2016 February 23    Tech   Metal & Shop


Making stuff out of metal is fun, and it's also useful.

Blacksmithing requires special equipment and skills.  However, it's much easier to make smaller items than to hammer out wrought-iron fences and that sort of thing.

It's also cheaper.

Making small, utilitarian stuff out of iron is a great way to learn the basic skills.  Then, later, you can always graduate to full-scale smithing. 

In this article we'll look at getting started. 

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In This Article


Gearing Up:  Cheap Anvils

Gearing Up:  Real Anvils

Gearing Up:  Hammer

Gearing Up:  Heat Source

Choosing The Goal

Hammering It Out



You'll need good coordination.  You should also be able to identify and address the various hazards. 

At the very least, I would get a halfway decent welder's apron, unless you already have a big, heavy coat that's not made of synthetic fabric. 

A face shield is always a good idea.  At the very minimum you should wear something like these.  Better yet, wear both. 

I would keep a five-gallon bucket of clean, cold water nearby, too.  It should be within easy reach, but not where you'll trip over it.  And if you don't know what that's for (hint: it's not for drinking or quenching your work), then I would not suggest pounding on orange-hot metal.  Pick some other pastime, like tiddley-winks. 

Finally, the gloves.  Some smiths do not recommend gloves, while others do;  I find gloves helpful.  In some of my articles you may see El Cheapo $3 gloves being used, but if you want comfort and durability, I would get a pair of these.  (Do not wear gloves when using a drill press or bench grinder.)

Gearing Up:  Cheap Anvils

Every real blacksmith knows not to use a cast iron anvil, right?  Grey cast iron has very low strength against impact.  It's actually brittle. 

That said, I know for a fact there are metalworkers who've made lots of stuff using a cast iron "Anvil-Shaped Object". 

Just realize this so-called anvil could break.  I don't think it will last long if you use it much. 

One good thing:  at least you can know they're less likely to break when forging smaller items.    The hammers required for that kind of work are lower-mass than the usual.

Cast iron "anvils" are infamous for having very poor rebound, but then again you're probably not going to tire yourself out swinging a tack hammer.

A better way, I think, is to use a scrap of I-beam or H-beam.  Again, real blacksmiths frown on these, but we have to consider the scale of what we're going to be working on.    I-beams are a lot more durable than cast iron, except that it's kind of jarring to hammer on stuff for any length of time with one of these as an "anvil". 

They work, though.  Keep the workpiece on the center line of the beam, not near the edges, and this "homemade anvil" will last practically forever. 

They work pretty great for making small stuff like nail sets and punches.  If for some reason you couldn't get another anvil type, you could probably even fit the I-beam with hardies, bending-posts, or whatever.  Or, a vise.

You could also belt-sand the top of the I-beam.  If you have a 4x24 sander,  you may find that local stores don't have much in the way of belts for it.  I'd just order these or the 80-grit ones, and maybe a pack of 150 grit too.  (Old, dried-out belts have a tendency to break in about two seconds of sanding.)

A step up in quality from I-beams, you'll find the ubiquitous railroad track anvil.  Can't get to a scrap yard?  You could always just buy through this link and be done with it.  Unlike cast iron ASO's, track sections are unlikely to erode or crack.  They also work a little better for forging than an I-beam.

Of all the "cheap anvil" candidates, I'd say rail anvils are most popular, and deservedly so. 

Yes, you can make any number of small items, using a variety of less-than-ideal "anvil-like" objects that real blacksmiths would avoid.   (Actually, some smiths do use track anvils.)

I've even hammered out stuff using a flat, solid chunk of concrete as the "anvil";  just know that you'll want the metal to be at a bright orange heat for that.  Also, you'll end up wanting to do the finishing steps on a steel surface anyway.  Partly because by the time you get done, there won't be much left of the concrete...

Just so you know, concrete can spall or even explode from steam;  all the more reason for a real anvil.

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Gearing Up:  Real Anvils

If you are considering serious blacksmithing,  I would invest in a genuine blacksmith anvil.  They're not cheap, but an anvil is really the core piece of equipment.   Many photo hobbyists spend $1,200 on a camera without even blinking an eye... and you can't even make tools with a camera.

First, let's start with the smaller ones that are steel.

Even a 20-lb steel anvil would be passable for hammering out small stuff;  use it as a bench anvil on your work table.

This anvil is 75 Kg or 165 lbs of forged steel, making it a full-fledged blacksmith anvil.  No workarounds, no makeshift junk, no "almost-an-anvil" excuses.  This is the real thing.  If you can budget it, just get one right now and it saves a lot of time.  (For example, then you won't have to re-shape a track section with an angle grinder...)  At this price, you're getting a real, professional anvil that will far outlast you.  Buy new, and you won't have to deal with someone else's rounded-off edges or chips, as often happens on used "vintage" anvils. 

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Gearing Up:  Hammer

For making small items like awls, center punches, and small hammer wedges, you can get by without a special blacksmith hammer. 

I'm not going to say to use a carpenter's hammer, but I will say this:  Many people believe nail hammers are always much harder than machinist hammers.  That's not true.   I believe the standard for nail hammers calls for a max. HRC of 58, while machinist hammers can be up to 60.   Double-check that, of course;  the spec could have changed, but that's what it was, last I checked. 

The problem is that ANY hammer, even a soft one, can chip because of work-hardening.

If you're pounding on metal, wear safety gear (starting with eye protection).  

As for hammers:  I suggest two or three different weights.  For ultra-light forging, the 8 ounce, 12 oz, and 16 oz are the most useful.   A 2.5- or three-pound hammer is great for all-around smithing, but it's not the right tool for making the smallest stuff.

One of the handiest mini-blacksmithing tools on Earth is a small tinner's hammer or riveting hammer of about 12 ounces. 

Also you probably can't go wrong with this hammer (I think that's German made;  300 grams, or about 10.5 oz).   This one at 400g would also be quite useful.


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Gearing Up:  Heat Source

Small steel is a lot easier to heat up than big steel.  There are probably a hundred ways to build a makeshift "mini blacksmith forge".  You don't need to have any welding skills. 

If you're making small items such as nails or hammer wedges, you really don't even need that much gear.  A torch and a couple firebricks work great.  Firebrick is essential;  otherwise you'll waste heat and fuel. 

Be safe, whatever you do.  Outdoors, on the dry dirt, is probably the safest way to go.   There, even one of those mini charcoal grills would probably work, if you modded it for a hair dryer or a bellows. (Don't use briquettes;  use real lump-charcoal, or hardwood.)

If you're going to have an indoor forge, it has to be durable and sturdy. 

Also mind the ventilation.   CO is odorless.  With a propane torch and some firebrick, though, you shouldn't generate that much in any one use.  Again, materials such as 1/4" steel rod and old square nails don't require a lot of fuel.

I have enough experience with homemade forges to know one thing for certain... there's a reason why quality stuff costs money.  I would say it's definitely worth it to get something like this mini-forge or even this larger one. In an upcoming article we'll look at this subject in more detail.

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Choosing The Goal

Think of what you want to do.  Think of which way the metal would have to go to form that shape. 

Sounds obvious, huh?

Actually, this takes some practice. 

Do you have to make a round cross-section into a square one?  Draw out the metal?  Figuring out what to do, and in what order, is key to the whole process. 

Here's a basic example:  hammer wedges.  These are the small metal wedges that anchor the wooden handles.  You can buy them, but sometimes you'll need an odd size.

Look at a large square nail or a piece of round stock.   You'll have to hammer one end into a wedge shape.  The wider end of a wedge is usually just shorter than the width of the hammer eye.  Extra wedges added to steady a loose handle might be only half that width.

The wedge is going to require more hammering on one pair of sides, and less hammering on the other pair of sides. Otherwise you would get a square, not a flattened cross section.

Knowing the goal will also help you decide what kind of steel you need.  A hammer wedge could be made of mild steel or wrought iron;  a square awl might have to be made out of a large masonry nail.  (Masonry nails have a greater carbon content and can be hardened, unlike regular nails.)

You might be surprised at how many useful tools can be made from mild steel or wrought iron.  They dull fast, but they're sure better than a dried-out pine branch.

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Hammering It Out

Actually, before you hammer on metal, you'll need one more thing:  something to hold the workpiece.  Accomplished blacksmiths make their own tongs, but as a novice, I see that as a rather ambitious project.  If you need to grip stuff that's maybe 3/8" diameter or larger, I think you'll benefit greatly from a good pair of tongs, which you should be able to get through this link.  Then, make your own tongs later.   The tongs I linked to there are pretty darned nice;  made in Europe.  Here's my review of these tongs in 500mm size;  the 400mm would be of the same quality.

Fireplace tongs actually have some blacksmithing uses.  This next type, on the other hand, maybe not...

Now repeat after me:  These Are Not Blacksmith Tongs.
Most of the ones you'll find being called "blacksmith tongs" are actually hoof nipper tongs.  Believe me, I'm the first one to use whatever scrounged-up backyard items are available for blacksmithing, but these are not really blacksmith tongs.
You could make them into blacksmith tongs, but that would require some work.

A pair of these Vise Grips is very handy for small items.   That particular size and design is the one I find the most versatile.  Don't use a cheap pair that's been trampled by a herd of wildebeests.  Instead,  I would get a good solid (perhaps new) pair and designate them for blacksmithing. 

The more massive pieces of iron and steel will retain heat for a while.   With small stuff, you'll want to get it from the forge, onto the anvil, and under the hammer relatively quickly.  This is another reason to use decent tools to hold the workpiece.  If the piece isn't held securely, you will waste a lot of time chasing it around and trying to re-secure it.  (Dangerous.)

Don't be in a huge hurry, either.  One of the tricks to hammering is to avoid hitting the anvil directly, if possible.  The workpiece is supposed to absorb the impact.

Where it gets really tricky is when you're hammering something into a point or an edge.  Without a doubt, you will strike the anvil sometimes with the hammer.  That's another reason why I like to use short I-beam sections for mini-blacksmithing;  if you do strike that "anvil", it's far less likely to chip something.  (But don't get careless;  it is steel.)

Keeping the workpiece closer to the edge of the anvil, so your hammer is at the edge, is also helpful;  the part of the hammer that's not hitting the workpiece will then be hitting air, not the anvil.


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There was a time when every farmer and homesteader made their own nails and most of their hardware.   Even today, sometimes you need a custom part.  Making it yourself actually saves time and money.

If you want a real anvil without spending weeks or months, then you may well find it worthwhile it to get a real anvil this way.   Or, if you're on a budget, get a smaller "starter anvil" that's made of steel (I think that one is, anyway).  

And if that's out of the question, feel free to pound to your heart's content on I-beams, H-beams, rail sections, and yes, even the dread "Anvil Shaped Object" (if for some reason you're stuck with one).  Even with these you can make lots of useful little stuff for various handyman projects.

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