Friday, May 27, 2016

Having a Bash at Blacksmithing

Nearly every day since I'd returned from England, rain has fallen and Saturday was no exception. I was going just a mile or so down the road to the nearby Earth Village Education Center where I had signed up for a course in Basic Blacksmithing. Guessing we'd likely be outside because of the smoke from the forge, I dressed up warmly and wore a raincoat too.
When I arrived our instructor was readying the forges, and I had to keep moving to dodge the smoke, but he seemed completely unperturbed by it. Greg Price is from Warrenton and prefers to refer to himself as a craftsman rather than an artist, and by the end of the day I totally agreed. He had told us that many customers seemed nowadays to prefer a 'rustic' look whereas he preferred the honed polished effect, which obviously would not allow for any imperfections of any kind that the rustic look would allow. I respected him for that.
I was told immediately to remove my raincoat, being a man-made material, it was too flammable. Of course I removed it, and then mentally kicked myself for not wearing more layers, it wasn't warm out here.
Some of the pieces Greg had on display which we could attempt to copy after our basic training, and the hammers that we'd be using to forge our pieces.
This is a swage, a cast iron block used for hammering in the curves of a spoon or ladle, or anything else that needed 'bowl' shaping.
While watching Greg start up his demonstration forge I looked down and spotted the message on the bucket. Rather apt for today! I had to keep moving about though because of the infernal coal smoke, it really was making me feel a little sick, and I wondered how I'd last a day of it. It made me very aware of how it must be working in the cab of a steam train or what the conditions must be like in a colliery.
And then the fun began. The first thing I was surprised at was that we wouldn't be wearing gloves while we worked, but of course if I'd thought about it, it made sense. A lot of the creativity here required the sense of touch and a firm grip, both of which would be hampered by thick gloves. We were also told that gloves give you a false sense of security.
Just keeping the forge alight is a huge task. We learned that our bucket of coal had to be kept wet as this ensures that the fine particles of coal stick to the larger pieces. The wet coal is stacked on one side of the forge where it heats up and turns into coke. This is what should be in the center of the fire and what you push your stock into to heat it up, it's hotter and produces less smoke than coal. Air is pushed through by a fan to ensure the flames are hot. Greg told us to forge when our stock was lemon yellow, and to bend it when it was orange. If your stock is spitting sparks like a firework, then it's too hot.
Greg showed us how to draw a taper, with even tapping every 90°. Tapping the metal, working it from a square into an octagon to a round point. He made it look so easy with his fast and even moves, the steel almost appearing liquid as it moved so fluidly under his touch.
He also showed us how us to add the twists to our metal. An even temperature was required or the twists would be uneven. Too high a temperature and the twists would be too tight, too low and they'd be too far apart.
This was my station. I had a hell of a job maintaining my forge and trying to work on my steel at the same time as I had to turn off the pump after every time I pulled out my stock, because the air pump was too powerful for my little forge and was burning my fuel up too fast.
Another thing that surprised me was that I didn't have to hit as hard as I thought I would need to work my steel. It did involve a lot of concentration and co-ordination with my forge but after a while I was enjoying myself and not even aware of the clouds of black smoke that I occasionally swallowed. Even the damp cold day wasn't hindering me, I was soon warmed up with my efforts and my nearby fire. I did feel that I needed more one-on-one attention, I sometimes had a problem working out which way I needed to hammer my piece but Greg was always very patient and explained or demonstrated well.
Greg told us about shaping ball-peen hammers to get the desired effect on our steel. These are different tools that he's actually made himself from hammers, heating up the peens to then shape them into his desired tool. Impressive, and I loved the handle on the hammer at the top of the photo. He's also made his own grips for holding the hot steel, there are quite a few varieties of these too.
At the end of the day I left with two pieces, both of which, although not technically correct, were pretty good in my estimation. We all had to make a hook for our first piece so we could get to grips with the techniques, and then we all made our choice of the pieces Greg had laid out that morning as examples. Some folks made more hooks but a young lad and I chose to go with the BBQ steak flipper, a tool I'd never seen before, and I though it could become a conversation piece.
I arrived home tired and with a very black face, and stinking of coal smoke, but very satisfied. Kota and Rosie Lee inspected my works of art, and after feeding them I sat straight down and cleaned them up with sandpaper and mineral oil.

The photos below were taken by Kevin from E.V.E. More can be seen here.
I am extremely fortunate to have E.V.E. on my doorstep and will definitely be attending more classes. I wish Mike would give me my long overdue pay rise so I can sign up for more!
I'd very much enjoyed the day, I'm not sure that I'd have another go but this is something that I'd always wanted to try. I used my hook to hang my steak flipper and am actually quite proud of my efforts. Maybe further down the road I'll find myself once again standing in front of a forge, or even putting to use the 85lb farrier anvil I have sitting on my fire hearth!

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