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Upcoming projects:
Building a Frame Saw
Forging a Copper Kettle
Making a pair of leather work boots
Forging and Fletching a Bodkin
Flocking a drawer interior

Monday, February 26, 2018


A few years back, I wrote or rambled on the nature of possession and the general state that society has tended towards over the course of the last century. Particularly, towards the materialistic and otherwise disposable mentality which fuels a socioeconomic bio mass with the primeval goal of devouring everything which can be consumed.

Rather than returning to that conversation, I would rather turn towards a more productive (in the literal sense) approach to how life's default to restoration and refurbishment rather than replacement.

Over the last few years as I have become surrounded with the shop, history, and culture of the 1850s and Westward Expansion that is prevalent in the shop wherein I work, a piece of the craft has become steadily more apparent to me. In the past, because the 'abundant material - time deficient' disparity was the controlling factor, I would abandon failed projects at the first sign of trouble and start again with a different approach. While the value of learning the trade under idealised circumstances cannot be overstated, there comes a price in that mistakes become an annoyance rather than a challenge. Now, examining the form of blacksmithing from a more historic and practical standpoint, those frivolous abandonings become less savoury.

Perhaps the driving factor for beginning anew is the pursuit for perfection. If there are flaws, then perfection cannot be attained. If there are failures, then there will be flaws. If failures are not discarded, than there cannot be perfection. But things are not meant to be made perfect. By machines, perhaps. Where tolerances are within the tenth of a thousandth of a micron, perfection suddenly becomes more attainable. When a 1800 degree piece of metal is heated with a pile of coal and smitten with a hammer with tools that are ten times as old as the hands that form it, the metrics for accuracy are suddenly wholly relative and, to a certain extent in the technocratic industrialised world, irrelevant.

When forging the above adze, it began as a body and an edge. Held together with a rivet so I might set the weld in the proper place, the chromium steel had trouble taking to the other half, but in the end it sufficed. Until the edge hot-shorted and crumbled apart. Once, I would have taken it as a sign to either start over with plain carbon steel or else abandon it entirely. But why waste the two days' work? Instead of scrapping the project, I welded a new edge to the lot, adding mass to the body by extending it to a half inch short of the eye. But then the neck became weakened by that transition, so I welded another short piece to span the gap between the eye and the new back plate. At this point, I changed the intention of the design and welded on a square piece to the centre from which I forged the central ridge. Two years ago I would never have thought this was possible, much less probable. By changing how I looked at possibility and shed the trepidation of attempting that which is beyond my former capability, I was able to grow into a better version of myself. In the simplest terms, it is the essence of progress.

They say that necessity is the mother of invention. It may be better said that necessity is the catalyst for growth. Whether as a society or a culture or a trade or as an individual, by seeking the answer to problems rather than restarting them, we are able to find solutions to things which would once be impossible.

When wages were the derivative of tools, care was put into those same tools that they would become worth the their cost. As a result, things were made to be used and to survive their use. When, after the inevitable failure of a hard won life, instead of being retired, where possible they were instead reforged. Restored. Repaired. And part of that cycle is born from the hands who made them. Where every farmer was and every town held a blacksmith, it was in that working knowledge as to fix tools before they were broken. That is to say, the function forced the form. Where there were weaknesses, where there were common failures, where there were susceptibilities and proneness, the maker made better.

In forging a set of timber framing slicks, the two considerations I took above all others both related to the socket. First, an integral socket is something I have been trying to develop on a level of personal skill. By having a socket rather than a tang, the handle is much better suited to the large scale hewing of framed joints. Second, the terminus of the socket. On the first iteration, I tried welding the socket to form an unbroken annulum. With the 5160 steel, the chromium prevented the feasibility of welding something so thin over so long a length. Driven by necessity, I decided to try welding on additional mass in the form of a collar to the top of the socket. This prevents the spring action of an un-welded socket from loosening a handle under heavy use.

Aesthetic flaws are one of the more mundane problems I have come across, as they present no larger issue than pride in craftsmanship. None the less, I feel a certain drive in professionalism to correct what I might once have otherwise left untouched.

Traditionally, the froe, an instrument for splitting logs into wedges or shingles or the general form of a smaller log, is forged by wrapping the eye around a mandrel and welding the seam. Because the blade is fairly thin, it does not make sense to forge it in an integral form to the eye. However, that wrapped eye method often leaves a harsh and unappealing transition between eye and blade.

Taking the path less travelled, I decided to forge a froe from a piece of 2" square tool steel. In doing so, the first step was to slit and drift the eye. When working something so large by hand, there is inevitably some degree of uncertainty in alignment. To counteract the deviation of the chisel as it passes through the steel, I cut from both sides and took the loss in the middle where the asymmetry is easiest forged out. However, lateral alignment is a slightly different problem. There was about a quarter inch offset between the top and bottom holes, leaving a slit in one side which extended half way through the steel. Because it is extremely difficult to correct that once the eye is fully cut, that small gap (yet visible on the heel end where left uncorrected) will either remain in the finished piece or else need to be re-cut all the way through.

For no other reason than to see if I could, I took a small bit of scrap mild steel, forged it into a plug, and welded it into the hole. Using the drift as a press, I drove it in and hammered to create an outward pressure on the plug which set the weld. Subsequent downward pressure forged it mostly flat, leaving behind the relatively smooth transition seen above. As I examine a greater volume of historic work, the more I realise that this sort of fix is not only done but done commonly. Lap welding on new edges to tools, refacing hammers or anvils, fixing cracks with another band of iron welded over the failure, it was as common then as we now use tape or glue.

When those flaws are less aesthetic and more accurately a detriment to structural integrity, I find that the means of salvaging the already-expended-effort is largely the same. Over a year ago, I began forging the body of a carving axe. When slitting the eye, I cut just slightly too close to the back end of the stock and assumed that it would fail while forging the eye. Indeed, it might have been for the size of haft needed for this sort of axe. Then, while sorting through projects to finish, I found it again and took a closer look at what it would take to fix. Indeed, a hundred fifty years ago, this sort of thing would be worth too much to discard.

The thin spot was, fortunately, confined to one side of the eye. As I drifted the eye open, a convenient corner formed that looked as though it would nicely take a spare bit of steel for reinforcement. Without modern welding equipment, the only way to hold onto the bit to be welded was a tricky bit of thinking through the problem and a different pair of tongs. This is, surprisingly, the first (and probably only) time where box jaw tongs worked absolutely perfectly for the job.

In the end, there was only a slight seam left over from the weld due in part to leaving all the scale on both pieces of metal prior to welding. As it were, I learned a valuable lesson in the same school of thought. For blacksmiths are the ultimate manipulators of form, and for all the limitations of working with a hammer and a 3000 degree fire, those same vices become advantages by opening a world of possibility unique to the trade. Through the last eight years since I first struck iron, the constant evolution of thought and conspiratory approach towards problem solving has taught me more than I would have ever imagined, and I suspect that I have only scratched the surface. In all things, not least being the art of forging, I have come to learn that there is always another way through a problem seemingly bereft of solution.

Sunday, January 28, 2018


Stone archways, as a means of architecture, represent a great many things beyond the confines of masonry. The idea of a keystone is something that more people would recognise in a different context entirely. Rather, most people with whom the words has come up in conversation strangely don't actually know what a keystone is. However, our use of stones to hold open doorways in an otherwise unbroken wall dates back to, at least in bridges, the Sui Dynasty in China in the form of the Anji Bridge constructed over the period of a decade starting in 595 A.D.

My concern with the archway extends a little farther back into the history of builders to the Roman Empire who implemented their learnings of the assimilated Etruscan Empire to build architectural archways that did not rely on piled earth to compensate for the lateral thrust resultant of the radial nature of the stone's arrangement.

While there are literally millennia that span between the first arches and today, I found it difficult enough to locate any mathematical documentation for their design and implementation that I disregarded all of that and started from scratch. Or mostly, anyway.

First off, there are substantially more types of arches than I knew about. Of the ones which I had no aesthetic desire to explore, there are round arches, trefoil arches, three centred arches, elliptical, inflexed, ogee, reverse ogee, tudor, parabolic, etc. etc. Each of these has their own design characteristics which likely corresponds to some far distant cultural revolution and style. Good for them, not so much for me.

Before diving into this, I will say that while drawing these all on onionskin paper was great for transferring lines, it was extraordinarily difficult to photograph for a number of reasons. For that, I will include only a few of the iterations to illustrate what these are all about.

The first and most quickly discarded of the lot were Lancet Arches. These, like the rest of the class that I am dealing with, is designed from two points like foci on an ellipse. Only instead of making a continuous curve, the arcs intersect somewhere and that somewhere is the top of the arch. For the Lancet Arch, the two foci are outside the bounds of the stone, residing somewhere in what will later be the abutment (stones that reside one layer outside the structural arch). To form the intrados and extrados (inner and outer dimensions of the springers) I based these all of of the arbitrary metric of making the arches 5 'units' tall to for the rise and 6 units to the crown.

For the first iteration of the Lancet Arch, I placed the foci at 4 units from the centre, which had a intrados arc radius of 6,4 and the extrados arc radius of 7,2 units. Because the two foci are relatively close together for the length of the arch radius, the sides seemed to come past the vertical tangent and curve back inwards. No good.

To compensate for this, I moved the foci an extra unit farther apart to 5 from centre. This made a more pleasing and more pointy arch, but for a standard doorway dimension of 32" this makes the thing disproportionately tall (an extra 87" on top of an already 80" door). I'll spare you the subsequent iterations of this style of arch but spoiler, they get narrower and pointier.

The Two Centred Drop Arch, or as it is affectionately known the Gothic Pointed Saracenic Arch, is more or less the opposite of the Lancet. Here, the foci are inside the bounds of the arch. In case you were curious, when the foci are on the bounds of the intrads and extrados, it becomes and equilateral arch. Here, however, they are inset and provide a significantly more favourable ratio of rise to span. Because this will be used for a doorway that is more likely than not going to be at least width and a half if not double wide, the lower the rise for a given span the better. A combination of aesthetics and math secretly drove me to optimise this quality throughout the arch exploration that I unwittingly undertook.

Again using the magic constraints of 5 units for the rise and 6 for the crown, the rest is fairly simple. For the Gothic arch, the closer the foci move towards the centre (then becoming a round or semicircular arch), the closer the rise to span ratio moves towards 1. In the above drawing, the top arch has a focal distance of 1 2/3 while the bottom has a focal distance of 1 1/3. You can clearly see how the arch becomes less pointy and closer to a single curved half circle as the distance from the centre decreases.

Ultimately, I liked the look of the arch which had an approximate focal distance of 1,25 units from the centre. but not the constraint of the rise to span ratio it presented. The solution? A Two Centred Pointed Segmental Arch of course! The term Segmental means that the arc length is less than 180 degrees, or is less than a full semicircle. Pointed is a bit obvious, but means that the two Segments meet at some angle that is not parallel tangent. This style combines a few things from various other arch types and, at the expense of introducing considerably more variables than I really wanted to explore, produces wider arches that do not come out round at the crown. While there is nothing wrong with round arches, and with a proud keystone you would probably never notice the difference anyway, the simplicity of that style defeats the purpose of trying to learn more about them.

The Two Centred Pointed Segmental Arch is similar to the Two Centred Drop Arch in that the foci lie within the intrados. However, this is the first one that has them offset from the spring line (where the arch stops and the imposts or skew backs start). Moving the foci above the spring line would give us the same problem that the Lancet Arches have where the shape comes back in and makes it bulbous. Rather than that, the foci drop below the spring line.

Insofar as I am aware, the two most significant variables here are the distance the foci are offset from the centre and how far below the spring line they are. To determine the distance from the centre, I did not just set the spacing at 1 or 1,25 or however many units because there are a few more alignment problems that come from that. So instead, I set a distance of 1 or however many units offset, then drew a series of arcs at a fixed length of 2 units towards the inside of the arch. This formed my sort of anchor point. From the centre of this point I drew another arc, this time at a fixed length of 2,5 units, and intersected it with a circle drawn from the centreline at that original radius of 1 or however many units long. In the top drawing, that radius is 1,25 and in the bottom it is 1 unit. Through a bit of math and a lot of trial and error, I found that doing it this way helps control how much the rise to span ratio changes. Because I did not want a large number for that, the way the foci move by constraining two separate but seemingly unrelated variables keeps it from changing too dramatically while allowing for a fine adjustment of the keystone profile.

Since it is likely none of that made any sense, I'll move on. For the arch I am actually designing (and yes, none of those were actually arches yet), I chose the top one in the previous drawing. It has a rise:span of 1.11:1 and also has a cleaner division of units being that the span is exactly 9 for a crown of 6.

From here, I redrew the intrados and extrados, leaving everything but the foci and spring line out. Because I do not have an accurate and repeatable way of measuring arc lengths, I used the good old guess and check method to divide the arch into a number of equally sized stones. The only difficult part of this is getting the spacing right when the two halves meet at the keystone. I tried a number of divisions, and I found I liked the size best when there are 15 total, 7 on each side plus the keystone. This gives almost square sprigners, but because this is a secondary constraint to the dimensions of the arch itself, it can be changed at any time prior to the stones actually being cut.

From the foci, I took the lines from centre to intersect each of the divisions. Although this is nothing more than an educated guess, like almost everything else so far, the lines must be drawn this way for the stones to actually sit correctly once placed. While there are styles of arch (or pseudo-arches) that do not rely on the transformation of radial force into lateral force via wedges, I can only assume that incorrect geometry here would ultimately lead to failure.

Once all the springers and keystone are drawn, I moved on to the imposts. These are the things the arches sit atop of and support the weight of the stone in the arch. Columns or stacked stone or any number of things can serve as the sides of an archway, but for the sake of completeness I decided to continue with the design experiment.

In order to determine the height of the subsequent imposts and stone beneath, I tried a few things. First, as shown above, using the height of the springer at the intrados. This gives the smallest relative dimension, whereas using the height of a springer at the extrados would give the largest. Using the height of a springer midway between the two is what I ultimately used because it made sense.

And there it is, a finished arch. In later iterations, I will almost certainly change the shape of the keystone as depicted in the bottom half of the previous drawing, but that is a problem for another time. The primary design challenge now is how to integrate the arch into a wall and the adjoining of dissimilar materials. To fill a stone arch with a wooden door, for example, requires fastening one to the other in such a way that it will not be mutually destructive or cause eventual instability.

As I am not an architect, the more I learn about seemingly the simplest of processes, the more I come to appreciate the complexities that secretly reside in untold centuries of our great builders' minds.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Heaven's Reach

or, The Ha'ikū Stairs

It seems like an incredibly long time ago now that I stood at the top of the fabled 'Stairway to Heaven' nearly three months past. As with all things, the experience comes and goes and the pictures superpose memory.

In the early hours of dawn, we set out to catch sunrise at the summit. Arguably, we took an admirable go about it but ultimately fell short by an hour or two. Not knowing the way or even where to begin, the first moments echoed everything we saw on the internet regarding the ascent. From the north, the stairs themselves are very illegal due to the state of decay that grew upon the since their use in World War II as a pathway to a secret radio network. From the south, the trail itself is not necessarily illegal, depending on how you go about it. At nearly three in the morning, we thought it would be a safe venture. To our education, there is no end to the tenacity of disgruntled neighbours. Within less than five minutes of coming to the trailhead, we were joined by another pair of hikers and, even shorter thereafter, the police.

Sympathetic to our good nature and general disposition that must have been contrary to the other sorts of blokes who frequent the area for early morning adventures, they seemed relieved that they would not have to detain anyone. Even better, a minute after they arrived, they jumped back into their cars and took off to the background noise of a radio squelching someone's stolen vehicle. As soon as that, they were gone (and so were we).

The trial itself snaked its way across the valley between ridgelines for a handful of miles before taking a great leap upward and through the bristling slopes of O'ahu. That it was still dark served as a testament of how laborious the process was; stars themselves over the edge of the horizon seemed to sweat in the fall of early dawn. That mist which lingers in all cool places which know a striking heat to the day blanketed the cloudforest and, as we scrambled our way higher, grew subsequently thinner.

After a time, the first light of dawn broke over the eastern mountains and cascaded the world in a brilliantly green light. The light, it turns out, of billions of living things drinking it in at the very first opportunity. Seeing the scale of the canyons and the lushness of the slopes in spite of their offensive steepness was breathtaking. Or maybe it was the general ascent. In either case, the shedding of night's veil was a welcome relief even though we knew we would not reach the tower in time for true sunrise.

Eventually, the old radio tower appeared on a distant peak. Another good mile or so of twisting, muddy trail lay between us and it yet the end was near. All along the upper pass, a series of precarious ropes dangled on the slick mud faces for hikers to climb. More often than not, the top of the rope was hidden around a bend or so far overhead that it disappeared in the sheerness of the slope. More often than not, it looked like a better idea to not use it. Until trying. Thankfully, they all held to their purpose and everyone returned safely.

It was around this point in the hike that we realised the severity of how much the islanders did not want anyone climbing the stairs themselves. Out of the fog, we heard the sound of a helicopter on the north side of the trail which holds the entire length of the stairs. As it turns out, they were surveying the stairs for anyone who managed to sneak past the security stationed everywhere withing creeping distance of the entrance.

In the end we were, as some old nefarious vandal noted, 'On Top'. The tower itself was a neat combination of derelict history and waystation to rest. A sizeable congregation of hikers and campers (who slept inside it) waited there for the morning and so we joined their ranks and looked down over the stairs. A quarter mile down or so held the iconic scenery where the stairs descend at a frighteningly steep angle and the rising mist obscures the world below.

From above, it looks almost like a miniature model but in reality plummets a few thousands of feet down to the lowlands and the ocean.

Down the back side lay a collection of ruins which once housed other communications stations and outbuildings for the radio tower. Along the stairs in the brush, a pair of thick cables runs parallel to the ridgeline where the nation's most secret of secrets once travelled. In a sense it is remarkable how simple and how resilient the way has become. While a good portion of it is in severe disrepair and wholly not recommended for casual travel, the nature of it is supremely interesting. When coupled with the views, I am considerably glad and fortunate to have walked a part of the stairs before they are either removed or some more serious effort is taken to prevent expeditioners from pursuing them.

And, of course, I was compelled to find the US Geodetic Survey marker at the summit, an old habit from my long days in the mountains in the east.

Happy trails!