From a discussion in 1997 and 1998 on the Blacksmiths Junkyard.
A piece of metal attached to one electrode, the other in a fluid bath in an insulated container. The current heats the part to forge welding heat.
(Yes, that's what the book said!)
. . .at the University of Nebraska, (during) what is now known as E-week. In 1894, the electrical engineers "decided to put on a little exhibition . . .
One of the most mystifying and popular displays was the Water Pail Forge:
This (was) one of the most satisfactory and seemingly impossible performances. . . . An ordinary wooden water bucket was lead lined about half way up and a lead brought out. This was connected to the positive side of a 220 volt D.C. circuit. The negative side of the circuit was connected through a heavy flexible conductor to a pair of ordinary blacksmith tongs suitable for forging work. The bucket was filled about three-fourths full with acidulated water. All this was set up in the forge shop to give a realistic tone and because it was convenient. A piece of iron the size of a small chisel was gripped in the tongs and then dipped in the water. The iron would very promptly redden, and if held there too long, would melt off and fall into the bucket. . . . A chap with some blacksmithing skill attended the bucket. He would heat a piece of iron in the water, bring it out, and forge it on the anvil; then put it back into the water to cool it off so he could handle it. This again seemed impossible and would have been except for a footswitch he had opened unnoticed. After inspecting the tool which needed more forging, it was again inserted in the water to become hot and he forged and again cooled off. Of course, at each time the footswitch was properly manipulated.
One Hundred Years of Excellence,
by A. John Boye Associate Professor and Assistant Chair.
History of the UNL Electrical Engineering Department
The above link contained details about the UNL EE department but no further information on the "water pail" forge.
The LaGrange-Hoho-Dempsey-Mokume-Gane process:
A stack of alloy steels is prepared for "Damascus" lamination. The stack is clamped between two heavy plates electrically and thermally insulated from the stack with a material such as hard alumina plates. An electrode is attached to the stack. Two (or more) if the stack is long. The stack/clamp assembly is suspended in an insulated container filled with electrolytic fluid. The fluid acts as shield, flux and electrolyte.
The current is turned on for a time determined by the mass of the stack. The stack comes up to welding heat and the clamping force on the plates relaxes into the stack creating a continuous weld. The stack is removed and forged in the usual manner.
Perfect laminate welds without forge welding skill! Possibly extending the range of materials suitable for lamination. Research in progress. Patent applied for. :-)
You heard it here first! JDD
Addressing Charles Mannis concerns about hydrogen release
I am still researching this one. I have a little experience with electrolysis. I know that that salt water produces chlorine at one electrode and maybe a sodium hydroxide precipitate at the other (this was stuff I knew when I was 13 but haven't used it since). Also, like the gases from a lead-acid battery, if the hydrogen is distributed or mixed with sufficient air there is no danger of explosion. All gas/air or dust/air mixtures have a certain density at which they become explosive. Anything below that is safe. You can blow up your wood shop with sanding dust if you are not careful and have adequate ventilation!
Grant tells me that one reference says sodium carbonate (baking soda) was the electrolyte. Hot soda water can be used as a degreaser and is also a weak fluxing agent (for iron). What it does to steel during electrolysis is another question but not hard to find out. This is all real basic chemistry and something that could be varied to suit the purpose.
At this point the only thing I am not clear on is the V/A ratio. This may require a higher (or lower) voltage than a welder. In either case it would take a special power supply. It wouldn't be hard to test the process on a small sample using a DC welder power supply. It would be great if this works. Please let me know if you try it before I do. . .
Original article copyright © 1998 Jock Dempsey
Series in Progress