The North Dakota Council on the Arts has a Folk and Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program that “is designed to honor and encourage the preservation of North Dakota’s diverse living traditions by providing grants that allow master traditional artists to pass their skills and knowledge to apprentices on a one-to-one basis over an extended period of time.” We were encouraged to apply for this program to help us continue to study under the master blacksmith Doug Swenson of Goose Prairie Forge and were lucky enough to be funded from July 2020-April 2021.
Last year our projects represented a wide sample of items and techniques. This year we are going to get more focused on hardware for doors, cabinets, and chests. This type of work requires greater precision and is going to push our skills.
The schedule is based on 15 flexible sessions of 3-6 hours in length taking place 2-4 times per month for a total of 50+ hours. The apprenticeship will begin July 1, 2020 and conclude by April 30, 2021.
These projects are going to be very challenging, but once again the challenge will be squeezing it into everyone’s busy scheduled. And the impact that COVID-19 has on our program is yet to be determined.
The last of our official sessions under the FY20 NDCA Folk and Traditional Arts grant had us working on our hammer and starting an axe. Yay! We’re finally getting to the axe, which is a project I’ve been looking forward to for a long time.
Last week we started our hammer head and had managed to get the eye punched and drifted and the cross peen started. We still had a bit more drawing and shaping to do on the peen end today, and of course there’s still the heat treating, hardening, and dressing to do as well.
So we dug right in and started pounding on that cross-peen end. This is a solid block of tough steel and it doesn’t want to move too quickly. But after a while it started to shape up and we then turned our focus to the langetsLangetLangets are the "ears" associated with a drift hole, such as on a hammer or axe, where to flatten the sides you pull the mass up into ears instead of pushing it to the sides which would distort the hole..
Langets are formed when you take the mass of metal that was pushed out when you drifted the hole for the handle and pull it upwards. Why would you do that? Because you want the side of your hammer to be flat and not have that bulge in the middle. Why is that important? It keeps the hammer from sliding off the anvil when you set it down and you can scrape the hammer scale off the anvil with the flat side. So if form follows function, you want a flat side to your hammer.
It sounds easy enough, once you understand what you are trying to do and why, but once again it’s harder to do than it sounds. The trick is to not change the shape of the hole you’ve created too much. So much of the time you are pounding on the sides of the hammer, you have the drift punch in the hole rather than using tongs. That helps keep the shape a bit and gives you better control too.
And as much as moving this rather large chunk of hard steel takes a bit of oomph, it’s surprising how it also requires finesse to get it just right. Keeping the bottom flat, the sides flat, the slopes of the langets straight, and the hole straight and true means a lot of little taps on top of the big hits from earlier in the process.
We finished the day with the shape of the hammer head where we wanted it and began the heat treating by thermocyclingThermocyclingThermocycling is the process of heating steel to critical temp (non-magnetic) and then letting it air cool. Usually done three times in a row. it three times. The final heat/quench and tempering will have to wait until next time.
We started with a chunk of 4140 bar stock to begin making our axe. It begins a lot like the hammer in that you need to drift a hole in the middle. It’s a bit tricker though as the stock is rectangular instead of square and you’re trying to cut through the narrow end. So we started with the same trick of putting the stock low in the vise and scoring it to mark the middle. This hole is further to one side since, unlike the hammer, there’s really only one business end of an axe.
Doug had spotted a jig for making axes in one of the Norwegian/Swedish blacksmithing books and had replicated it. We were a little worried that the heated block would get stuck in the jig or it wouldn’t fit in it in the first place, but it worked brilliantly and was much more sturdy than having another person hold the block with tongs. It seems nearly impossible for a solo smith to do both hammer and tongs work on this and get that hole drifted at all, much less straight. The jig makes it easier and better no matter how many folks are available for the work.
After nearly 6 hours at the forge today (time always seems to fly at the forge) we called it a day when our arms gave out. We still have next weekend to do the final touches on the hammer and get the axe into shape as well.
While this marks the “official” end of our grant work for FY20, we learned this week that we have been approved to continue our apprenticeship for FY21. Exciting! We won’t be starting on that work until July, so look for a separate post with information on our plan for the new grant and the projects we’ll be working on.
This one was a doozie as it was double, maybe triple, long. Today we focused on getting one hammer made. Sounds easy enough, right? One hammer, one long day, two (or three) people, no problem. Uh, we got a long ways but we did not get it done in the 5+ hours that we spent on it.
Because a good start to this project is everything, we started by scoring our block of 1045 square steel (maybe 1-1/4 inches) with some lines to make sure that we got our hole for the hammer centered and straight on the block. While you can make some adjustments as you go, it’s better to take your time at this stage. It’s hard to recover from a badly placed hole. So we marked some lines on the top and bottom to find the center down the longest dimension (length) and copied those to the opposite side. We then wanted to mark our “center” in the narrow dimension (width), but this mark needed to be off-center just a bit to allow for the lengthening of the one side as we draw out the cross peen. It was about a 60/40 split. We used a straight edge and a drill bit to make the score marks.
After we scored all the lines we needed, we got out a chisel and marked the spot where we wanted the drift to be. It was a fairly significant pilot cut as we were going to need to be able to see it when the block was heated to yellow hot. We made the same marks on both the top and the bottom of the hammer head.
Next was to get the block good and hot and begin to punch a hole through the block. As you can imagine, it took a lot of heat and a lot of times in and out of the forge to get the chisel to go all the way through. We punched from both sides and met in the middle. It was a two-person job as one person worked the tongs to pull the block out place in on the anvil, hold it in place, and then flip it over while the other person carefully placed the chisel and hammered the bejeezus out of it. It is a best practice to switch sides of the anvil (and therefore the block of steel) to compensate for any thing that might not be quite plumb or level. It became a bit of a dance as it was two or three strikes with the hammer, dunk the chisel in water to cool it off, switch sides of the anvil and repeat.
We finally managed to get the chisel through the entire piece and it was relatively straight. Next step is to make that hole big enough to hold a handle, so we used increasingly larger chisels/drift tools until we had a good, straight eye formed. It was easy to check if it was straight by lifting the hammer head up on the drift tool to eyeball how it was sitting. We did need to make some minor adjustments along the way.
Once it was large enough and straight enough it was time to start drawing out the peen end. That’s a pretty solid chunk of tough steel to try to get moving, but if you heated it up enough it started to move. This was where having a team of people was really handy as we had a fireman/tongs person, a lead blacksmith doing some hammering, and a striker delivering some powerful blows to get it into shape.
Due to some other commitments, we weren’t quite able to finish the hammer head in one day. We still need to finish the peen and draw out the langetsLangetLangets are the "ears" associated with a drift hole, such as on a hammer or axe, where to flatten the sides you pull the mass up into ears instead of pushing it to the sides which would distort the hole. around the eye, plus there will be some work to finish the face of the hammer as well. We’ll get it done at our next session.
A couple of other things we learned today. One reason that it is preferred to drift the eye hole rather than to drill it into the block of steel is that steel has grain and fiber, somewhat like wood. Rather than break those fibers by drilling a hole it is better to split the fibers by drifting to maintain their strength.
The end of our grant is fast approaching and we’ve got a few projects left to finish up. So today is going to be another double session of basically finishing the projects we were working on last week.
With the beeswax/tar goop that we painted on the canvas last week now dry, it was time for final assembly.
We affixed a couple of crossbeams under the bellows. They serve two purposes: 1) to allow air to flow into the valves from underneath and 2) to set the angle of the bellows for best airflow effect.
The best angle for the two bellows is to have the airstreams cross about three inches in front of the snouts with the soapstone barrier about an inch in front of that. We lined up some steel rods down the centerline of each bellows to determine where the airstreams would cross and then marked the crossbeams before affixing them. There’s no special measurements of where they should go other than the back one shouldn’t obstruct the valve holes and the front one should stick out the sides so that it can be clamped or bolted or staked into place when using to keep them from moving about.
The last step today was to attach the handles and test the results.
There is one final step left to do on the hinges which is to affix the leather hinges to the sides of the side, but we want to use them for a while and break in the leather before making a slice and tacking them down. And we also need to drill the hole in the soapstone and maybe build a portable table to hold it all for using at events or just outside on nice days.
Now back to the shears…
Shears are one of those projects that seem like it should be easy, but in practice turn out to be more difficult than imagined. We had started with about 18-inches of 9/16-inch 108510851085 steel is a hardenable steel round steel stock. First we flattened out the spring area in the middle and drew out the ends to thin them out. And that’s where we left them last week.
So this week we needed to create the blades on each end and fold it and then finish it.
It’s been a while since we’ve done blades so it was a nice refresher. Drawing them out, grinding them, heat treating, and tempering are things we are familiar with but with shears the blades need to be at 90º angles to the flat spring area and facing the same direction as each other. I can neither confirm nor deny that there were mistakes made in that process. It’s really hard to get two blades that are exact mirrors of each other.
The last step was to fold them and line up the blades. Keeping them equal lengths so that the tips were even required wrapping the spring area around a big steel rod (vertical worked best) and either push/pulling the ends or hammering a bit on the spring area.
Then the big test of whether or not they would actually cut anything.
Well, they did pass the test, but we learned so many things that we’d like to do differently that we may have to try another pair soon. Things we’d do different are: 1) longer blades and not so much concern about the length of the reins, 2) have the blades be flat on two dimensions (spine and one side) that that they don’t rub and interfere with use, and 3) set shoulders to define the spring and blades areas, and 4) draw out only the reins area and not the blades area (we needed a bit more mass to work with).
Good thing we brought donuts to the smithy today because we spent over 6 hours in the forge getting these two project finished up.
We had two tasks for today’s session: 1) work on the bellows and 2) start forging a shears.
The Viking-age Bellows
We did get our homework done and got the copper snouts attached and the canvas tacked on. Both were fairly simple jobs and we were happy with how easily the canvas laid in place. Working around curves and hinges we were a bit worried that it would get fussy, but it was pretty straightforward and fun!
So the next step in the bellows process is to seal the canvas. It’s not really intended as much to make the bellows air-tight as it is to protect the canvas from the heat, sparks, and hard use.
For a sealer, we used a mixture of beeswax and tar (pitch) and heated it over a campfire. It’s highly flammable, not to mention messy. We melted the beeswax first then added the tar pitch until it became saturated – the mixture will only take so much. Once that was done, it was time to brush it on the canvas.
Painting the mix on the canvas was easy enough, if a bit sloppy. The color of the mix as it dried … well, none of our suggestions about what we would name it should be repeated here. 😀
After that we set them aside to dry and started working on our shears.
Since a shears is basically two blades on one piece of stock we weren’t sure the best way to go about that. We had considered creating the blade on one end and then putting in the flat spring portion before making the blade on the other end – basically working from one end to the other. However, Doug recommended that we actually start in the middle and flatten the spring section first, then draw out the reins, and lastly add the blades to the end. Seemed like an odd way to go about it until we got into it and then it made perfect sense. It’s easy to make one blade, it’s hard to make two that match. His suggestion would give us the greatest chance of having that happen.
We managed to (mostly) get the spring section flattened out of the 3/8″ round stock and began drawing out the reins before calling it a day. By the end, we knew we’d been working with 108510851085 steel is a hardenable steel steel rather than 1020 all day. We’ll pick this up where we left off next week – and get the handles and mount on the bellows too!
Because in-person classes are mostly on hold for the time being, the Vesterheim museum in Decorah, IA has been having their instructors do some virtual lessons. Here’s a video that Doug did for that series on how to make an eel spear.
Because in-person classes are mostly on hold for the time being, the Vesterheim museum in Decorah, IA has been having their instructors do some virtual lessons. Here’s a video that Doug did for that series of a tour of his smithy.
Since we’ve lost so much time this spring, today was an extra long session and we actually got to work on two projects: cooking utensils and our bellows.
I had seen these utensils – I dunno what we should call them, maybe bread bakers? – at a couple of reenactment events we had attended. They looked interesting and reminded me of the “Tonka Toasters” we use over campfires to make pies and sandwiches.
While the coiled spiral shape is something we’ve done plenty of, it’s usually been of round stock with no gaps in between. We had discussed for the past week what might be the best way to approach making these. Take round stock and flatten it out? Take square stock and flatten it out? As it turns out, the way we wound up doing it is actually one we discussed – as the most difficult – which is to coil rectangular stock on the narrow edge.
As with most coils, the start is the most critical part. There’s no fixing the taper or curl (at least very much) once you’ve started the coil. This was only a one-sided taper and I nearly forgot what those were like as most of the recent ones have been two-sided or round. That went pretty well, but continuing the coil proved to be heavy work that went much better with the stock held tight or braced up against something when striking the opposite end. One really nice thing about a coal forge is that we were able to heat specific sections of the coil to have them bend while keeping other sections cold for striking. That’s not possible in a gas forge – you have to quench sections in water to cool them off to get a similar effect.
While the concept of a one-sided taper followed by a narrow-edge coil is simple enough, the execution is another thing. Nearly every blow wants to bend and twist the piece since it doesn’t like to move on that narrow edge. And trying to keep the coil smooth and avoid flat sections is easier said than done. I found it reasonably easy to keep the outer edge smooth, but the inner edge would get some straight areas that are harder to deal with.
In the end they came out pretty well and we were able to make some small tweaks to the spacing at the end using tongs.
The last step was to work on the handles. There are lots of choices there. We could draw them out, twist them, round them up, make a tang and put on a wood handle, and so forth. In the end, Rob punched a hole through his so he could hang it and I drew another one-sided taper and made a thumb loop at the end.
This is the kind of project that will get better with practice (don’t they all). But I’d like to give this one another try and have some fun with different handles. Looking forward to cooking some bread on these!
On to the second project …
We had started making our bellows back in August but set them aside for our trip to Scotland and then the winter and then all the challenges that the spring brought. But it’s time to get them finished up!
We had left them after we attached the hinge to one set of bellows (you can catch up on that here). So we needed to get the hinge on the second set before moving on to the next steps.
Once that was complete, we moved on to getting the snout ready. We are using about a 10cm length of 2cm diameter copper tubing and attaching it to a thin sheet of copper that will sit on the end of the wood part of the bellows. We started by cutting a hole in the middle of the copper sheet that was about the size of the INSIDE diameter of the copper tube. Then we punched a few (four, to be exact) holes so that we will be able to tack it to the wood. Lastly, we soldered the tube to the sheet – something I’d never done before. It was really cool to see the solder melt and seal up the joint!
There’s still a few steps left before these will be complete. We are going to use canvas rather than leather for the sides. During the Viking-age they may have used textile, most likely wool, rather than leather for some bellows as leather may have been too expensive for such a tool. We just don’t know for sure. So we used a pattern to cut it out and that’s where we left if for the day.
So what’s left to do before these are done?
Attach the copper tube plate to the snout
Attach the canvas to the sides
Attach the handle
Treat the wood (with linseed oil)
Treat the canvas (with a beeswax/tar mixture)
Our homework is to complete four of those steps and then bring them back to the Goose Prairie Forge to complete that last, messy, smelly one to get them done. Can’t wait to see them in action!
So after a break of a few months due to the death of my mother and the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, we returned to making progress on our projects. Part of today’s session was simply regrouping after the recent events, but some of it was planning for the remainder of the projects. We’ve got several things yet to accomplish and a short time to get them done, but we’ve made a plan to make it happen.
So to get back into the groove, we decided to work on a cold-cut chisel project today. It was a great choice to get back into the swing of things (see what I did there? 😄 ). The hammering skills were simple enough – just tapering one end of a piece of octagonal steel stock. But tool steel hammers differently than milder (aka softer) steel, so that was a good refresher. On top of that there was a bit of grinder work to do and we hadn’t been at a grinder in months. That too seemed simple enough, except you have to have a pretty steady hand to get a straight grind and we struggled with that just a bit. But after a few pointers and tips, we got the grinds looking pretty good.
So the steps to making a chisel (or pretty much any hardened tool) are essentially:
Heat treat (quench)
Chisels have a tip that has two angles on it, one that is forged in (about 15º) and one that is ground in (about 60º). So we started with forging in the taper. Then we thermocycled the pieces before we started grinding. (Thermocycled means that we heated them up to critical temperature where they become non-magnetic and then set them aside to air cool, repeated three times.) After that it was time for a heat treat. So we heated the pieces once again to critical temp and then quenched them in oil and then water. They had the nice gray color we were looking for and a file just skated off of them. So the last step was tempering the steel and we did that by heating a 4-inch length of 2-inch pipe to red hot and then holding the chisel inside the pipe for short periods of time (maybe 10 second or less) and then looking to watch for the blue almost purple color we were looking for. That means the chisel is done!
The chisel was a nice quick project that called on a variety of skills we have learned. They turned out pretty well!
P.S. We also learned about the various types of chisels. These are really broad distinctions and there’s much more to them all than this.
Hot-cut chisels: have a longer, narrower taper so that they slice through hot metal rather than push it aside.
Cold-cut chisels: have a more blunt edge to put some weight behind the cut.
Stone chisels: have a flared out edge to prevent the chisel from getting stuck in the stone.
Wood chisels: have one sided taper (they’re flat on the back).
We did it! We finished our Måstermyr chain. Well, mostly. We spent 5-1/2 hours and finished the 23 links that we had created and joined them into one chain. The actual Måstermyr chain had 26 links and a ring at one end. We will probably add those at some point, but for now we are considering this project done.
One of the nice things about making this chain was the repetition that was part of the project. For most of our other projects we have made just one and then moved on to the next project. With the chain, we got to repeatedly practice making links and then forge welding them so we started to get really comfortable – albeit still beginners – with the process. There’s a lesson there about going back and revisiting some of the projects we’ve completed previously and something to keep in mind regarding our projects going forward.
We’re going to have a bit of a break due to other commitments, so it will be a few weeks before we’re back at it again. Next up will be the completion of the bellows we began way back when and making hammers. Looking forward to having a custom-built hammer!
Today is the day when we turn from making links to making an actual chain. The thought of forging a link together while there are a couple of other links hanging off of it seems daunting. It’s often the case that we struggle to get the piece shoved into the fire as it gets hung up on the bits of coal or other obstacles. Adding a couple of links hanging off the end seems like it would only complicate that.
In addition, today was the day that Troyd Geist from the North Dakota Council on the Arts, the sponsor of our grant, was stopping by for a site visit. He certainly picked a good day! Because of his schedule we started a bit later than usual, which wasn’t a bad thing. Doug had done a nice job of setting up a table of beverages and snacks as well as a few of his favorite books, some of which we hadn’t seen before (and ordered on our way out the driveway!). It was really nice to finally meet Troyd and having him in the shop on a day when we were forge welding was a good choice.
So we started to combine our links into a chain. Take two completed links and hook them together with a U-shaped link and weld that up. Seems easy enough, right?
Actually, after much trepidation, it was pretty easy. Or at least no more difficult that doing a standalone link. The extra links hanging off didn’t really interfere with it much and sometimes actually might have made it easier as the extra weight balanced things out.
The most challenging part was not letting the join area of the link get too thin. It’s easy to want to just pound on it to get the weld to stick, but if you don’t do the overlap with enough metal it can get think in a hurry.
After doing a couple, it became much easier and we were off and running. Forge welding is hard, but it’s also a lot of fun! We got two sets of seven links put together. The Måstermyr chain had 26 links. This is going to be quite a long chain when it’s done. But making links / chains is something a person could enjoy doing a lot of – and they probably would have done a lot of them back in the day.
We had some homework to finish before today’s session in anticipation of forge welding the links. We had made a few U-shaped pieces in preparation for making links for our chain during out last session, but we needed to complete more of them – 12 in total – to have enough to work with for today. So we had finished four last time and then at home Rob did four and I did four to round out the dozen links we needed to start with.
So there are several steps to making a link, and we were nervous about how difficult they seemed. (Remember the quote: “Forge welding: The most difficult damn thing you can do!!” – said by someone who’s an expert!) But it turned out to be easier than we feared and went pretty well. Even our “mistakes” turned out good and we learned some good lessons from them.
While we worked much faster today, it was still nearly four hours of work to put the ears on eight pieces and turn out four figure-8 shaped links. Making the ears turned out to be the most fun, at least for me. But the feeling when you hit the metal when doing the welding is pretty satisfying too. You pretty much know if it’s a good weld or not by the feel. One of those things you can only learn by experience.
So next time we’ll get to take two of the figure-8 links and join them with a third link to start the actual chain. (You can see an example of that on the anvil in the pictures.) We may make some additional U-shaped pieces at home to get to the full 26 links of the Måstermyr chain. We ended the day trying to do the math of links. What we were trying to figure out is how many links are used as the chain grows. Because the start of a chain is two links joined by a third link producing a three-link chain. Then you make two of those and join them with another link, so you have seven links, etc. It looks something like:
So I’m not quite sure why the Måstermyr chain wound up being 26 links, but we will have to have to work with an uneven set of links somewhere along the way if we want to re-create it. We intend to finish our chain at our next session, so let’s hope that joining link isn’t much tougher than welding the other ones.
Viking-age anvils and hammers were on the small side.
Smaller pieces of metal were welded together to make larger objects.
Stones may have been used as anvils.
Viking-age anvils had horns and holes.
Pattern welded weapons were rare, but existed.
Crafting specialization was unlikely, meaning metalsmiths probably also worked wood, bone, soapstone, leather, etc.
Some tools were made of soapstone and it was a main material in tuyeres.
There was a type of shears that resembled a modern scissors but with arms bent upwards like a cloth-cutting scissors.
Saws existed but with low-carbon steel they were thicker and coarser. Some were meant to be used by pushing not pulling. Among other things, they were used to make bone combs.
A division between farmer smiths and (perhaps itinerant) specialist smiths seems supported by things like scales and dice in some graves.
Farmer smiths were more likely to be multi-crafters.
Weapons (not including axes and knives) were common objects for metalsmiths. Axes and knives were so common that they cannot be considered as weapons.
Shields and arrows aren’t really associated with metalworking.
In mythology, dwarves are exclusively connected to metal working.
The Old Norse word “smiðr” encompasses both metal and wood working and is probably better interpreted as “crafter” or “creator” rather than “smith”. The current use of the word “smith” has different connotations.
Smiths were likely part of the warrior structure.
Weapons production was decentralized as you could obtain weapons through the entire country.
There’s an old Anglo-Saxon calendar (sixth century) that describes October as the month for metalworking on the farm after the harvest.
There is a single mention of a female smith (smiðkona) named Þórgríma in the Harðar Saga. She was also considered a sorceress.
Egils Saga mentions a smith (Skalla-Grímr Kveldulfsson) as also creating poetry in his smithy.
Smithing was considered to be a proper skill for a king’s son.
The old Norse concept of “knowledge” or “wisdom” involved action, interaction, and experience. And smithing definitely involves those things. Our current understanding of knowledge and wisdom is much more passive.
Tools are found in both “rich” and “poor” graves. To quote: “you did not have to be a king in order to be knowledgeable, (- ideally -) you had to be knowledgeable in order to be a king.”
Next to Read
Carsten, 2012, “Might and Magic: The Smith in the Old Norse Literature” – a chapter in “Goldsmith Mysteries. Archeological, pictorial, and documentary evidence from the 1st millennium AD in Northern Europe” by Alexander G. Pesch, 2011
So we continued our work with forge welding, or at least prepping for it. We didn’t actually do any forge welding today. We are working on replicating a chain found as part of an archeological find in Sweden called the Måstermyr find. It’s a rare case of an entire toolbox full of blacksmithing and other tools. Doug showed us a book that documents the entire find and we may need to acquire a copy of it.
So we had practiced forge welding last time. This time we started to make the links that we’ll be forge welding into a chain. So since chains are made up of lots of links (26 in the Måstermyr chain) we started to take our square stock and forge it into links.
The first step was to make a mandrel out of a piece of round stock that would fit in the Pritchard hole of the anvil. We’re going to be using that to form the curves of the links.
So most of the day was spent bending the square stock into the u-shaped pieces that are going to be the basis of the links of the chain. It’s surprising how long it can take. Our skills are getting better as we learn to look with a critical eye and correct mistakes and just generally prevent them in the first place. Getting uniform curves and parallel, equal-length reins while not twisting or crimping them.
The most interesting technique of the day was using two tongs to pull on both reins to set the curve and pull them even. It was also a test of skill to get the kinks and bumps out and make sure the curve was symmetrical. We only got four links done between the two of us over four hours. I have to imagine this gets much faster with practice.
Okay, we dabbled in this once before, but now we’re getting down to brass tacks. We started the session in the “classroom” – meaning Doug’s dining room table – with a lecture on how forge welding works and the various fluxes that are used to clean the metal. Forge welding is considered a “solid state” weld as the metal does not liquefy. It is critical to have clean surfaces to allow the metal surfaces to forge together tightly.
While all fluxes help clean the surface they each have characteristics that make them unique. There are some fluxes that are magnetic, which in theory sounds good as it would stick to the metal, but it doesn’t really seem to provide as good an outcome as some of the others. The cheapest, most readily available is regular grocery store borax which can work just fine, but it is “hydrated” meaning it contains some water. You can watch that water bubble off when sprinkling it on your metal. There is also an “anhydrous” version, meaning without water, that seems to be the most straightforward flux and provides the most consistent results. Personal preference perhaps, but that’s going to be our go-to for the day.
We also talked about the different types of metals available and how well they work for forge welding. The old, and now hard to find, wrought iron worked really well forge welding. Some of the modern materials still work pretty good, but there are others that don’t work so well at all. Rule of thumb might be that the softer the steel, the easier it will forge weld.
So once we finished in the classroom, we moved out to the forge to practice. We set aside working on links and just focused on practicing the skill of taking two pieces of square stock steel and getting them to stick together. Building the fire like an oven (that’s what in one of those whiteboard drawings) so that the steel can be surrounded on all sides and heat evenly is important. A forge welding fire needs to run hotter that most.
So once it is in place, the next step was to shove the square stock in and heat it up. Then when it was good and yellow hot, we pulled it out and applied flux to clean it up. Then back into the fire to heat up again. And after a bit, you can touch the two pieces together and they should stick to each other. At that point you’re just looking for a bit of greenish-yellow smoke to come off and maybe just a few sparks. At that point you pull it quickly out of the fire, straight to the anvil, give it a solid smack on the top side, flip it over, give it a solid smack on the bottom side, and then back into the fire. That basically just sets the weld. Then once it’s heated up to yellow hot again, you pull it out of the fire and over to the anvil again and give it a couple of good whacks on the top and a couple more on the bottom to really meld the two pieces together. Back into the fire once again, back up to yellow hot, back over to the anvil, but this time you can take it a bit slower to seal up the weld and dress the sides. You’re kind of past the welding part at this point and back to the forging part to shape it the way you want.
So enough practice. Rob had started a link during our previous session and we wanted to get it welded up.
So it was time to put what we learned to the test. We heated it up and followed the steps outlined above. It’s a little trickier to use tongs to grab the link than it was to use your hands to grab the square stock (tongs always makes things trickier), but the process of heating, fluxing, pounding, repeating was the same. After a few heats and some good solid smacks, it started coming together. Literally.
You don’t want to flatten or figure-8 the link too much as you’re pounding on it, so there’s a bit of finesse and being careful with hammer angles as you go. But if the weld is solid you can shape the link as needed to get it to the size and shape you intended.
So there’s one link done. Now to do dozens more so we can have an actual chain. I hear that you make separate links and then join two links by adding a third. That sounds easy enough, right? I guess I know what we’ll be doing next time.
With wreath season over and the craziness of the holidays behind us and all that brought to everyone involved, it was time to get back to the forge. So we had some half-finished candleholders that we needed to complete.
So we had left our candleholders in this state:
So what remained was to taper the stem and finish closing the socket for the candle. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, tapering the stem was the easier of the two but even that was a bit challenging because of the socket started at the other end. It was pretty easy to hang on to, but you couldn’t lay it flat on the anvil. So much of the tapering was done off the rounded edge of the anvil with 45º hammer blows so that you didn’t bend the stem. (I was doing it wrong for a bit and boy did it make a difference when I got that sorted out!)
So how to turn that fishtail into a socket? Seems odd, but much of the work is done right at the base of the socket or on the backside. By rounding the area at the base, the rest of the fishtail follows along and the edges just naturally close. To create the fishtail the work was done with the cross peen side of the hammer and on the table portion of the anvil. That only goes so far because you can’t get the hammer in there any more. That’s when it’s time to start working the base and backside on the top of the horn of the anvil.
Rob put a twist in the stem of his candleholder, but I chose not to because I had a shorter stem and was really happy with the way it had turned out (and didn’t want to mess it up). It’s hard to believe that we started out with a piece of 5/8″ round stock and wound up with something that would look good on a dining room table. I guess that’s part of the magic of blacksmithing.
Rob finished before I did, so he started to work on our next project: a welded iron chain. We’ve done a few S-hook chains, but welding the link shut is a new skill that we are both excited to learn. Forge welding is going to be challenging. But it seems the links themselves aren’t all that easy either. Since all good projects start with a plan, Rob and Doug sketched out a few parameters before they began.
I missed out on a few of the instructions (I’m sure we’ll revisit them next time), but at the end of the day, Rob had a good start on his first link. Take a close look at the way the ends overlap as that was a new way to scarf the ends that we hadn’t seen before. Looking forward to cranking out a few more of these and then finally trying our hands at forge welding.
Because Goose Prairie Forge turns into Swenson Greenery for the holiday wreath-making season we were unable to work on our bellows, so instead we started to work on a Viking-age candlestick. While these were an everyday item in the Viking-age, they weren’t something that everybody owned. Not necessarily a nobleman’s item, but probably not something peasants would have. There are several variations, including one that looks like a spoon, but we were going to create one that looks somewhat like what you think of when you say “candlestick”.
So we started with a pretty big piece of round stock in a soft steel – probably 1045 or so. And the first thing to do is what? Hammer round stock into square, of course. Be we also began to taper that down a bit. Thing really got interesting when we flipped the hammer over and began to use the cross peen side to make what I can only describe as a fishtail.
The goal was to get the fishtail to the proper size to fit around a candle, so we were looking for something around 1-1/2 inches at the end. It took a lot of hammering to get it into shape! Once the fishtail was big enough it was time to start giving it a curve. Still using the cross peen side of the hammer, the fishtail gets place on the table portion of the anvil and you start to hit it into the corner to get it to start to bend.
That’s actually about as far as we got today, which doesn’t seem like much progress but hammering out the fishtail is harder than it looks and takes time. But we should be able to wrap these up next session. Can’t wait to see them finished!
Since the forge is set up for wreath-making season, we chose to work on fire strikers rather than continue our bellows project. So we started with the pieces we had hammered out the last time and started to draw out one end to a taper. I guess it’s not a true taper since with a fire striker you want to keep one edge straight.
As we continued to work, our instructor (have I mentioned that his name is Doug Swenson of Goose Prairie Forge?) took a moment to explain the hardening process and a few tricks that can help get the steel as tough as possible. Fire strikers need to be really hard in order to spark. So the first thing he recommended to do once the item is forged into shape is to hammer on it to compress and align the metal structure. It’s not a hard hammering but it’s a bit more than a tap. So he did a demonstration for us where he took a bit of steel and forged it for a bit, quenched it in water, and then broke it to show us the grain structure. Then he did pretty much the same thing but this time he packed it down with the hammering first. It’s a noticeable difference in the grain structure with the second one being a much finer grain. He also pointed out that steel that hardened well during the quench will have a mottled appearance you can look for.
After that demonstration we continued working on our fire strikers (we were there nearly 5-1/2 hours) and Rob managed to complete his including hardening and grinding.
I however did not quite finish and therefore had some homework to do. I had my fire striker pretty well forged into shape, but it needed just a bit of clean up and then hardening. So I fired up our home forge and cleaned it up by hammering out a few kinks. Then I put it through the normalization process where you heat the piece up to critical temperature where it becomes non-magnetic and then just let it air cool until you can touch it. It goes through normalization (aka thermocyclingThermocyclingThermocycling is the process of heating steel to critical temp (non-magnetic) and then letting it air cool. Usually done three times in a row.) three times before the final heat for the quench. It came out nice and mottled so it looks like the hardening went well. The last step for the fire striker is to grind the striking edge as the metal needs to be shiny to get sparks. So a short spell on the belt grinder being careful to not heat up the metal which would ruin the hardening (I dipped it in water after every pass on the grinder). In under an hour I had a finished fire striker that even produced some sparks!
So we had a bit of a break since our last session and expected to finish up the bellows today. However, we didn’t have the rivets we needed so we went through some safety reminders and decided to start working on fire strikers instead. So we started with a piece of 108510851085 steel is a hardenable steel steel that used to be part of a tine from a farm rake.
We started by learning to work as a team with a blacksmith, a fireman, and a striker. When having two people work a piece of steel there’s a “code” that is used to communicate what you’d like to do. Back in the day, smithies were noisy places and if you spent too much time in them you were probably hard of hearing. So they developed a way to let the other person know what they should do. The fireman was an experienced blacksmith and in charge of keeping the fire going and running the blower. The blacksmith took the lead working the steel and handled the steel from the fire to the anvil and directed the working of the piece. After pulling the piece from the forge they would position the piece and begin with the first hammer blow. The striker would then hit in the same location and they would take turns. The blacksmith would communicate that it was time to stop by tapping the anvil with their hammer (it just naturally bounces a bit). And if they wanted to start the team striking again, they would tap the anvil twice with their hammer as a sign for “let’s go”.
So we worked as a team and took our farm rake tine and cut off about 10 or 12 inches and started to flatten it into bar stock. Working as a team it went quite quickly! In addition to pounding it flat, the blacksmith also got to do some clean up work with keeping the edges straight. We wound up with to smaller pieces of “bar stock” and were ready to start tapering out the ends to make a fire striker.
The next step was to start tapering down each end. At that point we decided it was time to review some fundamentals and get really good at them, so we set aside our new bar stock and started to practice on some off-the-shelf round stock.
The steps to make a tapered point on round stock
While hammering at an angle, take a couple of blows to make a flat slope.
Turn the piece 90º.
Hammer another flat slope.
Turn back to the first flat slope and repeat.
Continue making sure you have a square at the tip.
Move the hammer back from the tip a bit and continue hammering on the flat slopes.
Once you have a nice tip that’s maybe two hammer-widths long, then hammer on the edges between the flat slopes to make an octagon rather than a square taper.
Continue the octagon shape back the two hammer-widths as well until you now have an octagon taper.
Now that you’ve hammered a round piece of steel into a square and then an octagon, it’s time to hammer it back to round.
Hammer (actually more like tap) on the octagon’s ridges until they are smooth and the piece is round again.
You’re done when there is a nice smooth taper at the end of your piece.
We finished our practice by curling our tapers starting over the edge of the anvil and then working them on the anvil’s face. And lastly, we practiced adding a fuller using the round edge of the anvil and the same 90º striking technique that we used earlier. We ended with something that may not be pretty, but it was a pretty important lesson to review.
We also spent a bit of time talking about knife blades we’d been making and reviewing our experiences working with round stock, bar stock, starting with the blade, and starting with the tang. I think after talking it through we discovered we all kind of prefer to work through the various steps in the same order on bar stock.
Steps to forging a blade
Angling one corner of the bar stock into a tip.
Setting the shoulder on the spine side of the blade.
Forging the cutting edge.
Shaping the tang.
Of course that’s a very rough description of how a blade is forged, but it does seem to work the best for all of us.
So we started to build our Viking-age bellows tonight. Doug had the wood pieces all pre-cut and ready to assemble, which makes it sound quick and easy. However, three hours later we have one bellows only half assembled. There’s more to it than you’d think.
Making the Valve
Our previous session went over how the valves work and what they should look like. (Refresher: two pieces of leather – one square, one rectangular – placed over the air intake hole in the wood.) So today it was time to cut the leather and install it inside the bellows.
Making the Hinge
The next step is to make the hinge. This too is made of leather. We started by putting spacers in between the top and bottom pieces of the bellows so that they were flush with the wooden snout piece.
After that it was time to cut the piece of leather that was going to serve as the hinge. We needed to determine the size we would need to cut. We wanted it to cover the wooden snout piece and then a couple of inches of the bellows surface (I’m sure that has a name, but I don’t know what it is). Plus it needs to fold over the sides too.
To be clear, the leather used for the hinge was a reasonably thick piece of leather since it’s going to get some hard work and different than the leather used for the valve as that should be more flexible.
After the leather was cut, we drilled a couple of hole through the top piece of the bellows as we planned on riveting the leather to that piece. The placement of those holes was about an inch or so from the front and sides.
We used an awl to punch holes through the leather hinge before heading to the anvil to rivet it in place.
Once the main rivets were in place it was a matter of adding tacks and small nails to secure the leather to the snout and the board and make the hinge as strong and tight as possible. We also added glue to make it secure.
At the end of our session we had gotten that far on just one of the bellows. Going to have to finish them up next time!
So we started our apprenticeship with Doug Swenson as part of the Folk and Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grant that we received. The work plan was originally developed about six months ago and we’ve learned a lot since then. And we are about to leave on a trip and be away from the forge for several weeks so we kind of are starting out of order with the Viking-age bellows.
We’ve used Viking-age bellows once or twice and they are surprisingly easy and fun to use. There’s actually not a lot of information about them because they haven’t survived through time very well and they aren’t mentioned to often in literature or historical accounts. There is a cool depiction of one on a runestone from Sweden.
We spent a bit of time going over how bellows evolved and how they work. Some have a single chamber and others have a double chamber. Later ones got rather large and hung overhead, operated by a lever or a foot pedal. But they all essentially work the same way: air goes in one end and is directed out as smoothly and steadily as possible out the other end. And valves in the middle keep the air moving in one direction.
So we started talking about the valves for the bellows we are about to build. In this case we are going to use leather for our valves. It’s a traditional material and actually quite suited to this purpose. The air intake is actually just a round hole cut into one side of the bellows and the valve consists of a couple of pieces of leather that cover that hole. However, there’s a bit of elegant math to the size and placement of the leather pieces. There’s two pieces that are involved. The first is a square large enough to cover the hole plus a bit more. That piece is placed with corners to the front and back of the bellows and tacked down at the sides. The second piece of leather is twice the length of the first piece and covers it and is tacked down at the corners. It should be extremely taut as it will need to allow air to pass through it freely.
After that we looked at the construction of the bellows that our master blacksmith instructor uses in his Viking-age demonstrations. Most of it is very suited to purpose and have stood up to use and time, but we might make a few minor adjustments when we build ours.
Been learning to make fire strikers. This one’s from soft steel so probably no good for lighting fires, but great for practicing on! It started as a 4″ piece of bar stock and it’s now drawn out to 7.25″. Next up – the curls!