wrought iron and recover it from previous use wherever possible.  About fifteen years ago one of our members recovered the material used in a bridge near Peru, Indiana.  This material has been shared out to several historical shops. It forges at higher temperatures and is more fluid in how it moves. Wrought iron is easily identifiable by the “threads” or “sinews” which are seen when the material is partially cut and bent or when it is etched or corroded. These are present because the pure iron and siliceous materials are in fine layers.  Good art smiths will tell you that the material will teach you what it will do.  These smiths tell us that some shapes are not possible with other materials.

While wrought iron is a marvelous material it did not meet the needs of tool makers and developing industry. They needed a stronger and harder material – a material we call steel.  Steel starts with the pig iron made from iron ore and has carbon added to make it less brittle, more uniform, and harder. It does not have slag included.  There are a very large number of alloys of steel – each used for a different purpose.  The addition of nickel, for example, produces stainless steel. Manganese is added for toughness – the ability to take wear and physical shock.  Steel can be made so hard that taping it with a hammer will cause it to shatter like glass.

Carbon is the principle thing which sets apart wrought iron at under .3%; carbon steel at .3% to 2.2%; and cast iron 2.2% and up.  As the material is heated and cooled the carbon combines in different ways with the material.

The making of steel was developed in the Orient and in India where it was known as Wootz steel and was some of the finest in the world having been made since early in the Christian era.  Unfortunately Europe was in the dark ages and it was not until the development of blister steel that steel was found in any quantity in the area.  Blister steel was pure iron which was placed in proximity to charcoal dust and soaked in heat. Carbon from the charcoal dust slowly transferred into the iron making it workable.  The system was not very good and hardly any two pieces were alike.

Finally, in 1740 Benjamin Huntsman of Attersea, England had had enough. He needed high quality steel for the clock springs he manufactured and he developed a secret method for cooking blister steel cut into small pieces out of the carbonizing effects of the furnace.  Out of this came the first modern cast steel of uniform high quality.  He kept this secret for a number of years until one cold and rainy night a supposedly drunken workman begged shelter in the small factory.  A kind factory foreman admitted him to the factory and while “sleeping off” his alcoholic stupor the “drunken” workman observed the entire process. The process was put to use by many others and the fame of Sheffield steel became world wide.

Throughout this long number of centuries the blacksmith has adapted to the new materials which the iron maker has provided. He is still adapting today.

Much of my life I have heard of mild steel. This means steel with a low carbon content. Smiths have used this since wrought iron is no longer regularly available. It works at a lower temperature than wrought iron and can be forge welded like wrought iron although somewhat differently.  Now the carbon content is increasing and forge welding is becoming more difficult.  Forge welding is the ability to join two pieces heated to surface melting temperature in the forge. The act of hammering these pieces together joins the melted surfaces together and the two pieces are now one molecular piece.

Now let’s look at the training of these people called blacksmiths.  Two courses have been followed in recent decades. In Europe, especially in Germany, a very strict training regime continues. You must apprentice with a master for a certain number of years. The apprenticeship will include much training in materials and methods. It will also include full business training.  At the end of training you are fully tested and prepared to hang out your business sign.  In fact you may not hang it out until you have passed the course successfully. You become a licensed blacksmith and the public can be assured you have certain well defined qualifications.

In the United States we have proceeded differently.  Much of the training is simply not available in a shop setting. Classes are given in some schools. Apprenticeships are sometimes available, but seldom from what the Germans would call masters. They are led by those having someone more experience.  There is no test or license required to hang out your sign and take on business.  If you have applied yourself you may succeed, but market forces alone will judge your competence to practice and your success.

Obviously the German smith is better trained. The introduction of the European Economic Community has placed certain strains on this system since by law a smith from France or Spain or Italy can now go to Germany and bid on work there.  Their training is not as good and the German smiths are concerned that other Germans will not receive the same high quality preparation they expect from a German smith.  Time will tell how this gets resolved, but I’ll place my bet on the Germans. 

In the United States meanwhile, beginning smiths are only offered training which is usually catch as catch can in groups like the Indiana Blacksmithing Association, personal instruction in private (usually home) shops, a number of craft schools across the country and personal experimentation.  About a dozen craft schools offer short 2 day to 2 week courses. Out of this helter skelter system have come some remarkable craftsmen and women. They have worked hard to learn what they needed to know, and have taken every opportunity to learn from others.  A number have gone to Europe for training sometimes lasting a couple of years. They have learned how to do business from such organizations as the National Ornamental Miscellaneous Metals Association (NOMMA). They have learned from other smiths in ABANA and elsewhere.

The wide spread availability of the internet has greatly increased the exchange of metalworking information all over the world, but especially in the United States.  Discussion forums help both beginning and experienced smiths learn about new materials and the processes needed to deal with these new materials.  The ABANA web site www.abana.org has many links to other organizations including the Indiana Blacksmithing Association, Inc.

The passage in recent years of increasing government regulations, and the growing liability awards made by juries have further increased the blacksmith’s difficulties.  These usually apply to large works often placed in public places. Now these regulations are invading private homes.

But through it all, the forming of metal into a decorative or useful shape which you know will be around for a while is a most satisfying experience. To know how to form a scroll of beauty and symmetry, one which is pleasing to the eye and far better than any made by machine is worth the effort. To make a difficult railing and have it right and a delight to the eye is an extension of the efforts of the many masters over many centuries to bring forth the best that iron has to offer.  To take a piece of waiting iron and put it into a shape and place which is satisfying to others is to add to the fabric of civilization in a very positive way.

Yes indeed!  I report to you that blacksmithing, which was moribund in the United States just three decades ago, is healthy, growing and active.  From the person who just comes to watch - and this too is an ancient custom – to the person working at his own forge for his own relaxation and enjoyment and onward to the forgers of huge sculptures, each is enjoying benefiting from the craft in some way.

The history of blacksmithing is still being written. I write a tiny bit of it in our newsletter each month. New people join us all the time to learn a bit more for their own use and enjoyment. Perhaps you would like to join us also. I extend an open invitation to visit.


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