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FAQ - Iron and IronWorks
Q - Do you use wrought iron?
A - No. We do most of our work in wrought low carbon steel. There are several reasons. True wrought iron is not as strong as mild steel, and is only made in very small quantities today. The limited amount of wrought iron being manufactured means the base raw material cost is very high. Mild steel is much like iron, in that there is not enough carbon present in it to be hardenable, but does not have the long fibrous inclusions of slag that are common in older iron. The lack of this wood like “grain” allows mild steel to be more able to be shaped into complex forms without unduly stressing the internal molecular structure.
Sadly, wrought iron is no longer produced on a commercial scale. The last was made by the Atlas Ironworks in Great Brittan which closed in 1973. As mentioned above, some wrought iron is still being produced for restoration purposes but only from recycled scrap. Most products described as wrought iron are made of mild steel but are called wrought iron as they were traditionally made from wrought iron. Some might say this is a marketing ploy, but it is done more to keep the confusion down for the buyer.
Q – What kind of mild steel do you use?
A – Generally, we use 1020 HR. HR is hot rolled. In cases where something is going to be heated and forged, the work hardening of cold rolling is neutralized. By using hot roll, we save our customers some money on raw material costs. This is also more environmentally sound; the cold rolling process requires more energy than hot rolling, and is an extra step that is actually wasted.
Q – Do you use any other steels?
A – Yes! Several. We carefully choose steel for each project based on what the final product will be used for. Most ornamental work is 1020 (mild steel). It is strong and tough, but it is not able to hold a sharp edge. Large blades that will require a lot of flex and the ability to hold an edge will be something like 5160, 1075 or another medium-high carbon alloy, depending on design considerations. We also do some work in 300 series stainless (such as kitchen and bath hardware).
Q – Do you work with cast iron?
A – No. Cast iron is often melted in a special type of blast furnace known as a cupola, and the molten iron poured into a form or a holding furnace for later use. Because of the space and heat requirements its just not economical for us to produce cast iron. As well as for educational purposes the danger of working with molten steels with students present is not feasible at this time.
Q – Do you make damascus steel?
A – Yes. We make damascus in a number of patterns and compositions. This steel is used for rugged working knives, elaborate art knives and some of our other ornamental work. Occasionally, we also make damascus billets for other knife makers and artists to use in their work.
Q – Do you ever catch on fire?
A – Rarely, but usually as performance art rather than horrible tragedy.
Q – Ok, do you ever get burned?
A – Yep.
Q – How often do you get burned?
A – Almost every day. Not serious burns of course. As we forge hot steel, oxidized scale is knocked free and often lands on our hands, arms and feet. We wear protective gear, like heavy boots and leather aprons to protect ourselves, but some minor burns are inevitable. It's ok, we are used to it. After a while you find that you don't even notice the small burns anymore. Welding sparks can also catch your hair on fire (and not just on your head). This can be entertaining to watch, but isn't a whole lot of fun. If you want to learn to be a blacksmith yourself, pay special attention to the safety parts in the lessons. We have found out a whole bunch of ways to do things wrong for you.
Q – Do you use safety equipment?
A – Yes, yes of course we do. Especially when people are watching for a demonstration, photographing or when instructing. Should you see us not using safety equipment scold us like the giant, foolish children we are! Never bypass safety features of equipment, always wear protective eye and ear gear. Don' skimp on your safety stuff. Cheap safety glasses are no bargain. Get good ones with side shields and always wear the correct welding hood, shield or goggles when welding. A nice leather apron and some good leather/canvas gloves are a good idea for some things too. If your not sure what to get, stop and ask at your local welding supply. They can recommend good equipment and often sell quality products right there. Also, its recommended that you wear 100% cotton or other natural fibers (like wool) when working with any heat source, no synthetic fibers. Most synthetics will not just burn but melt to your skin as they burn.
Finally, we can not say enough for good footwear. A good thick leather or rubber sole will be most comfortable standing on a concrete floor. You do not necessarily need to wear steel toed boots but it does not hurt. Something that wraps the foot and ankle closely so nothing hot cant fall into your shoe and severely burn you, and or make you drop what your working on and likely hurt yourself further in some other unspeakable way. How, you might ask? It is unspeakable and we will not talk about it.
Q – Do you recycle?
A – Actually, blacksmith's were one of the early recyclers. If it's rusty, there is a good chance a blacksmith could use it to make something new. Today we continue this tradition. Some of our raw materials come from recycled sources. A lot of “industrial scrap” is actually new steel, or steel made from recycled sources. When possible, we would rather use this type of material over new steel, as it is more ecological and conserves resources.
Q – Also, isn't that really hot fire bad for the environment?
A – We use a mix of heat sources, such as clean burning propane gas, and high grade coal. As to the heat from the forge: The fire in a blacksmith's forge is very concentrated, and uses a surprisingly small amount of fuel. Fire control is critical to this end, and carefully banking the coals in the forge can help hold the heat inside the fire so less is lost into the atmosphere. This is some of why you usually do not see large noticeable flames, like you might from a campfire. Our shop typically uses less than one ton of coal per year, and we try to be as efficient as possible with the resources at hand. This also saves our clients money, as they are not paying for wasted fuel. We also use a particle trapping ash catch in our stack to help reduce pollution.
In comparison, our work generally uses less electricity and fuel than a normal family of three per year, and we are striving to be more efficient each year. In addition, we use modern welding techniques and high efficiency welding rigs to save our customers money and help to save the environment. It is our drive to use a mix of new technology and traditional techniques that makes us a leader in conservation among craftsmen, as many modern blacksmiths are.
Q – Can you make me the sword from highlander/this anime I saw/some other movie/book/game?
A – Yes. You may not like the price for such a project though. Custom work, especially highly exacting replica work of someone else's design, is not quick or inexpensive. Many projects like these can also require special materials or techniques that will also add to the final cost of the project. We are capable of building unusual, special projects, if you are a serious collector who is willing to wait for quality work and pay the price a complicated commission demands.
Now, that said, we know it may sound harsh and severe. We are often asked to reproduce objects from film and literature, and very often the person seeking these pieces is expecting to pay 75 dollars for a project that will take upwards of a thousand hours to create. We have, for many years, patiently explained this situation, and have often been surprised at how rudely our would be patron responds. So we have chosen to be more direct, blunt even, about such commissions.
In most cases, it is far less expensive to create your own new, one of a kind artifact, instead of copying something from another source. When we design a piece, all of the requirements are under our control; we are not limited by Hollywood designers who are unaware of the properties of steel and are simply trying to create a prop for a good story, without consideration of whether or not it could actually be made. If you would like to design your own object 'd art, contact us and we will see what we can do for you.
Q – So, what does a modern blacksmith do?
A – Everything! A modern blacksmith is much like a classic colonial or medieval smith. Today it is often cheaper and faster to go buy a box of nails or a tool at the hardware store, but there are just some things you can not find easily. We custom fabricate tools and supplies for production work as well as one of a kind objects. Everything from hardware for guitars and jewelry findings all the way to welding the frame of a plow for the farm, we are a full service shop.
Q – Do you shoe horses?
A – No. While we can make horse shoes, and often do a make variety of tack equipment, a Farrier provides a specialized services dealing more with the foot health of the animal. Our focus is on metal work. We would be happy to refer you to qualified Farrier.
Q – What kind of tools do you use?
A – There are more blacksmith tools commercially available now than their have ever been before. Every blacksmith has their own style and preferred tools to use. What you like and will use often is a product of what you learned with. Many blacksmiths prefer to make their own tools, and for many of the more specialized tools its almost required, but more so because they can. There is a great sense of personal satisfaction in using a tool that you have made yourself.
Some of the more basic tools are;
Hammer – The most commonly used hammers are cross or ball peen hammers. Anywhere from 25 oz up to 800-1500 oz is fairly standard. DO NOT USE A CLAW HAMMER. Start small and choose an appropriate hammer for the job. If your using a hammer that is too big you will tire yourself out, get frustrated and the risk of injury to your project or yourself is higher.
Anvil – Nothing beats (no pun intended) a good quality anvil. There are many types of anvils to choose from, but you can get started with a piece of heavy railroad rail. A blacksmiths' anvil is usually the first expensive tool you buy. We recommend you buy the best anvil you can afford as it is often either a life time investment or a costly error. Avoid cast iron anvils, they just cannot stand up to the work load expected of an anvil. Some modern malleable steel anvils are of better quality though. Do a bit of research on the anvil you are looking at if you are able.
Forge – The single most important tool for a blacksmith is your source of fire. Fortunately its also the easiest to make or purchase. Forges can he extremely high tech or made from scrap parts and mud. We have a section in our Lessons on building forges that may be helpful.
Vise – The most used secondary tool in the shop is a good vise. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Used for an extra hand to bend or twist something, they are also great for holding something steady to file or cut. Almost any vice will do, but its recommended you get a heavier vise as the temptation to pound on your project in the vise will overcome you and you will destroy a small vise in short order. The blacksmith's post vice is custom made for rough treatment, and can be found from a number of sources, as well as estate sales.
Tongs – You can purchase just about any style of tong you can think of but your not really a blacksmith until you have made at least one pair yourself. For small work a pair of locking pliers will get you by. Channel locks are less sturdy.
Q – How did you start blacksmithing?
A – (This will take a while to get filled in, but for now, John is the 6th generation to work the oldest continually operational blacksmith shop in Michigan) and Nic started in Nebraska as the third generation of damascus knife makers. Our shop has over 50 years of combined experience in metal work, providing hand made fine metal, wood and leather goods.
Q – How do I become a blacksmith?
A – If your serious about learning, start by taking a welding class at your local community college. You will often find great literature in your local library or on line. Many blacksmithing sites including this one offer some instructional information for free. Many organizations such as ABANA (link soon) exist to help you in your blacksmithing adventure. Ask questions. Blacksmiths are often gruff, grumpy and covered in coal dust, but if you can get one talking about their craft, you often can not get us to shut up.
Q – Do people ask you a lot of questions?
A – They sure do! Look how long this section is. And we did not even include the weird questions we get in here.