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Saturday, January 28, 2017

Introduction to Forge Welding

Forge welding, the process of using heat and force to fuse separate pieces of metal, is one of the fundamental joinery skills a blacksmith possesses which is unique to the trade. Unlike conventional welding, there is no filler material and the weld surface comprises the entirety of the area of overlap between the individual pieces. For many, this is a skill which seems elusive or intimidating, and for centuries there has been a shroud of mystery and ritual behind the process. Once, blacksmiths were though as mystic for their ability to manipulate ferrous metals as they do, but with a bit of chemistry and patience, those corners of the trade become accessible to anyone interested in pursuing them.

Of the reasons to forge weld, the most common is for pattern welding. However, forge welding can also be used as a means of mechanical joinery such as in axe heads where a high carbon steel bit is welded into a mild steel body. It can also be a means of refinery as is done in the consolidation of bloomery steel. Forge welding can be used to resize stock without bothering to upset it, and it can be a mechanism to achieve design geometry which is prohibitive with a single piece of stock. Whatever the reasons, the process will be explored here and common issues that I have encountered addressed.

First and foremost, there are a few considerations which must be addressed. Surface preparation is, as  I have found it to be, the most important factor in making a clean weld. How clean the steel is and the geometry of the surface together comprise a host of issues which can easily be addressed. Simply put, the cleaner the surfaces being welded, the better off you will be. Some tend to overdo it a bit by grinding free of any scale, stacking the steel, and using alcohol to remove any contamination from the surface. Various substances can be used to prevent oxidation or contamination or any number of things, which theoretically can help you, but I have never had to resort to that to weld steel.

Whether in solid fuel or gas, the process is effectively the same. The only difference is in a gas forge, the process is easier to observe. Having welded extensively in both, it comes down to what you are familiar with, what you have available, and which you ultimately prefer. For the time being, I am confined to 1850s technology, which means solid fuel. Lately, I have come to prefer solid fuel forges for their ability to localise heat, control over temperature, and the romantic appeal of using an enormous pair of bellows to conduct my work.

From here on out, I will be addressing the forge welding process through pattern welding and my bladesmithing background. These processes apply the same regardless of what steel and shape you are welding. Above, I have a billet of 5 layers. The core is 1075, with a thin jacket of 15n20, and outer cladding of wrought iron. This is a prime example of how different steels move at different rates. The wrought iron will move much faster under the hammer than the 1075, not only because it is on the outside and experiences a more direct application of force from the hammer, but also because of its relative plasticity. Wrought iron tends to move faster than carbon steel, same as mild steel moves faster than high alloy steel. Knowing what you are working with will help predict how to treat the billet once it is welded.

Preparing a billet to weld comes down to a few things. Taking it simply, having clean flat surfaces is enough. In an ideal situation, having the mating surfaces be slightly convex aids in ejecting slag and scale when you set the weld, preventing it from becoming trapped inside the weld and fouling its integrity.

Assembling the billet is another question that many people have. Since wire feed and stick welders did not exist in the era in which I am working, there are a few alternatives. First, I will address modern welding equipment. Many people prefer to tack weld the billet together before welding. This holds all the layers together and allows you to handle it without fear of it falling apart before the weld is set. If you have a welder available, great. Usually, both ends are welded with a bead down the corners, and another bead down the middle of the billet on each side. If you do not do the one in the middle, the expansion of the steel as it heats in the forge will probably tear the welds at one or both ends. I do not like to weld down the middle because it has a chance of introducing that filler material into the pattern of the steel if you do not grind it out later, so if I do tack the billet together, I only do so at one end. This allows the steel to expand however it wants without breaking the thing that holds it all together.

Depending on the size of the billet, many prefer to weld a sacrificial handle to it. If you have decent welding skills, that is fine, but if not, I would skip that step. The best tongs are simply having a piece of stock long enough to hold onto without tongs, so handles can be great, but I have never had one survive an entire forge welding operation. For that reason, I forego the handle and just use tongs. This also allows me to pinch the layers together in the forge, which can actually be enough to set the weld without a hammer. If you do not have a welder, wrapping the billet with non galvanised wire can do the trick. For the better part of my journey I have done this and rarely had a problem. While it requires a bit more care in the handling of the billet, the results are clean and ultimately the same.

Once you have your billet of steel ready for forging, the real experience begins. There has been quite a bit of discussion lately about welding without flux, and I will not be addressing that here. For the purpose of learning to forge weld, flux gives you a few key indications of what to do. Before getting into that, I will discuss the flux itself. Across the ages and continents, there have been a wide variety of fluxes, but in the modern era the easiest and most foolproof that I have found is to simply use borax. 20 Mule Team borax is found in just about any supermarket and does a great job.

If you are struggling with a particularly stubborn weld, I have found that adding coal or charcoal dust and iron or cast iron filings to the mix helps considerably. The exact ratio is not all that important, but it should be mostly borax. Beware that the more iron filings added, the more you will see it in the weld lines later. Cast iron or iron filings will help cement the weld because the surface area to volume ratio is much higher than that of the billet itself, so it will melt earlier, acting as a sort of metal velcro to the weld. However, because the carbon content is radically different than the steel in the billet, it will muddy the weld lines. For pattern welding, this is working against you. The coal or charcoal dust will consume the excess oxygen that makes it into the weld surfaces and prevent scale buildup.

As the steel heats in the forge, oxygen attacks the surface of the steel, forming scale, which is the natural nemesis to welding. In order to prevent that, flux coats the surface with a barrier which prevents oxygen from reaching the steel. When welding, I generally do the following. The billet goes into the forge, and when it reaches a dull red temperature, I add a light coating of flux along the edges of the billet so capillary action draws it into the mating surfaces. After that, it goes back into the forge until a bright orange. Then it's more flux and back into the forge until it reaches a welding heat.

To say that there is one single welding temperature is to assume that all steel is equal (which it is not!). With the flux on the steel, the first visual indication that you are in the right range for forge welding is that it will be bubbling and dancing along the surface of the steel. This is much easier to see in a propane forge, as it is not covered in coal or coke.

The next indication is the vaporous smoke that comes off of the billet from the borax when it is at welding temperature. In the above picture, you can see the wisps of smoke coming off the steel. In person, this indication is very distinct and easy to recognise regardless of the lighting conditions.

Setting a weld may seem like a thing you need to do by hitting the steel as hard as you can, but in reality it is just the opposite. Setting welds is best done with gentle taps in the beginning. Due to the difference in movement of the various steels used, heavy amounts of force will rip the welds apart. In a propane forge, I often set the welds simply by pinching the billet with a pair of tongs, never even taking it out.

Depending on what you are welding, there is a decent chance that the billet's length may exceed the length of a heat you are able to achieve. Above, the billet is considerably longer than what I am able to weld in one pass, but that is no problem at all. As long as you only forge the sections that are at welding heat, you can forge weld any length you are able to hold onto. In the case where you need to weld in sections, move gradually back along the length of the billet, using overlapping heats to move the weld towards the unwelded section.

As tempting as it may be to forge the billet everywhere along its length where it is at welding temperature, being methodical is the best way to avoid trapping any scale inside. I always start at one end, working towards the tongs or handle, starting in the middle of the billet's width. From there, move towards the edges first, until the entire end is firmly welded. Then, move back towards the unwelded end, staying in the middle. This gives the flux and scale a chance to evacuate the billet as you work outwards towards the edges.

While temperature is obviously an important factor in welding, the indications given by the flux are not enough to guarantee the weld. As you work, there are a few key indications which will tell you if the weld has taken. The easiest and most destructive is to hammer the weld on edge. If it is solid, the layers will not delaminate. Doing this is sometimes necessary to accommodate the geometry of the final object, but doing so before the weld has matured can still cause weld failure even if the billet was solid.

Next is how the scale forms. A solid weld will form scale on the surface that is unbroken across the layers. Where layers are not welded, the steel's grains will not be fused, and the scale cannot physically form across that line. If you have an edge which looks flat but does not form a continuous piece of scale, there is a weld flaw in there somewhere. This may not be the best indication however, as sometimes you do not have a billet where the layers are exactly aligned or precisely the same width. Outside of pattern welding, there are often sharp corners meeting flats, which can be difficult to blend perfectly on the surface. Also, with differential expansion rates, you may be deceived by the scale formation if one layer mushrooms out from the others.

As you can see, across a solid weld the scale will be continuous. Above, the difference in nickel content of the layers gives the pattern to the steel as well as the scale. Those flakes are connected across the weld lines regardless of the alloy because that weld is solid.

If the formation of scale is proving elusive or indecisive, the next thing I look for is cold spots. Where there is a bubble or an incomplete weld in one of the layers, the two sides of that weld flaw will cool at different rates. Shadows on the steel are a fairly conclusive sign of an incomplete weld. If the billet is completely welded, it will cool at a uniform rate. Lying the steel on the face of the anvil or somewhere where it can cool fairly quickly, it is easy to notice. More often than not, I find bits along the edges of welds that are not fully set, and addressing those individually provides a means to fully weld a billet without overly distorting the entire thing.

If there is a flaw in the middle of a billet that does not cross to the edges somewhere, sometimes spot forging it will not work. Either trapped air or flux or scale or whatever does not have a chance to escape, so the surfaces cannot ever perfectly mate. Grinding through that bubble may be necessary, but you might also be able to drill or punch  a small hole through it which allows whatever is trapped inside to evacuate the void.

As the weld matures, the steel can be worked at gradually lower temperatures. In the beginning, I work solely at welding temperatures to ensure that it is fully set, hammering only down in a direction which pushes the layers of steel together. When I am confident that it has taken, I move to addressing the shape of what it will ultimately become. Forging down the weld lines is, as said above, a good indication of if everything has cemented fully. Unless I am using a press or power hammer, there will generally be a little bit of need to forge across the welds in order to dress the billet.

Above, I welded a composite billet of an opposing twist core and 5 layer edges on either side, and because I had neither a welder nor wire to hold it together, I simply held onto it with a pair of tongs while it approached welding temperature. The rough forged dimensions were not exact between the core and edges, so there was a need to hammer across the welds to achieve a flat surface. While situationally dependent, there should be little reservation about forging across welds as long as you are hot enough and certain the welds are set.

Forge welding is, as I see it, an incredible process which should be seen as an opportunity to enhance the craft. The limitations of its potential are non existent so long as the beginning trepidation is overcome. While there are certain chemical barriers to what can be welded, the majority of weld failures can be easily avoided given a bit of education and practical experience.

Regardless of what you begin with, the dimensions or the surface conditions, the grades of steel or the ultimate design, persistence can overcome the material limitations given the right conditions.

Whether from a pile of scrap tack welded together, a rusty spring found buried in the middle of the woods, or a pristine billet prepared from modern steel, forge welding is limited only by the imagination and the constraint of design. Patterns can be manipulated by hammering or by grinding or any number of mechanisms to produce results both rooted firmly in the history of the craft or never done before. It is, as many things have come to be, a process which can only be truly achieved by doing. And the only to know is to try.

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Road

They say the open road will carry you home for free.

Another year has come and gone, and with it parts of us we might never have noticed had it not been for that silent reflection that comes from the open road. What people fail to realise is that the world is only as small as we permit. There will always be a path to follow, a door to open, a far distant land to chase, and so many in number do they lay beyond our sight that we accept that blindness of comfort as our only reality.

Perhaps it is a confession of our character in what we see of the world around us. Too often are we content with passing the exhaustions of life with naming rest simply as lack of motion. I would rather say that there lies within us all a tiredness of the bones which no amount of sleep can tame. No number to the hours passed idly waiting for whatever might come upon us next. For that is not rest, and neither does it bring us peace.

To be perfectly composed is to be wholly deposed of that sense of wonder which has driven our kind into the farthest reaches of the earth and so much that extends beyond it. Of late, it has become a theme to chase those wilds into wherever they may lead. Whether to the mountain tops or the thundering seas, adventure lies within us as much as it lies around, and to deny either is to cut away a piece of our soul which we so dearly need.

For those who seek it, the answer is simple. Search, and you will find. It may not be what you intended to become, nor where you expected that passage to end, but it will always be where you needed.

There is something to be said for staring at far away things. Things so close yet impossibly far away as though separated by the vastness of the ocean. When it is the ocean itself that rises out of a turn of the earth, our sense of wonder is bared to the true power of the natural world. An understanding and a realisation comes from the strength of something which has outlived us by as many generations as it has years, and for each of us it is different. That is the beauty of the world around us. It does not care who you are. It does not care where you came from or where you are going. It does not care who you were or who you have become. And to us all, it presents the simplest and most profound gift of all. Opportunity.

There lies an anchor upon the heart; we long for a world we cannot see, heedless of the consequences which might truly bring us there. It is that dichotomy- a hope to better the future, unable to forsake the familiarity of the past- which keeps us from the way of progress.

Yet that is the grandest illusion which we suffer. The only limitations we have for our vision of the future are those which we impose upon it. There is no power in making a new resolve a year after the last one. There is nothing to be gained by waiting for the perfect circumstance or the passing of some old obstacle which has loomed between us and our ambition. In truth, the road which takes us through this journey moves forward by only our own intention, and there is a spectacular world waiting for us there.

The problem is, you think you have time.

Monday, December 5, 2016


"It doesn't matter how many times you leave, it will always hurt to come back and remember what you once had and who you once were. Then it will hurt just as much to leave again, and so it goes over and over again. Once you've started to leave, you will run your whole life."
-Charlotte Eriksson

The wayfærer wanders, but it is neither towards nor away from anywhere that lies at the end of the path. The wanderer finds destination along an unplanned road, some place which satisfies the longing of a heart without a home, however long it stays. There is a journey, but that journey must also come to an end. To the wayfærer, however, it is the passage itself which becomes the destination, and only in the depths of foreign sight and sensation, the thrill of insecurity and strangeness, the lingering question of what really waits just beyond your sight, will there be something to fill in the holes which have been slowly worn away.

Entrenched in the comfort and routine of society, it is dangerously easy to forget how wild and unforgiving the world was. Of what lies out there, waiting to be seen, to be explored, to be experienced. By living off of what you can carry on your back, surviving by instinct and endurance, relying upon your own ability to solve problems, a great deal of that unbidden life returns. Too often, it feels as though the advances we make are merely the illusion of progress hiding something darker. Now and again, the whisper becomes a howl, and there is no choice but to remember what lies beyond the shrinking boundaries of what our personal world has become.

When you need to break through a frozen waterfall with an axe to find water, or hike by the light of the moon across 11,000 feet of elevation and 100 degree temperature swings, modern living suddenly finds a new appreciation. Too often I hear someone proclaim, however thinly veiled behind jest, that it is madness to search out what awaits us in the wilderness. To many, there is no appeal, no desire, no willingness to tolerate the burden of leaving behind the life that has been built around us. Yet to them, I question what it truly means to live. We have come to a time where more is accessable, at any moment, than any other period in history. And yet still we experience from a distance, choosing the parts which are convenient and leaving behind all that makes it real. Without hardship, all that which is beautiful in the world has lost its meaning.

I was, looking back, chasing after that sensation awakened by the finality of true isolation. Atop the peaks, the world lay beneath me with a perspective I have never known. Whether I embarked with that purpose, I instead found another, one which evades even the most relentless pursuit and is often found in search of something else.

Enshrouded by the endless breaks of rock and ice, ridgelines standing thousands of feet around you as impassable as those we struggle to leave behind, there comes a quiet over the land. Echoes of the builders linger, their work remaining long after their hands depart. With the onset of winter, in areas  the snow covered over the trail so heavily that the only place to step was an inch from the sheer face of a cliff plunging half a mile down. Alone, you must be ready to face that which you can never prepare for. It is that sensation which cannot be confined to words, an opening to a doorway that, once ajar, cannot be closed again.

It is not that I found myself simply leaving something behind, nor that I was seeking out something in its stead. Rather, there upon the heights I was looking for the sort of transformation that comes about by its own right, that cannot be forced or demanded or stolen out of the quiet life.

Too often, we permit our work to define our identity rather than affording our identity the opportunity to define our work. Our labours become our nature rather than our nature shaping what we must overcome. Whoever we are, we are all in pursuit of something. For the wayfærer, it is seeking out the road itself. Towards no destination beyond the changing face of what lies around us. To wander into those far corners of the world yet leave them before the sense of wonder which brought us there is lost.

A better burden 
may no man bear 
For wanderings wide than wisdom; 
It is better than wealth
on unknown ways, 
And in grief a refuge it gives.

-The Hávamál