Learn Blacksmithing Basics

Ever wanted to bend, twist and shape metal? Here’s how you can learn a timeless craft that’s fun and useful, too.
By Todd Kaho
Nov. 20, 2008
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Explore the art of blacksmithing and learn how to make useful metal objects for your home and homestead.
ISTOCKPHOTO/BOJAN FATUR


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Hot, dirty and physically demanding — blacksmithing isn’t for everybody. But for those so inclined, learning this craft can be both rewarding and useful. Imagine the satisfaction of striking a glowing piece of metal with a big hammer against an anvil and reshaping it into the desired form. In fact, blacksmithing is so physical that it can be a great release for stress in these days of technology overload.

Learning a Timeless Craft

Traditionally, if you wanted to learn to be a skilled smith, you would go to work as an apprentice or helper in a local blacksmith shop. But today, you don’t need to learn all about the trade to enjoy the art of blacksmithing.

A few years ago, my teenage son, Griffin, and I enrolled in a three-day introduction to blacksmithing class at the John C. Campbell Folk Art School in Brasstown, N.C. Nestled in the rolling Southern Appalachian countryside, this school has been teaching a wide variety of folk art skills since 1925, and it makes a wonderful getaway, with comfortable lodging and family style home-cooked dining.

Our mentor for the class was full-time artist-blacksmith Paul Garrett. Garrett created a relaxed atmosphere and took into account the different skill levels of everyone in the class. By the end of the first day, even the first-timers were bending and twisting metal stock into functional hardware. The environment at the school fosters learning and creativity, and just as importantly, it provides all the necessary equipment and hardware to learn about blacksmithing.

Blacksmithing Tools and Techniques

At the heart of a blacksmith shop is the forge. Reshaping metal requires extreme heat, and that heat comes from the forge. The old-school type of forge is coal-fired. Another option is to use more modern gas forges, which are cleaner and more easily controlled. But to the traditionalist, the act of stoking and tending a coal forge is no small part of the romance. A coal forge requires constant attention from the second you light it. The firepot transforms the coal into coke, a solid carbon fuel that burns with intense heat and little smoke. The forge temperature is adjusted by the airflow from a bellows or from a hand-cranked or electric blower. A coal forge can become so hot that leaving a work piece in too long will turn it white hot and actually burn up the metal.

The blacksmith’s arsenal includes the anvil and a variety of hammers, hardys, punches, tongs and fullers, among other tools. The traditional anvil design has a large flat work surface called the face, a step used for some forming techniques and a horn used for rounding, such as crafting horseshoes. Most have a square hardy hole and a round pritchel hole. The hardy hole accepts the square shank of a hardy tool used for cutting. The pritchel hole is useful for punching, where the hot metal is pierced with a punch, eliminating the need for drilling.

It’s amazing what you can do with a solid piece of metal. With proper technique and a lot of imagination, true works of art can grow from the inferno of the forge. A piece of quarter-inch square stock, for example, can quickly be drawn down to a sharp point with angled hammer blows on the face of the anvil. Or, you can heat and twist the part like a licorice whip for a decorative effect. By the end of the three-day class, my son and I were able to produce useful household items including plant hangers, hooks, fireplace tools and door pulls. Watching a skilled smith like Paul Garrett is inspiring and feeds the desire to learn the craft. Much of the art is trial and error — blacksmithing is as much feel as knowledge.

Back to the Shop

Once you’re initiated to the craft, blacksmithing can be addictive. Back home without the proper tools, I found myself checking farm auctions and garage sales for old forges and anvils. Finally, an Internet search turned up a local blacksmith artisan less than an hour from our rural southeastern Ohio home.

As luck would have it, master smith Loren Roper also teaches classes in his rustic multiple forge shop. After an e-mail inquiring about forge time, my son and I were back in the heat of the shop, sweating and grinning, refreshing old skills and learning a few new ones. Griffin produced a beautiful three-candle centerpiece of his own design for our dining room table, and I managed a rather stout horse tie ring for our barn. Loren’s impressive work includes handcrafted knives made by forge welding old chain-saw chain onto Damascus steel, household tools, art pieces and unique jewelry items.

Where to Learn More

If you are interested in experiencing blacksmithing for yourself, the Artist-Blacksmith Association of North America is a great resource. A comprehensive list of educational resources is available on their Web site including shops and schools offering classes. You will get dirty and hot, but soon you’ll be hearing the ring of the anvil and learning a useful skill that can last a lifetime.

Do you have blacksmithing experience? Share your stories and advice by posting a comment below.


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Post a comment below.

 

Patrik Baláž
6/8/2012 5:54:39 PM
An interesting article about blacksmithing in Slovakia: http://www.levican.sk/index.php?app=noviny-levice&sec=ukaz&show=1081

Eagle
7/13/2009 8:26:46 PM
I have been enjoying the art of blacksmithing for many years now,and have been a member of both ABANA,and the AFC,(well when I renew at least). It is a very rewarding and facinating art that literally runs the gamut of interests. I would suggest you seek out a local forge,smith....or contact ABANA/AFC(alabama forge counsil) for we do have members from various states and countries. The annual blacksmiths conference at Tanneyhill here in sweet home Alabama is an event enjoyed by folks from far and wide as well an excellent oppurtunity to get involved in the "Green Coal" . Keep the art alive and from what I have read ...you are all doing an excellent job of promoting this at not too long ago almost became a lost art until a early 1970's ish,revival. The site mentioned as well have enormuos acrhives of information for the curious or ones really seeking to become master smith's. Take care and never strike a cold anvil...thats for you other smiths :).

Sue_28
5/4/2009 9:42:54 AM
Hey Matthew - The John C. Campbell Folk School (where the person that wrote the article took the class) offers a work-study program and a student-host program, where you can attend classes and stay at the school in exchange for work. Check out our website for applications - we're full for 2009; but you could apply for 2010.

Sue_28
5/4/2009 9:20:28 AM
Hey Matthew - The John C. Campbell Folk School (where the person that wrote the article took the class) offers a work-study program and a student-host program, where you can attend classes and stay at the school in exchange for work. Check out our website for applications - we're full for 2009; but you could apply for 2010.

Matthew_18
3/28/2009 3:31:39 AM
I've always had the interest to become a blacksmith since i was a young child, around age 8 I had the notion that it was what i wanted to do for a living. now at age 20 i still have the desire to learn the trade, only problem is i don't know where to start and i am broke. i do not know the potential of gaining income in the trade but i would love the knowledge none the less. i guess i am wondering if there is any information anyone can share to help me begin this trek and whether or not it can become a profitable task or if i should only regard its possibility for a hobby. any help would be appreciated.

psycosmith
12/25/2008 8:48:42 PM
i taught myself how to blacksmith let me tell you it's a pain in the ass. especially because i don't have any actual blacksmithing tools.. my anvil is half of a 55 pound dumbbell that i secured to a log... my tongs are a pair of robo grip plyers, my forge is made of brick, and my air supply is a shop vac... but it works.. and it was almost all free. i recently started making a new forge... and its not costing me a thing accept some hard labor. it's made out of a wheelbarrel the frame for the bottom is made of an old benchpress and the legs are aluminum pipes from the handles of the wheelbarrel... i punched a hole in the bottom and now i have to lay sand, concrete, and brick down... then attach my air supply and waste gate.. and i'm done i'm building it from scrap thats just laying around at my house and at friends houses

Caleb_1
12/17/2008 1:48:53 PM
Hey I was wondering if anybody has plans on building a charcoal forge. Thanks.

Dallas_1
11/29/2008 9:48:54 PM
About 25 years ago I made a knife using a hefty bastard file I still have the knife it has a leather handle a brass hilt and butt, the tang goes all the way through and I forged the blade in my uncles blacksmith shop it was a very hot job but also very rewarding tempering the blade was a little tricky but it holds a very good edge it took a lot of hammer blows to get the shape i wanted Keep up the good work on the articles thanks Dallas

Tim_6
11/29/2008 11:06:32 AM
Blacksmithing and knife making can be fun and rewarding. But this hobby is not for the clumsy. Proper safety tools are a must. A piece of steel at 900 degrees f will pretty much ignite anything that can burn. Blacksmithing temps are commonly 1500 degrees to 2200 degrees. With that in mind, it can be enjoyed with a minimum of tools. Don't spend a lot of money until you are sure it is for you.A few hammers, tongs, an anvil or similar, a forge (which you can make yourself), and a few files will get you started. The heavier the anvil the better. Many other tools can be made once you are up and running. Don't expect your projects to look perfect in the beginning. Expect about four months to one year learning curve for quality results.

terry regennitter_1
11/28/2008 7:32:10 PM
Heritage Craft and Trade Demonstrator: I made my forge and use a vacuum with an air volume control. The anvil is a 6x6 in the ground with a steel plate on top. My tongs are vice grips. Make all my own wood working tools from car springs and files and lawn mower blades. Terry

KEN NORMILE
11/27/2008 7:13:31 PM
I learned a bit at the Folk Center in Mt View,Ar. They have a one week class for up to 5 people but I went for several saterdays and this worked out even better. Being the only one there to learn I wasn't waiting in line to start hammering. I'd recomend this to anybody interested in learning something useful. I built a propane forge and am now making an anvil. There is also a knife making school here in Arkansas which I've wanted to attend for a long time. I have been there to watch and its looks great. Its at one of the State Parks in the SW part of the state.

Pete_2
11/26/2008 6:23:09 PM
Been learning a lot about blacksmithing myself... Seems a great skill to have it the lights go out... ;o)And, I get to use it for knifemaking, etc... I've built two forges from scratch. The first, for less than $15 is coal fired and uses a brake drum as the basis. Two excellent videos at Youtube's 'Purgatory Ironworks.' http://www.youtube.com/profile?user=purgatoryironworks&view=videos The second forge is a gas fired forge that can hit 2300º. Lots of great ideas at Zoellerforge.com http://www.zoellerforge.com/firebrickforge.html I went with the firebrick forge pictured here and got the bricks from Sheffield Pottery in PA. For a low budget anvil I cruised the local iron scrapyard and scored a 10" X 12" I-beam that is 1" thick all around and 22" long... Paid $62 for it. Weighs in at a stout 220lbs!! Looking for info on how to make a pneumatic hammer or alter a pneumatic jack so I can more easily try my hand at Damascus steel for some sweet looking blades.. Peace, Pete








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