(Mis)Adventures in Blacksmithing

Attempts at containing fire in a tin can.

My first attempt at a forge from a can of chicken soup, some plaster of Paris, and sand. I recommend against doing it this way.

When I was in Cub Scouts, I remember going to an event called the Cub Blizzard which took place at the resident scout camp for the council in early February. It was a day event that involved doing activities that were amenable to the cold weather of New England. One of these activities was a live blacksmithing demonstration. Now you would think that hitting glowing pieces of metal with a hammer while a fire rages on a cold day would appeal to an 8 year old, but I remember walking away thinking that blacksmithing was something I would never be interested in. It might have been a combination of the cold, the fact that it was closet to 7 am and I had been up since 5, the lack of hot chocolate, and the incredibly dry delivery of the presenter showing off the endless supply of tongs he brought but I couldn’t have been less interested.

Fast-forward to the first few months of quarantine, where I stumbled across the work of Alec Steele on Youtube and saw a different side of blacksmithing. He was dynamic and enthusiastic. You felt the joy of making in him, and I was finally able to see blacksmithing as more than something done by grey and pedantic old men. At first, I came to it as someone only interested in understanding and observing, just wanting to learn but not do. Soon this gave way to a new thought process, one that went something like:

Within a few months of watching blacksmithing videos, I had gone from someone who had no interest in actually attempting to forge an item, to looking for the cheapest way to build my first forge.

My germ hook next to the sketch I laid out in my notebook. The brown patch is from getting a little too close to the drawing during the forging process.

The project that put me over the edge was a germ hook that Alec Steele had designed to be made quickly so he could mass produce them within a day. The simple bent metal looked elegant and satisfying to produce while still looking simple enough for someone who had never even thought of forging before to create. I quickly laid out a sketch and mentally considered the shapes I would need to be able to forge, and what tools I would need to make it happen. A hammer and some sort of anvil would be necessary, of course, but the one piece of equipment I was most worried about was the forge.

(Mis)Adventure 1: How Not to Build a Forge

My first attempt at making a forge from a soup can. It worked well enough, but I would not recommend.

My first forge needed to be two things:

  1. Cheap
  2. Small

Again, Alec Steele was the starting point as his videos introduced the idea of a soup can forge. These are small forges made out of some type of metal can with a liner of insulating and refractory material to retain heat and protect the interior. They used kaowool and satanite for their forge lining but the potential lung exposure issues coupled with the cost of acquiring the materials led me to look elsewhere.

Looking back, I likely would have sprung for the proper forge liner but I was unsure and uninformed at the time. Instead, I started searching the internet for cheaper ways to make a forge.There were a lot of options for larger forges, but the compact soup can remained illusive. Eventually, I found an Instructable that advertised a simpler way to make a forge. All you needed was:

Half of the refractory material/insulator.
  1. A soup can
  2. Plaster of Paris
  3. sand
  4. water
  5. a pipe nipple
  6. a stand of some type
  7. a MAPP torch
  8. something to shape the center

This seemed perfect. The liner materials could be purchased for a total of about 10 dollars. They were a lot less volatile than the kaowool. They could be hand-sculpted. It all seemed so easy. This is the part where I spoil things a bit and tell you that it went together fine, and I was able to forge in it. It did not hold heat well so the only part of the metal that was heated was the part directly in front of the torch. It also started to disintegrate within a few days. Really, the only major benefit was that it was a fireproof box to hold the metal in while the torch was blowing on it. If you have the materials and just want to try quickly, it should be fine. If you are going to buy things, I would just recommend going with the proper liner.

Adventure 2: Forging The Germ Hook

The round stock laid out on the back of my great-grandfather’s vice showing a before and after. The green paint did pose some issues early on as the hot metal liked to suck it off. Make sure you clean any paint off any portion of your anvil that may come into contact with hot metal or you’ll end up with a face full of smoke and a bunch of crud on your work piece.

Now that we had something resembling a forge, it was time to try and forge some steel. I picked up a couple of 1/4" round bar from The Home Depot and gingerly assessed the strength the small anvil on the back of my great-grandfather’s bench vice (I strongly recommend against doing this. The anvil of the vice is really not made for this and you can crack the casting of the vice and completely destroy it if you aren’t careful) and lit the forge.

Some variations on fitting the hook in the forge. I realized pretty quickly that the germ hook was at the limits of my forge and ended up scraping some liner out, as well as drilling a second hole in the back so I could pass through longer stock.

The first time I lit the forge was outside, far from the house, with a fire extinguisher in hand. It was a tense 20 minutes stand-off where nothing happened other than the forge ran out of fuel. The second time, I went and ventilated my workshop and set up a CO meter (carbon monoxide poisoning is no joke and can happen quickly) before placing a bar in the forge. The First bend was the easiest, a few hammer hits bent it square against the edge of the smoking vice anvil. Getting the steel back in forge without falling out was a bit more difficult but the real trouble was yet to come.

The vice anvil does not have a real horn, so forging the finger loop was difficult. This was compounded by the fact that the loop needed to be forged down to the point where it would fit back in the forge. This resulted in a lot of pushing the loop end too far on one heat, before carefully moving it back out on the next.

Left: One of the weird ways the hook was folded in order to make it fit in the forge. Right: An intermediate state of the hook. The loop has been rolled too far and needs to be rolled back.
The finished germ hook. Forging the loop on the back of the hook was quite a challenge given the tools and the forge size.

One thing I did in advance of all this, was embed a steel plate in my workbench in order to have a place to put/drop hot steel. This came in handy when I needed a few moments to assess the hook after I overdid the loop. It was a lot of trial and error, and ended with me locking the hook in the vice jaws in order to hammer the ring back open. I ultimately made a few different hooks, each slightly different, and gave them to friends and family.

Adventure 3: What Else can We Forge?

My first two attempts forging leaf rings on the new Harbor Freight anvil

With a few germ hooks under my belt, I decided to see what else I could forge. First I went to Harbor Freight and acquired an anvil shaped object (ASO) in the form of this 15lb cast-iron anvil. It is incredibly soft and not amazing, but definitely beat the alternative of hammering on a 100+ year old vice. It made forging the hooks easier by allowing me to shape the loop around the rounded half-horn, but the round was a little too large for the forge opening… so there was still some fiddling that needed to happen. Wanting to test the little anvil a bit, I decided to try one of the most commonly recommended first blacksmith projects — the forged leaf.

The hot bar bit into the edges of the anvil as they deformed under my hammer blows before hardening and beginning to stabilize. I tried to channel all those three hours of forging experience into forming a small bulb at the end of my little metal rod. The first attempt was punctuated by nervous hammer blows, and a lack of commitment resulting in a chunky and square leaf ring. The veins cut with a chisel identify it as a leaf, but little else about the shape did. My second attempt, I committed. I hammered on the leaf and watched as each hammer blow stretched the steel to seemingly untenable thinness. In the end, the second ring was thin and strong. It looked the part of a leaf and still fills me with satisfaction every time I look at it.

I also tried my hand at a keychain version of the leaf which turned out pretty well, but I am still most proud of the second leaf ring. See below for the hooks.
My first batch of horseshoe nail hooks

At this point, I had started watching many more blacksmithing channels, and had noticed another recurring project — Making hooks from horseshoe nails. They are cool and simple items that are actually economically viable if you are looking at starting to sell your products. The hooks are quite simple in that the nails are simply heated in the forge and then the head is flattened to produce a spot to drill a hole in the hook. The end of the nail is then bent to produce the hook portion. The nails are soft enough that the bending can be done cold with jeweler’s pliers! The hardest part was in flattening the nail so that the head was relatively even. I have since found a video on Black Bear Forge where he first squares off the hook to make it even when he flattens it out, but I did not know that when forging out the hooks in this story. I coated them in paste wax and gave some of them a quick brush with a brass brush to give them a nice warm look.

The outdoor forging setup I started to produce hooks. The first few hooks I was hesitant to fully flatten them, which is why they still have the diamond shape of the horseshoe nail. The top two show fully flattened heads. One has been bent into a hook as a test.

Parting Thoughts — What Comes Next?

Blacksmithing has quickly become one of my favorite hobbies, and I am curious how far I can go in the craft. I have since acquired a new anvil, and begun working on a larger and more useful forge. A total write-up on that is on the way once it has been tuned and is no longer burning my hair on the light. The physics behind the way many forge burners work is quite fascinating, and I have started a piece describing their specific operation. They can be reasonably understood with some basic fluid dynamics and a few drawings, which makes the physicist in me quite excited.

On the formal learning side, I have begun some online educational courses to better understand the finer points of blacksmithing and metal-shaping. I am also looking to enroll in the NFPA hotwork safety course to make sure I am conducting any future work in a safe and controlled manner.

The new forge. It is still a work in progress. The body is from an old helium tank, and the burner is made from plumbing parts. The drawing on the right is a digitization of a set of plans I made by hand to better understand the scale of the forge. If you like them, you can pick them up on various items here.

To Summarize, blacksmithing is an incredibly fun and dynamic craft, and I highly recommend anyone interested give it a chance by seeking out a professional smith. Many are happy to share their enthusiasm for the craft and will point you to the best places to get started in your region. The Artist Blacksmith Association of North America (ABANA) is a great online resource as well.

I must add the disclaimer that working with hot metal and explosive gases is inherently dangerous. Please look into local ordinances governing hot work and gases such as propane and follow any and all safety requirements. Make sure you wear proper protective equipment and seek the advice of trained professionals (which I am NOT!). This post is not meant to be seen as instructive in any way, and serves as a catalog of my personal experiences with blacksmithing. Please do your own research before trying any of this.

Just some guy trying to be an astrophysicist. GWU PhD candidate, Chandra X-ray Center Predoc, Stellar Undertaker, Maker of things.