Old Dominion Black Smith Association
Established November 2005
On this page you will find:
Public Demo (Suggestions)
Forge Welding Flux
Hand Forged vs Machine Made
Historic Blacksmith Shops in Virginia
There are so many things in blacksmithing that seem to have differing points of views that I have started listing some. What ‘s the correct or incorrect answer? That depends
I was once told by a very accomplished long time blacksmith that “if you’re ever going to get serious about this craft you must get rid of your crank blower and get an electric blower.” Maybe I’m not serious enough because I like my crank blower; no I will never be a pro, I’m saving money on electricity and besides that, I’m getting exercise that someone my age needs. My answer for ya’ll is: that depends on your preference, whom you would like to emulate and my favorite is I just like the idea that I am using something from the past (historical) to create the air pressure. In fact, I’m looking forward to having bellows to work with.
Is the metal fabricating shop “The Modern Blacksmith”? I have a friend who has a large shop, and in my and other’s opinion a fabricating shop; advertises his work as Blacksmithing. If a blacksmith in the 1800s had a welder, bending machines etc, do you think that he would have used them? Wait, what is a blacksmith? I have one definition in Webster that has it as “a smith who forges iron.” Wait, what does forge mean? Again I found one definition that supports my friend’s point of view in Webster “to form (metal) by a mechanical or hydraulic press with or without heat.” So what is the correct answer? That depends on the dictionary that you use.
What does a blacksmith do? This word blacksmith means something different than it did years ago. Today, when you ask someone what does a blacksmith do? The likely answer will be shoe horses. I thing Mr Webster will be changing the definition in another few years with the definition of the word farrier. Again the answer is: that depends on whom you ask.
What is “traditional blacksmithing”? That depends on what time period in the past that you are looking at. Are you going back to when someone used a rock as a hammer? Or when someone first used a metal anvil? Or when they only used wrought iron? Or when they used only bellows? Or when they used only Charcoal for heat? Or when the blacksmithing trade started to disappear as it did in the early 1900’s?
What is the best coal to use in blacksmithing? That depends on whom you talk to. Here is an accumulation of advice that I have received: you need to have high BTUs, low sulfur content, not much ash, produces very few or no clinkers, does not burn hollow, does not run like tar, high fixed carbon, low moisture, metallurgical coal, Bituminous coal, Pocahontas or Sewell veins, even the same seam/vein can produce somewhat different results, pea size, quarter size, larger size, cleaned & washed, soak it in water, don’t put water on it, etc. Confused? So am I. My suggestion when looking for coal is not to reinvent the wheel; find a good smith in your area who likes his coal and you buy it from the same place he/she does and hope that you get the same results. As a person relatively new to this craft, my recommendation is: get the best coal that you can so that you can mark off this reason for not making a good forge weld and then find another excuse for not making it. Before I leave this subject, I do not know the quantity or kinds of coal used in the mid-west or west. I am told that some smiths like to use anthracite coal (mainly from Pennsylvania), which I know nothing about. To even complicate the situation further, when I asked a very accomplished master blacksmith who worked and studied blacksmithing in Europe what he thought about it. He said: “we Americans are hung up on trying to get good coal. The smiths in Europe that he worked with had some of the sorriest coal ever, never complained and they did superb work.” Oh, Well!
Public Demo (suggestions)
We would hope that, as a member of ODBSA, you would demo what you know to your friends and the general public because that is an important part of being a member of the Old Dominion Blacksmith Association.
I do not profess to be a professional demonstrator to the public because 90% of my demonstrations have been to school groups in an enclosed environment and the children were captive for a 30-minute time period. Still, some of the things I did and learned might be of some assistance to you.
I have put together some suggestions that you can, if you want to, implement when you do a demonstration to the public. First, all members should know the hazard of blacksmithing before ever doing a demo. We definitely do not want anyone hurt because of what you did or did not do. Remember this: if an accident were to occur, you might have just opened yourself to Liability.
If you start your fire with green coal, make sure you get to your location early so that you do not smoke everyone out. My preference is to prepare some coke beforehand to at least start the fire. Sometimes I bring nothing but coke for the day. At the end of the day, I put all the hot coal/coke into a large old metal milk can with a lid and I'm ready to go home.
Rope off the area that you are working in. I like at least six feet. Why? Everyone seems to want to help when you drop something or cut a piece of metal off. Ouch! A lot of historical sites have solved this problem by having a counter in front of the forging area.
It is advisable to never do a forge weld in public but if you do, put your back to the crowd and make sure no one is to the left or right of you and give everyone warning about what your about to do.
Never hit near white metal when displaying your skills. When I first started demonstrating to a large group of students, I was running my mouth (as usual) and when I pulled the metal from the fire it was near white-hot, without thinking I hit it. A young girl about 10 years old who was standing about 15 feet from me yelled OUCH. It hit her arm but I could have put her eye out. If it is white hot let it cool off beforehitting it.
Quench every hot piece of metal that you’re not working on.
If you give the item you made to children, make sure to ask the parent or guardian before you do so. I used to pass out some items that I had made to school children and then one day, a teacher took them all away from the kids. She was not pleased with my generosity. She said: “these things are projectiles, never give them to children”. After that, the items that I made were given to the teachers only.
Kids love to pull the bellows, turn the crank, quench the iron (they love to hear the sound it makes) or help you make a twist. Always ask the parent/guardian’s permission before letting them behind the rope to do anything. If you do let them behind the rope (never more than one), watch their every move because they are quick.
Now, what to demo? Whatever you want but I found to keep the majority of the crowd’s attention, make something simple that does not take long to do, like a hook, nail or cross.
Surprise! I always do more talking that I do demonstrating. You might do the opposite, just demonstrating, but if you want to run your mouth some, here is some help for you.
What is the most popular last name in the USA and England? One in every 100 people has the last name of Smith. Blacksmith is what is meant when referring to "Smith". I found in the records of our plantation where they paid the "Smith" at the end of each year.
In earlier times as families moved further inland in America and started settling into communities, what was the first professional person they wanted? No, it was not the Doctor but it was the Blacksmith. He repaired equipment, made equipment, shod horses, fixed wagons, made axes, hoes, etc, etc. He was the MAN.
The blacksmith worked himself out of a job. When the first automobiles came out the blacksmith would say when seeing the first car: “ there goes another blacksmith that will be out of work.”
The Blacksmithing trade really started declining rapidly in the 1930’s and by the early 60’s had almost disappeared. In the 70’s, it started to rejuvenate. Thanks to some people that wanted hand forged items over the last thirty years, we again have some professional blacksmiths. The real keepers of this historic craft are the hobbyist blacksmiths.
Point out the anvil (steel face, wrought iron bottom if that is what you are using), hardie hole, pritchel hole (was added about 1830), horn (in England they call it a beck); slack tub or quenching tub (used for cooling and hardening metal); the blacksmithing vise or pole vise (the leg absorb the energy of the blow and the pole vise has been around for hundreds of years); the crank blower (the first dated about 1850) or the bellows which goes way, way back in time.
Today, in America, we blacksmiths are not exactly using everything as they had in the early 1800’s. In the past they used charcoal. The making of which helped clear a lot land in northeastern states like Pennsylvania. The charcoal maker would cut the trees down, cut it in certain lengths and stack it like an extra large T-pee and cover the outside with mud with very few holes for the smoke to get out when the fire was started. The fire was a very slow burning smoldering one. It would normally take about a week to produce the charcoal. The charcoal maker would have to stay in the woods observing the fire the whole time to make sure it did not burn too fast. Most of the smiths today use coal. I have been told that in this area of Virginia some Blacksmiths did not begin to use coal until about 1850.
Another thing that is different is the metal that we are using. They used wrought iron, which has impurities in it like sand (silica). Because of this sand the wrought iron has a very distinct grain structure and the silica is said to help prevent rust. At this point, I show the people an example of it. This wrought iron is easier to forge weld, does not like sharp angles and is much more rust resistant than the metal we use today. In fact, up the 1930’s most bridges were made of it. Wrought iron is no longer produced in the USA. Most of the pieces we are able to get come from old buildings and bridges. Today, we use mild steel that has very low carbon content and will rust quickly if nothing is put on it.
The nail is my favorite subject to talk about because the public is interested in knowing something about its history. Why did the House of Burgess of Virginia pass a law in 1645 that people relocating could not burn their houses down? Because the nails were so rare and expensive when people moved they would burn their houses down to retrieve the nails. Here is a copy of the Law: “And it is further enacted by the authority aforesaid, That it shall not be lawful for any person so deserting his plantation as afore said to burn any necessary housing that are situated thereupon, but shall receive so many nails as may be computed by 2 indifferent men were expended bout the building thereof for full satisfaction, reserving to the King all such rent as did accrue by virtue of the former grants or planting of the same from the expiration of the first seven years.”
Because the wrought iron and particularly steel were so expensive in earlier times, the blacksmith did not charge by the job but instead charged by the weight of the metal used to do the task.
Up to the Revolutionary War, we Americans were not allowed to make our nails, and many other items that England wanted to control. England had a cottage industry making nails and wanted to protect it.
The hand-made nail goes way back in time. The Roman Empire and before used them. (Emperor Caligula used these nails dipped in copper for his ships.)
The hand-made nail with its uneven head and sharp point was extensively used until the first machine for making cut nails was invented around 1795 (it had a somewhat square end or point. Even with this machine, they still had to make the heads by hand. As the cut nail machines improved (they now could produce heads that were somewhat the same and square) and as they became cheaper than the hand-made ones, they started replacing them. There was still a need for hand-make ones when clinching was desired, like in batten doors. Up to 1825 the grain in the machine made cut nails went the wrong way to bend it without breaking. There are ways to identity the approximate dates of cut nails made between 1795 and 1830.
The availability of cut nails in this part of Virginia did not show up until about 1808.
One of the first nail making businesses in Virginia was at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in 1794. In 1795 he said he employed a dozen little boys aged from 10 to 16 years old. They produced 8 to 10 thousand nails a day. If they worked 10 hours a day and produced 10,000 nails then they each averaged making a nail every 45 seconds. In 1796 he bought and used one of the first nail making machines.
The early blacksmiths took pride in their finished products. They would not let any item leave their shop until it looked perfect. It is said that they spent more time with a file than in forging the piece. When you look at historic hand-forged metal work you would think it came out of a machine (no hammer marks except on the back where it could not be seen). In the current times the general public wants to see hammer marks for verification of hand forging.
With a rag, wipe some boiled linseed oil onto the warm metal.
If in a hurry, like when giving someone something that has just been hand-forged at a demonstration, just spray on some cheap fast drying flat black paint.
Flat black Rustoleum or similar products does a good job but takes some time to dry.
One of my favorites is to lightly hand sand the item with some 80 grid sand paper to bring out the shine of the high parts of the metal and then clear coat it with fast drying clear lacquer or enamel. This really accentuates the hammer-mark-look that some people really like.
With a rag, put some warm bees wax mixed with linseed oil and thinned with turpentine on the metal and then place the metal on the fire where you have some green coal smoke. This darkens the metal to a nice dark black color.
CB’s Peanut Butter so named because our own Journeyman Charlie Boothe swears by this concoction and it does look like Peanut Butter. He said some of the items with it on have been outside for over a year and has no signs of rust on it.
He uses a double boiler:
(1) Melt ½ cup of bees wax
(2) Add 1 cup of Johnson’s paste wax
(3) Add 1 cup of turpentine
(4) Add 1 cup boiled linseed oil
(5) Add 2 tablespoons of Japan Dryer (Sherman Williams)
Note: This produces a natural finish. Charlie put it on with ½” brush with the metal temperature of about 150 degrees. Lets it dry and then wipe it with a cloth.
From L.T. Skinnell: Tip of the month July 2013
There were several people that asked about the formula of the wax we used at our meeting in June. I got the formula from Doug Merkel. I took his class a number of years ago. It has been around for years in various forms. It works good on colonial and traditional type pieces. It is an interior finish. The ingredients are:
1 cup Johnson's or Butcher's paste wax
1 cup boiled linseed oil
1 cup turpentine
1/2 cup shaved/pieces of beeswax
I put all the ingredients in a metal container with a cover and heat slowly. CAUTION: This is a very flamable mixture and will catch on fire very easily. Don't put over an open flame. Those of you at the meeting saw the flamability first hand. Think about personal and property safety. I usually use the wood stove in the shop and heat slowly until everything melts. Stir until all the ingredients are mixed really well and let cool. It will become a soft paste. The turpentine keeps it soft. As you use this you can reheat and add ingredients as you like.
For your own equipment like anvils, pole vises and tools a lot of people use WD 40. Some of us have found that Amsoil MP Metal Protector works even better.
Forge Welding Flux
What is the purpose of flux when forge welding? It is used to protect the metal from oxidizing and it also helps to lower the melting point of scale, making it liquid and enabling it to squirt out contaminates with the liquid flux when hit with the hammer to make the weld.
I’m sure there are other kinds of fluxes but here are some that many of you have tried.
It is not necessary to use flux to get a good forge weld. I have been told that in England the Smiths use no flux.
Sand can work as a flux.
Dirt Dobber nest with the larva removed and the rest crushed to almost a power.
A large percent of Blacksmiths use Borax. It is just regular borax that you can buy at the local Grocery store. Some Smiths do not like it because it can leave a white residue on the metal but it can be washed off.
You can heat the Borax to remove the moisture in it. It is said that one can make dehydrated borax by simply putting some in pan in your oven at about 300 degrees Fahrenheit for about an hour. Someone who tried it said it really did stink up his kitchen.
A 50/50 mixture of boric acid and iron oxide is also a very popular flux. The boric acid can be picked up at the Dollar Store and it is sold as 100% roach powder. The iron oxide can be bought at pottery supply stores or off the Internet. The mixture can be put on at red heat. Some Smiths mix a little borax so that it will stay on the metal a little better.
If you got the funds, there are all kinds of store bought fluxes to try.
Hand Forged vs Machine Made
By Master Blacksmith/Educator Dale Morse of the Virginia Institute of Blacksmithing
The early smiths did not work diligently to make their work appear machine made, but rather to belie the hammer, to create a smooth highly finished appearance. Machine made work didn't exist yet. When machines where developed to reproduce work made by hand, they were made to create very smooth products to mimic the smith’s hard labor. Now they are making machines to make rougher looking work, again to mimic the hard labor of the modern smiths trying to give their work a hand made character.
Historic Blacksmithing shops in VA
That are open to the public
Colonial Williamsburg, Williamsburg, VA (full time blacksmiths)
Red Hill near Brookneal, VA (special occasions Blacksmith)
Clover Hill Village near Appomattox, VA (special occasions Blacksmiths)
Mabry Mill near Meadows of Dan, VA (most week-ends Blacksmiths)
Explore Park near Roanoke, VA (temporarily closed, opens 10/2010)
McCormick Farm near Raphine, VA (view only, no Blacksmiths)
Frontier Culture Museum at Staunton VA (most week-ends Blacksmiths)
Plain District Memorial Museum in Timberville, VA (special occasions Blacksmiths)
Blue Ridge Institute and Museum in Ferrum, VA (special occasion Blacksmiths and weekends in the summer time.
Clay for Lining Forges
AnvilFire has a good article on clay lining for forges. www.anvilfire.com/FAQs/claying_forges.htm