Beginner’s Guide to Everything
WHAT DO YOU NEED TO GET STARTED?
Just about the BEST thing you can do getting started is take a class from an experienced smith. This helps you in a number of ways; first, you get a chance to use someone else’s equipment, which helps you determine what you MUST have, and what you only desire; second, in-person instruction has the nuance that books and videos lack (do it THIS way, not THAT way); and all that on top of the basic lessons you get.
WHAT BASIC EQUIPMENT DO YOU NEED?
You need (in no particular order) 1) something to hold the fire, 2) fuel for the fire, 3) something to deliver air to the fire, 4) something to forge with, 5) something to forge on, 6) and something to forge, and 7) something to hold hot material that you cannot hold with your hands.
SOMETHING TO HOLD THE FIRE, FUEL FOR THE FIRE, AND AIR DELIVERY TO THE FIRE:
Okay, first thing you’ll have to decide is whether you want to use solid fuel or propane.
Solid fuel can be coal, either butuminous or anthracite; metallurgical coke; or charcoal. There are forges that burn fuels like feed corn, wood, or wood pellets, but they are an insignificant percentage of available forges, and are more of a gimmick than a viable strategy.
Propane forges can be divided into two basic types; forced air forges, which require a fan or blower to operate, and atmospheric forges which do not. Forced air forge burners can be further subdivided into regular burners (which probably have a technical name, but not one I’ve heard) and ribbon burners.
Ultimately, if you really get involved in this you’ll want both a solid fuel forge and a propane forge, since each has strengths and weaknesses as compared to the other. Which type you should begin with will be determined by what best meets your needs for the type of work you plan to do.
Solid fuel forges all need an air delivery system to increase the temperature in the forge to heats high enough for forging. Forced air gas forges also need an air delivery system. It’s important to be able to deliver enough air without delivering too much.
You need to decide what type of forge to use, first. A coal/coke/charcoal forge can have either an electric blower, which can be as simple as a cheap hair dryer that has a ‘cool’ setting, or any number of squirrel cage blowers; or you can use a hand cranked blower, which though more labor intensive tends to be more fuel efficient.
For propane forges your choice will be an electric blower on a forced air forge, or an atmospheric burner which doesn’t need a blower.
SOMETHING TO FORGE WITH:
Something to forge with will be a suitable hammer. I recommend that as a beginner you start with a 2 pound hammer. Some will suggest heavier hammers, but that’s not a good idea when you’re first learning. It isn’t a question of whether you’re strong enough to swing it, but of whether you can make the hammer go precisely where you want it without injuring your arm or shoulder.
A 2 pound hammer will move material effectively, while letting you learn good hammer technique with minimal risk of tendonitis. If you’re small, completely unused to manual labor, or have limited endurance, an even lighter hammer might be a good plan. As you gain skill and muscle memory, you’ll be able to scale up to heavier hammers quickly with regular practice.
I recommend a cross pein hammer as being a useful configuration for a blacksmith, but a rounding hammer, a ball pein hammer, or a straight pein hammer will work fine.
When you get the hammer, you will want to ‘dress’ it, that is, smooth out any sharp edges it has so it doesn’t leave stray marks on your work. Marks like that are especially problematic if you’re making knives. Here is an example of a hammer as it comes from the supplier next to a dressed hammer.
There are several Youtube videos that offer information about good hammer technique. I have not reviewed them all, and can’t recommend for or against any of them. Here is one, however, that I suggest people watch to gain basic information and get ideas to work from. The most important takeaway is that if what you’re doing is hurting your wrist, elbow, or shoulder, STOP DOING IT before you do long term damage. Then study some more to figure out how to hammer without pain.
YOU’LL NEED SOMETHING TO FORGE ON:
Something to forge ON will be an anvil or anvil substitute. What you get will depend on your budget and the availability of suitable anvils in your area. Don’t get the fossilized mindset that your anvil MUST be of the traditional London Pattern (like you see Wiley Coyote dropping on the Roadrunner). A suitable substitute can be as simple as a block of steel from the scrapyard or the head from a sledgehammer, set on end in a stump.
YOU’LL NEED SOMETHING TO FORGE:
You’ll need something to forge, which would be steel or wrought iron. Some other metals are forgeable, but we’ll limit the current discussion to black metal.
Mild steel is readily available. I don’t recommend getting it from a box store like Lowe’s or Home Depot, because it’s hugely overpriced there. For what you pay for a four foot piece of steel at the box store you can buy a twenty foot piece at a steel supply company. But steel supply companies are abundant and widespread, selling to industries like construction, welding, and machine shops. If you have those industries in your area, you know you have a steel supplier that brings material to those shops. If you can’t buy from that supplier direct, maybe you can buy through one of those companies that already orders from them, or you may be able to buy leftover pieces (called ‘drops’) from jobs the welding or machine shop has done.
If you want to buy high carbon steel to make knives, online ordering is your best bet, but be prepared to pay ridiculous shipping costs. Your steel supplier may be able to order you high carbon steels, but will be unlikely to carry anything unless they specifically sell to knifemakers.
Whether your goal is making knives of cannister damascus, pattern welded steel, or mono-steel, keep in mind that not everything in your shop that you can scrounge is going to be good steel for knifemaking. Knives need a specific amount of carbon to be able to take and hold an edge. While you can forge about any steel to a knife shape, and make a sharp edge on it, modern knifemaking is defined by steels that will take a sharp edge and remain sharp for a long time as you work with it. Steels that will take a sharp edge but not hold it are considered inferior. Yes, historically many knives were made of steel or iron that no one would touch now. In their day, those were superior to whatever else was available. But these days are not those days.
There are lots steels that can be repurposed to make knives or tools; coil and leaf springs, various shafting material, etc., that may make serviceable tools. They can be excellent to learn to forge with, and can make durable, dependable tools and knives. The difficulty with using found steels is that you can never be certain what type of steel it is. Many people will say that “all springs are 5160”, but the truth is that “all” springs were never made of 5160. Manufacturers buy steel based on what has the best price and will meet the needs of the product being manufactured. That may mean the springs are made of 5160 for one model year, 1095 for the next model year, and 8630 the year after that, and you have no way of knowing or effectively finding out what it is. Without knowing what you have, you CAN’T know how to heat treat it to get maximum performance from whatever you’re making.
Additionally, if you’re using scavenged parts from automobiles or machinery, the steel has already had a service life that has exposed the steel to numerous stresses, like internal stress fractures, that may not show as you are forging a project, but may cause that project to fail after it’s made. If you are selling a knife made from a truck spring and it breaks, the person who bought it isn’t going to care that the spring had a micro-fracture from when it was on a truck. He’s only going to care that the handmade knife that he paid good money for just broke, and there goes your reputation as a knifemaker! THAT is why people so strongly recommend buying new, known steel to make knives or tools for sale; that way, you KNOW how to properly heat treat them because you KNOW what the steel is, and that it came with no hidden flaws from extended use.
YOU’LL NEED SOMETHING TO HOLD HOT STUFF THAT’S TOO SHORT TO HOLD WITH YOUR HANDS:
The last thing you’ll need is something to hold hot stuff that’s too short to have a cool end you can hang on to. For that you need tongs. Vise-grips and channel-lock pliers are a POOR substitute for real tongs. It’s easy for hot metal to slip out of vise grips or pliers and go flying. And trust me, few things can ruin your day like hot iron flying through the air.
Here are some good sources for blacksmithing supplies.
BLACKSMITH SUPPLY COMPANIES
In AUSTRALIA and NEW ZEALAND:
In UNITED KINGDOM:
FORGE BUILDING SUPPLIERS
IN THE USA:
Iron Dungeon Forge
High Temp Tools and Refractory
Wayne Coe Artist Blacksmith
Black Mutt Forge
Hard Luck Forge and Supply
IN THE UK:
IN AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND: