Blacksmithing is, by all means, labor-intensive. Working with metal, fire and brute force, blacksmiths operate under intense conditions to produce intricate, hand-tooled works of art. It takes hundreds of whacks with heavy hammers and hot temperatures of 1300°F for metal to become pliable and change shape. And it takes years of experience to apply just the right technique with 100% accuracy to forge something beautiful in the end. Always curious, I decided to check out the Blacksmithing class at the Dallas Makerspace. For only $10, I learned how to start a forge with coal, the varying types of blacksmith hammers and the ins-and-outs of the anvil. And lo-and-behold, a few hours later, I’d made my very own decorative steel leaf. Keep reading to see how.
Before anything else, the forge has to be lit. A forge requires fuel, heat and oxygen in order to reach and maintain the high temperatures needed for metal to become malleable. We used paper scraps and wood kindling to start the fire, and we piled the coals around so they can later be pushed on top.
Eventually some of the coal turns into coke, a high-carbon fuel, which is necessary to keep the forge flame well-fed. When this happened, we turned on the attached blower to provide oxygen and ducked away from the billowing clouds of dark smoke. After the smoke subsides, you are left with an extremely hot mound of coals with the center appearing bright yellow and orange. You want to aim for that sweet spot when heating metal.
When it comes to tools, it’s important to talk safety first. Metal heated over 1000°F changes color, and instantly you’re aware that it’s unsafe to touch. However, it’s important to note that metal at 900°F and metal at room temperature look exactly the same, and it’s in your best interest to consider any metal in the work area hot and dangerous to the touch. Before handling anything, we were taught to perform a series of small safety checks. First, wave the back of your hand over the metal. Is it hot? If not, quickly touch the item with one finger. If the level of heat is okay, you can then pick up the metal. If it is too hot, just submerge the whole piece in a water bucket to “quench” the metal. Steel is a poor conductor of heat, so only touch where you tested.
A quality anvil is a crucial tool for every good blacksmith. You’ll want a solid base to work from, and the anvil will provide you with that workspace. Unless you’re needing to create a shoulder, you’ll work directly center on the face of the anvil where the least amount of energy is lost. Besides the anvil, you’ll need need a blacksmithing hammer. For this project, just use the flat side, or face, of any hammer to strike your metal evenly. Just aim to use a hammer with a weight that works well for the project at hand (~2 lbs). Last but definitely not least, you will need long tongs to place and remove the metal stock from the forge. Better safe than sorry!
To get started on the decorative leaf, you’ll need now to bring the metal up to temperature. Just slide the metal stock piece, like the square steel bar that we used, into the bed of coals. Take special care to heat only the area that needs to be worked on. You’ll want to check back often since steel can fracture if it gets too hot. Once it is red hot, it is ready to be forged.
Carefully walk the hot metal back to your anvil, and then pound the rectangular tip into the point by alternating every heavy blow 90°. As the metal cools off, you’ll notice that your hammer bounces off the metal. You’ll need to reheat the metal tip again to continue shaping the end.
After you’ve drawn out the point, you can begin to create the change where the leaf meets the stem. To do so, you’ll need to create two drastic shoulders that are 90° apart. Do this by placing a side on the far side of the anvil to create a notch. Do the same on another side, and continue until you have gotten both notches 60% in. After you have gotten the stem sufficiently thin you can begin to round it out. Remember that you’ll need to re-heat the metal often to keep the metal stock pliable.
To finish, pound out the leaf shape until it’s thin. To add details, use a chisel to create the natural veining on leaves. Finishing touches include brushing the leaf with a course wire brush to knock off any loose metal flakes and dunking it into water to bring the temp back down.
November brings chilly weather. Will you warm up by a blacksmithing forge this year?