At The Forge
I started forging steel when I was 18. My graduation present was a forge. I was awful, like, the work was so bad I could bring tears of despair to your eyes from the visual catastrophe—metal didn't deserve to be shaped like that.
I got a job at a local blacksmith/fabrication shop. After the first week, they decided I'd be better at spray painting their finished work. After two weeks we both mutually decided that maybe I shouldn't be working in the trade.
I grew up with zero mechanical aptitude. I never learned to work on a car, fix a broken appliance, even running a screw through a piece of wood was stretching my skill.
Everyday I worked on that forge. I was awful at it but just couldn't quit. I got better and better.
I've been hitting hot steel for 16 years now. For most of that time, some form of hitting metal has been my full time income.
I started out with a small unheated garage right next to a Frat house in Frostburg. At 9am each morning their hate filled glances reminded me a power hammer thud and a hangover were not compatible.
On weekends I would load up my ancient but huge white van and travel to art shows across the northeast. I was counting pennies, so often the van doubled as a roadside hotel room. Usually, you meet some of the most interesting and fantastic people late at night, hiding out in their vans too. Sometimes, however, you do not.
A few years in to my professional life I got a gig as a resident artist at www.spruceforest.org. I stopped doing nearly all of my shows and started working/selling out of the shop there. I'll have more about Spruce Forest Artisan Village in another post.
I am the blacksmith there, and still spend most of my life hitting metals of various types.
Hitting steel is one of the most satisfying “squishes” that I get the privilege of feeling. Whether it is by hand or with the power hammer, forcing hot steel to move feels good.
On a typical morning, after copious amounts of coffee, I light the coal forge. Lighting coal can be tricky. I start with newspaper, then light some wood on fire. After the wood is fully ignited, I start adding a few lumps of coal, then turn on a small electric fan to really get things hot.
The fire burns at over 3000 degrees. Steel burns well below that temp, so you have to pay attention or else your metal literally burns up.
Heating up a piece of steel can be fast. A small piece can get hot in a minute, while a larger piece can take 5 or 10 minutes. Coal burns very hot.
While the metal is in the fire you have to plan what you're going to do with it once it is hot. You have a very small window of time to manipulate the steel, each hammer blow and bend has to count. The saying, “strike while the iron is hot” has literal meaning to me and even the difference between a hammer blow at 2200 degrees and 1800 degrees can be huge.
The majority of tools in my shop are for working hot metal. Each hammer, pair of tongs, pliers and anvil tool do something unique to the hot metal. The majority of them are hand made for specific jobs.
Nearly 25% of the time in my shop I spend making and repairing tools. Tools break, often, and if you don't know how to fix them it becomes a cost prohibitive trade. This took me a very long time to understand, but eventually I learned the simple stuff, like repairing hammer handles, rethreading bolts and even the more complex stuff, like making my own custom machines and repairing electric motors. The embedded video shows me making myself a pair of custom jewelry making pliers.
Once a steel piece has been forged, it then has to be welded to other pieces to create a composition. I am not a purest, and I have no more an issue using an electric welder than a carpenter would object to using a circular saw (some blacksmiths feel one should use “traditional” technology only).
I prefer a welder called a MIG, which you hold a small “gun” where steel wire is fed through. A blast of shielding gas is pushed out at the same time the wire creates the electrical circuit, protecting the weld from oxygen. The 10,000 degree arc flame instantly melts the steel together.
After assembly, the welds are ground to aesthetically match the rest of the work and then a clear finish is applied.
Small forged pieces I can create in a day, other larger works can take weeks. When it comes to what I can and can't forge, my general rule is that if I can lift it, I can make it.
Thank you for reading this weeks blog which featured a glimpse into the world of forging hot steel. Tune in next week when I discuss another topic related to the reality of making metal art.