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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

Friday, March 24, 2017


The spirit of adventure is born in hardship, and those who refuse to seek it out have never truly lived.


Across the gentle passage of time, change comes more slowly than often we realise unless thrust upon a great circumstance of uncertainty. Yet looking back over where we once were and where we have become, there can come a place which holds the mind affixed with an image disembodied from the cause which brought it there. Months or as many years have passed since the illusion of control sat anywhere near where I found myself standing, and in it the gradual progression has removed symptoms of its change. For better or worse, that change persisted, and in its wake we are often left without indication that anything has truly come and gone other than the triviality of events themselves. Impact and implication, without scrutiny, fall into the secondary realm that can be clouded by a dreamstate.

One morning not many days ago, I awoke with a startling awareness that I have not truly seen before. It is not as though I were any different, any more or less awake in the existential sense, no farther from where I am or closer to wherever I am going, but there was something different in the way I saw where I was in the world. To be wrapped up in something which causes you to move 5000 miles in two years, to live in four different states and nine different places, to have been able to see so much of the country and yet hold so little freedom in the ability to truly see it, a juxtaposition silently creeps up into the bowls of the subconscious.

To those who have never experienced it, it likely sounds hyperbolic or questionably sane. Yet, in absence of hindsight, what once we thought to be a road towards actualisation is in fact a symptom of that same affliction which we seek to escape.

Faced with the crippling disinterest of all that which was once held dear and so day by day moves recklessly farther into the extremes in the hopes that the familiar evocation of wonder and passion and purpose and hope one day returns. Unknowingly and unwittingly it comes to become convinced and confused by the peculiarities which bear the guise of sensibility.

A series of fragments which lie like shards of a reality both familiar and unbound from the life thought to be behind you rise into as a scene unbelievable even to the conscious mind which has watched it come and pass. A chronicle of a life observed but never truly lived, that strange sensation comes, witnessed but estranged, seen but unincorporated. Disjointed unions of a once whole fragmentation together paint a picture which by all rights bears no reason or cohesion to the sequence which gave it birth. Each second links definitely to the last, and yet forsakes absolutely the progression into what the future is expected to hold.

To realise that the hands before you have made what they hold, that the feet beneath you have taken you to where you stand, it is only unnatural from the mind's disenchanted observation that what is waking crosses the line from what is dreamt. Together or apart, those fragments tell a story, each one so neatly self contained that they cannot possibly relate. Years or months or days slip by and before you are any the wiser you wake up as someone different and know nothing of the person you thought you were to become. Instead, there is a decoherence and the question of where next you will find yourself aware.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Serpent Spear

With the opportunity to work in an old shop as a living historian, inspiration has taken its hold over me to begin pursuing a number of projects which have been brewing in the years that I have been without a regular place to light the forge. More, doing so without modern equipment, it has expanded my ability to critically approach a problem which would have been inconsequential with a different set of tools.

For this project, I wanted to create the first in a series of efforts towards a pattern I have been developing and puzzling over. Here, I will forge a spear head with an opposing twist, serpentine core and a 5 layer edge.

For the core bar, as I mentioned above, there are two opposing twists. I did not take any pictures of this process, and may do so eventually, but it is fairly simple to execute. Each of the twists began as a 11 layer (maybe...I set the welds on these a long, long time ago) billet of 1095 and 15n20. Once welded, they were drawn out by hand into a roughly 3/8" square bar as long as it happened to come out to be. From there, it was heated in sections and twisted by holding one end in the leg vice and the other in a wrench. Although I do not have an exact measurement of twists per inch, as I did it by twists per bar, the tightness of the twists was just enough that the corners of the square cross section began to meet. Of the two bars, one was twisted clockwise and the other anticlockwise (or sunwise and widdershins if you're weird). Upon successful twisting, the two bars were then gently forged back into a generally square bar and welded together. The result is shown in the centre of the steel above. That bit was forged from some leftover material, ignore the two edge bars there.

Now then, onto the spear's edge. The majority of the billet's manipulation will be done by forging the edge bar, so first it needs to be made. I drew out a cladding of wrought iron from an excessively large bar I had handy, then placed it on either side of a 15n20/1075/15n20 cluster. Lacking modern welding equipment to hold the billet together, I pretended to use bits of twisted wire while holding it tightly in a pair of tongs while the far end came up to temp. I have never progressively welded in sections quite like this before, but I was pleasantly surprised by how nicely it turned out. Using overlapping welding heats, I moved from one end down to the other, careful not to stress the billet or forge too cold until it was entirely solid.

Because the billet will be undertaking a decent amount of stress almost immediately, I wanted to be sure the welds were solid. A few things I have come to look for in the weld lines is, with thinner layers, the more obvious cooling of one spot more quickly than the rest of the billet. With this thicker stock however that doesn't work as well. Another thing is the formation of the scale. However tight the layers against one another, unless it is actually welded, the scale will not form across that line. That makes it really clear that the weld did not take. With steel that is not perfectly the same thickness or exactly aligned, that might be deceiving in that the unevenness is the cause rather than the lack of weld. So, when I felt it was solid, I forged a small bit on edge to bring it down flat and watched for delamination. Eventually, it will all need to be flat anyway, because I cannot go back and grind it before welding the edges to the core.

Without being able to grind the steel exactly where I needed it to form the serpentine shape, I had to come up with another way of getting there without any serious (any at all really) stock removal. If I had a press, I would have made a set of dies to get the undulations exactly even and repeatable, but since I do not, I had to think of a way of doing it by hand.

Which looked a little something like this. Had I been a bit more proactive in the planning department, this probably would have gone better, but ultimately it worked so that's all I will say on it. While it looks strange, the top of the bar above will actually be the centre. I measured as best I could for the spacing, but until I set a few of the sinusoides, I wasn't entirely sure how far it would distort in length. At this point, I intentionally left the 'spine' thicker where I hammered down on it so that when I came through later and forged the edge flat, the upsetting in the lumps would more or less match.

In case that last picture was confusing, this is the rough layout. The phase of the waves are offset so that when I forge it back into a rectangle, the core will distort into the snake pattern. Above, the opposing twists are already welded together and the sides slightly flattened by forging and hot rasping. Originally, I intended for the extra bit of edge bar at the top to be forged down around to meet the other side, but that did not work at all, so I changed plans a bit later on. Also, to conserve material, I used the bits of the core that were clamped in the post vice as where the tang of the spear blade meets the socket. That way, the bars are continuous but I am also making use of the untwisted material.

If I was pretending before about using wire to hold the billet together to set the weld, I might actually be out of my mind here. I had a grand vision of this working in some capacity, but the shapes were literally impossible to hold long enough to set a weld without having a face sized clinker stuck between the weld surfaces. In the end, I took off one edge and set the weld with the core, then came back for a second pass. But, due to the shape, I could not put the welded side down and use the same fullering hardie to set the top weld. In the end, I went to the post vice and clamped the pants off it. Although it did introduce a bit of buckling, it was nothing that could not be fixed later.

Once it was welded firmly, I began forging it back into a rectangle. To do this, I used that huge swage block in the top picture of the first post, setting the peaks of the wave on either side of a matching U of the swage. That seemed to give me the best return of straightening v. upsetting of the various surfaces I tried forging on.Once squared up, I hot cut the ends to make it less weird looking and more manageable for the next part.

Here, I addressed the issue of not being able to drag the extra bit of edge bar down around the tip. Which is fishmouthing the end! This was another thing which gave me a lot of thought. Initially, I was going to leave the edge bars long and sort of wrap them around over the end of the core, because I was not sure if the end would be in the centre of the bar after welding. As it worked out, I could hot cut a V into the end to where the core met the centre of the billet and just do the ole' fish mouth weld. Also, as you can see above, the core is far less wavy than the frequency of the wave in the initial edge billet. Approaching this with a press, I think I could get the serpent a fair amount tighter, but the concept still worked I suppose.

Having never done one of those fishmouth welds before, I was worried about the shear stress of forging down the edges, but it did not tear open or even threaten to. On such a young weld, I was convinced that it would at least try, but after coming together, it stuck like wet noodles to drywall. 

The next needlessly time intensive part of this ordeal was to forge the socket. Since I did not have anything round or remotely close to the right size, I had to neck down a 2,5" square pipe to the marginally smaller tube of a socket. Cutting an arbitrary length of pipe off of the bar with a hack saw took way too long, but when that was over with, it was on to making it round. Necking down pipe without it collapsing is tedious to say the least, especially when the final diameter is about a third of the starting. To do this, I worked it one end backwards to form the taper of the socket, keeping it nice and hot and rotating it constantly to prevent the formation of corners or buckles.

Once the spear end was close to the size needed to fit the stub tang, I squared (rectangled) the joint. I found that having a square/rectangle when welding is much easier than trying to get two round things to mate perfectly. With the socket hot and spear cold, I cold fitted the joint before welding. As the spear was, the tang tapered outwards towards the blade, making a wedge for the socket to fit into. On the socket end, it was opposite. the necking goes down to the tightest point just before where the weld will be, then flares slightly back open to accept the wedge. This is important if you want more than the very end of the socket to weld to the blade.

When actually setting the weld, I used a hefty amount of flux, combined with a pinch of coal dust, and down into the socket a bit of iron powder. The coal dust burns out any extra oxygen, the flux does normal flux things but also draws in the iron powder which acts almost like a metal velcro to set the weld. Because there was no good way to clean the inside of the pipe socket before welding, I wanted all the help I could get. When hot, I stood the socket on the anvil and hammered down on the point of the blade. That set the weld, repeated two or three more times, until I was confident in it. Then, it was over to the horn and forging down on the socket like when I was necking it down. After that, the only thing left to do was straighten the blade/socket joint and make sure everything was gravy. 

Since I do not have any modern equipment, I also have no way to grind the blade now that it is forged to shape. For the edges, a hot rasp will make fast work of it, but the faces are another story. I have no desire to drawfile this thing, so I made a scraper instead. Given the only other scraper experience I have is from about 6 years ago and didn't involve determining the edge geometry myself, this was interesting and altogether pure luck. It is more or less like a draw knife with twisted handles that help facilitate the proper cutting angle of the edge, which is about 2/3 the width of one bevel of the spear's face. There is a very slight convex curve to it, and the angle is as close to 45 degrees as I could forge by hand.

I started by forging out a handle, then setting down a corner for the cutting edge. Using a pair of double calipers I made a few weeks back, I transferred the length of the first handle piece to get a fairly even match on the other side. Getting the twists was the only difficult part of the process, as I was not quite sure how far to take it. At first, I did a straight 90 degree twist on each handle, but that was way too much. So, I untwisted it, flattened, and went back for another round. In the end, it is around 50 degrees, which seemed a good angle for holding the scraper in line with your hands with arms parallel to the ground, allowing the cutting edge to meet the steel at the proper angle (whatever that is...) And then I heat treated it. Quenched into the house blend of oil, it hardened nicely. Before tempering the edge, I heated the handles from the outside in, relieving the hardness of everything through the corner where handles meets cutting edge. I assume that the edge itself needs to be as hard as possible, so I left it fairly hard, tempering it in the high 200s, low 300s F. And, I know it's not much of a looker, but in the 15 min I had to design, forge, and heat treat it, I was not overly concerned.

[To be amended when I see if this scraper actually works]

{Sorry for being a trilobite and not showing the spear just yet}

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.