Getting Started in Blacksmithing
We are asked this question more often than any other.
And the answer is almost always the same.
But lets look at the art of blacksmithing a little first.
Blacksmithing is not all pounding iron, it is design, layout, cutting, drilling, joining, finishing, tempering, welding, brazing, tool making. . .
Blacksmithing is almost ALL the metal working trades all combined.
The blacksmith is one of the few craftsfolk that can, do, and are often required to make their own tools.
I am not saying that blacksmith tools cannot be bought.
There are more blacksmiths tools available today than there has been in nearly a century.
Blacksmiths make their own tools because eventually every smith finds that his particular product or style of working requires his tools to be more specialized than those found off-the-shelf.
Blacksmiths make their own tools for a variety of other reasons too.
They often do it because they CAN.
It gives a great sense of personal satisfaction to use tools that one has made to meet their own special requirements.
The number and shape of the sparks coming off a grinding wheel can tell you some things about the steel. Most obvious is carbon content indicated by the number of branching sparks, but sometimes alloy content as well indicated by nodes and spark shape. To learn this process one should grind some known steels as a guide. Use the same grinder and wheel for comparisons. A bench grinder is best. Some small fine grit high speed wheels make sparks that look like high carbon steel when they are not. Test and compare as well as study the available charts. See book our review of Metals for Engineering Craftsmen
and other metals refernces for a spark testing charts. - guru
Over the years we have found that there are three basic groups wanting to get into blacksmithing.
Hobbiests, Retieees looking for a retirement business and Students looking for a profession and educational guidelines.
These are not absolutes, a combination of paths may be better for you or after getting started you may wish to become a professional.
So we now have three tracks one can follow. We start with the things that applies to all.
Blacksmithing Books and Publications
There are more blacksmithing books and publications today than ever in history.
New books are being written and almost every old book is in reprint or available on-line.
We have reviews
of the most important blacksmithing books here on anvilfire and host a growing collection of old out of print books on-line
Many blacksmithing books are old text books. Some are just good how-to books.
Their cost is insignificant compared to their educational value and compared to text books.
For the cost of a typical semester's worth of college text books you can purchase a significant library of blacksmithing books.
The exception is the up to date technical or engineering references.
These are nearly impossible to find used and sell for text book prices.
Most of the blacksmithing organizations have print publications of various qualities.
Many also have lending libraries.
There are (were) independant publications such as Blacksmith Journal, Artist Blacksmith Quarterly and the old
Can't Learn From Books . . .
We repeatedly get people that tell us they can't learn from books.
If you are reading this and understand the words then that is not true.
You need to learn the basic terms, names of tools and processes so that you can communicate with other smiths.
You need to know some of the history of blacksmithing and when you start acquiring machinery you will need to be able to read and understand the instruction manuals.
If you still insist that you cannot learn from reading then you are wasting your time with this article.
Blacksmithing Groups and Associations
In the U.S. there are one or more blacksmithing associations in almost every state, and in many other countries there are groups as well.
Finding, joining and attending the meetings of these groups is one of the best ways to learn about blacksmithing, find tools, learn about suppliers and make new friends.
North American groups meet monthly and visitors are usually welcome.
Meetings are often held in working shops and moved to different locations so you get a chance to see how different people work.
Look for your local group on ABANA-Chapter.com
or the ABANA web site.
If there is not a group in your area then YOU might be the one to start a group.
Look in the phone book, go to any kind of metal working shop and ask questions.
Many folks that work in any area of metalworking are often also interested in blacksmithing.
Take notes, make phone calls.
You don't have to be in charge, getting people together is what it takes. Try it.
Blacksmiths can be men, women or children of any race.
In the U.S. women are readily accepted into blacksmithing but this is not true all over the world.
While we have never witnessed any intentional racism in the North American blacksmithing world there are very
few African American smiths in the blacksmithing associations.
It has been suggested that this is a cultural distinction. Hopefully this is changing.
Art and Drawing
Illustration for Fabricator Magazine Article by Jock Dempsey, anvilfire guru.
There are two basic types of blacksmith, industrial
Decorative blacksmiths, archetectual blacksmiths and blacksmiths as craftsfolk are all "artist blacksmiths".
The key word is ARTIST. Custom bladesmiths are also artists.
We often have folks come to us and say they can't draw.
I remind them of the above.
To be an artist blacksmith you must be an artist of some sort.
If you can't draw a graceful scroll on paper you have little chance making it in hot steel using hammer and tongs.
I tell new smiths that delicate forging is like tying your shoe laces using two four pound hammers. . .
Making graceful things takes a trained eye as well as hand eye coordination.
Its much easier to draw with a pencil. Practice both.
Professional artist blacksmiths must be able to express their ideas graphically in order to sell them.
Industrial blacksmiths must be able to read technical drawings.
To read them it helps to also be able to draw them.
Anyone can learn to draw.
Free hand drawing is learned like drafting, a step at a time. The more practice the better.
There are many programmed learning systems for basic drawing going back to Jon Gnagy Learn to Draw in the 1950's.
There are also public and private school art and drafting classes.
You can learn on your own or take classes.
Anyone can do it if they want to and try to learn.
You don't need to be a great artist but you need basic skills to design and sell your work.
See: Learning to Draw
Blacksmithing is a mechanical skill.
The tools used apply controlled force and leverage.
While hobby smiths do not need high levels of mechanical knowledge professionals and those with machinery do.
Basic smithing is pretty simple but modern blacksmith shops are often indistinguishable from modern machine shops.
There are welders, motorized drill presses, shears, chop saws, band saws, ironworkers and even lathes
and milling machines.
In large shops there is rigging, hoists
and lift trucks.
All these machines used directly or indirectly in the ironwork must be setup, operated properly and maintained.
Often this is all done by the smith.
In an industrial setting these are the skills of maintenance mechanics and millwrights.
But in the small shop YOU are the maintenance man.
In a fully equiped shop there needs to be a tool chest with a full complement of mechanics tools,
spanners, sockets, ratchets, screw drivers, Allen wreches, pin punches, pliers and a multi-meter for electrical testing.
Like the smith that dosen't think "decorative" has anything to do with art there are smiths that get into the field as artists that don't think they need mechanical skills.
They are wrong. You need both.
Mechanics starts with the simple math and physics that should have been learned in elementary and secondary school.
Simple levers, pulleys and gears as well as handling fractions or basic shop math.
Yep, there really are places in life where you need that stuff.
Its not complicated but you need to know how to apply it.
The Path of the Hobby Blacksmith
Hobby smiths range in age from 8 to 80 or more and start at any time of life.
The only difference between a hobby smith and others is that a hobby smith does not make a living off his work.
The hobby smith can afford to work inefficiently and for their own pleasure.
Hobby - Continued. . .
The Path of the Professional Smith
Professional smiths often start as hobbiests and grow into operating a professional business.
Some decide early in life that it is a carreer choice.
While these are different paths the skills needed are the same.
The emphasis in professional smithing is that it is a business.
Professional - Continued. . .
- This is the most variable tool in the blacksmith shop.
At least half of all forges are made by the smith.
The forge can vary from a pit in the Earth with a bellows made from hides, goat stomachs, a plastic bucket and sheeting, classic wood and leather bellows or electric blower to
a commercial gas forge made with high tech light weight refractories.
Forges can burn wood, charcoal, coal, oil or gas (natural or propane).
Forges have a forced air supply to increase the temperature of the fire.
They all work.
The point of the forge is to create a fire over 2,000°F preferably with a slightly protective atomosphere.
Many smiths have more than one forge and often upgrade forges over time.
See The Forge
- The anvil has been called The Heart of the Blacksmith Shop.
It is the smiths primary tool but is no more important than the forge.
The big difference being that while practicaly any smith can make their own forge it is said that the anvil is the only tool that a blacksmith cannot make for themself.
While this is not entirely true in the modern age the anvil is the one tool that a smith should buy, either new or used.
In either case the anvil is the smiths most expensive of basic tools.
See Selecting an Anvil,
- Hand hammers are a very personal tool.
Most smiths have dozens but only use one or two most of the time.
The basic blacksmiths hammer is a "cross pien forging" or "blacksmiths" hammer.
These can be obtained from hardware stores and blacksmith or farrier suppliers.
The most important feature of the hammer is the weight.
The normal range for forging hammers is 1-3/4 lbs. (800g) to 3-1/2 lbs. (1600g).
Many new smiths make the mistake of trying to use too heavy a hammer.
When starting out you need to work up from a light hammer to a heavier hammer in order to learn control and not hurt yourself.
A good average starting weight is 2.2 pounds (1000g) but lighter if you are slight of build. 1200 to 1400 grams is a good top weight for an experianced smith.
The second most important feature is the dress or grind of the hammer.
Economical high quality German hammers are sold raw or undressed with a flat face and rough chamfer.
This is because the German makers expect the user to know what he/she wants.
For forging the face needs a significant crown and well radiused corners.
The pien also needs rounding and the corners dressed down.
See Basic Tools: Hammers,
- The vise is used nearly as much or more than the anvil in blacksmithing, thus it is a very important tool.
There are two basic types of metalworking vise, the bench vise and the blacksmiths or leg vise.
Bench vises are satisfactory for filing, sawing and light work but not for hammering.
The blacksmiths vise is a forged steel or wrought iron vise that can be bent but not broken like a bench vise.
They are a standard design going back hundreds of years and are THE recommended vise for a blacksmith.
Like anvils, vises are an expensive tool.
However in the used market both old bench vises and old blacksmith leg vises are selling for much less than they are worth.
Many other craftsfolk besides blacksmiths use vises to hold work so they have more uses than just forging.
See Blacksmith Vises
- A smith can work long stock without tongs but not every piece is long.
Tongs are an absolute necessity in the blacksmith shop.
Tongs can be made or purchased new and used.
Old used tongs are often worthless and should not be purchased until one knows good from bad.
Channel Lock pliers and Vise-Grips can be used by beginners and have uses by professionals but should be replaced as soon as possible with real tongs.
A smith should have at least a couple commercial sets of tongs unless they learn tong making under the guidence of another smith.
Tongs can and should be made by every smith due to the common need for specialty use tongs.
All tongs should be adjusted to the work at hand to assure a tight firm grip.
The most useful tongs are bolt makers, V-bit or Chain Makers as these will firmly hold round, square and flat stock of varrying sizes.
See 3 Versions of Tongs (making),
Tongs Dimensions Chart
- Personal Safety Equipment
- Metalworking and using any power machinery is inherently dangerous.
In the recent past it was not unusual to go into a machine shop and see workers with eye patches, missing fingers.
Today we take worker safety much more seriously.
In industry the "system" takes care of you but you are told that YOU are personally responsible for your own safety.
But in the small shop you are both Safety Officer and worker. You are doubly responsible for your own safety.
- Safety Glasses, goggles or face shield as neccessary.
- Non-sysnthetic (preferably cotton) clothing without fringes or frayed edges that could catch fire
- Gloves, general work, heat resistant, welding as needed.
- Proper footwear, leather or non-flamable synthetic. Steel toed shoes/boots are best.
- First Aid Kit(s)
- MSDS or SDS cover everything from hand soap and lubricants to fluxes and metal cleaners.
Industry is required to keep these on hand and make them available to ALL employess.
You should do the same for yourself. Keep a file, read them and understand them.
- Small and Common Hand Tools
- Besides the basic blacksmiths tools above there are many other standard tools one needs in their kit.
These can be bought in hardware stores, discount stores, flea markets, industrial supply houses and from our advertisers.
We highly recommend you purchase the highest quality small tools from our advertisers OR industrial supply houses.
Good old used tools from flea markets are supperior to most of the cheap stuff found in discount stores.
Many cheap tools designed for the home owner or hobbiest are not sturdy enough for even the hobby blacksmith.
These tools include:
- A hack saw and good coarse high quality blades (10 or 12" 12TPI High Speed Steel)
- Several files (12" and 10" half round mill bastard files, 8" flat taper mill file.).
- Tape Measure
- Punches (purchased or made), Center punch, pin punches, long (12")
blacksmiths punches for 1/4", 5/16 and 3/8"
- Cold Chisels large and small
- Hand Drill and bits from 1/16" to 1/2" (2 to 13mm)
- Welding Equipment
- The small hobby shop does not need welding equipment but it is an absolute neccessity in any income producing shop or shop that produces a lot of its own tools (including hobby shops).
- Oxy-Fuel Setup: The most efficient way to cut heavy pieces of steel or plate is with an oxy-fuel cutting torch.
The oxy-fuel torch is also a necessity when doing certain kinds of welding, brazing or soldering and replaces a forge for heating rivets in place.
- AC or AC/DC transformer (buzz box) welder. These are relatively inexpensive and are the quickest way to join two pieces of metal.
- MIG (Metal Inert Gas) is a production welding machine that makes fast clean welds.
However, this process only works on clean metal and is expensive to setup.
But if you do a lot of arc welding the cost is quickly returned in efficiency.
- MIG (Tungsten Inert Gas) is the only way to weld aluminium and certain other alloys.
But it is also good for very fine work. This is another expensive tool that there must be a need for prior to purchase.
- Ventilation Equipment to move welding fumes away from work areas.
This can be general area ventilation or spot ventilation
- Power Tools and Beyond
- Modern blacksmiths work in a highly competitive market and need good productive tools.
Even hobbiests are often limited in time to pursue their craft and want to make the best use of their time.
Eventually most blacksmiths end up with a few or a lot of power tools. These include in order of importance:
- Cut off saw, either a horizontal band saw (prefferred) and/or an abrasive chop saw.
- Drill Press with vise and bits
- Angle Grinder (especialy if there is oxy-fuel cutting equipment in the shop.
- Power Hammers have become almost universal in the small shop.
They can be bought new, used or owner built.
- Ironworker or Shear/Punch machines are the fastest way to cold cut bar stock.
Any shop doing production work should have one of these machines.