Friday, May 22, 2009

Lighting a Fire

Here is an essay in pictures of how I light the forge fire. Coal needs a high temperature to ignite. I build a kindling wood fire to start the coal. You can see I split some very fine splinters to start the fire and light larger kindling. I used Birch Bark to start the kindling as it is plentiful in my wood pile and is historically accurate. Paper would work too. I use a log cabin method to pile my kindling and then light it from the bottom. When the fire is good and hot I start placing chunks of partially burned coal from the previous day’s fire (coke) onto the fire. Pull the bellows and the fire is hot!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Working Hands

What story do our hands tell of us? How are your hands shaped by what you do? At some points in American history hands that were soft and white were a sign of success, as the lack of calluses proved that you had the means to pay others to labor for you. As a kid I loved seeing my Great Uncle’s hands. He was a dairy farmer, and a talented man. He hands were huge with long, strong fingers. You could see at a glance that they were equally at home throwing hay bales, milking cows, or coaxing an old tractor to life.

My friends at the Farmers’ Museum also work with their hands. Their hands haul animal feed, prune herbs, or kneed bread dough. Some stitch together brooms from broom corn, tend the Printing Press, dip candle wicks in hot wax, or shape hot iron. Here are our hands. Can you tell which hands belong to the Farmer, the Printer, the Farm Wife and Baker, the Maintenance crew, and the Tavern Keeper?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Hold-Fasts, Bench Dogs, & Dogged to the Bench!

Blacksmiths and woodworkers have always needed a way to hold the item upon which they are working. The steel vices of the last century work very well, but require expensive steel, iron, and precision machining by expensive tools. What did a rural cooper, carpenter, or blacksmith use in the past?

They used a category of simple tools for the bench and anvil that were easy to make, quick to use, and that held their work still in one dimension. These were called hold-fasts and bench dogs. A hold-fast looks like an iron letter 7. It is dropped in a hole in the bench or the anvil. The jaw is placed upon the work and the body is struck with a mallet. That drives the upright into the bench hole, compresses the natural spring of the tool, and holds your work to the anvil or bench.

A bench dog is a little different. It is a metal post with a lip that is set into a square hole in the carpenter’s bench. The wood being worked is then pushed against the bench dog while it is being planed, carved, or otherwise worked. The bench dog can be used in cooperation with a Vice-dog to clamp a board in place for working as well.

Any tool that held something by grabbing it in a jaw tended to be called a “Dog” in the 19th century. There were bench dogs, log dogs, and saw mill dogs. Something held securely was “dogged down”. These simple tools do not have the perfect hold of a modern vice. They were however simple enough for a village blacksmith shop to produce, and made a craftsman’s life easier.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Tough as Nails

Nail making was a common part of life in an early 19th century shop. Factory produced “cut nails” were made in Massachusetts and New York. They could be made very efficiently, but the cost of shipping the nails to rural villages kept hand-forged nails competitive for some uses. Hand-forged nails were more easily clinched and were preferred for shoeing horses and for items like doors.

When making nails, the smith starts by heating a rod of “nail-stock.”
This bar is then forged at the anvil to a smooth taper. That forms the body of the nail. A thick area is squared up and scored with a hardy (chisel). The nail is then snapped off the bar into a header, and the smith hammers down on it to make the head. It can take between 30 seconds and several minutes to make a nail. Smaller nails are faster to forge, while large nails may need to be heated in the forge several times before they are done.The importance of the nail and nail making is still reflected in our speech. We try to work efficiently, without “too many irons in the fire.” You may be, “as tough as nails," and still fail at a task, “for want of a nail.” You can even be so mad you “chew nails and spit tacks”! Now that we have the making of this humble item “nailed down,” perhaps we will all give it a little more respect!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Books for Beginning Blacksmiths

Blacksmithing is a hard craft to learn alone. The apprentice system for blacksmithing is long gone in the U.S. How, then, may a person learn about blacksmithing? I recommend three things. Read some books about blacksmithing to learn the basics about the tools, techniques, and language used in the craft. Second, locate the blacksmithing organization nearest you. The United States has more than 50 educational organizations that preserve knowledge and teach about blacksmithing. See the links at the side of this blog. Third, try to find a blacksmith that you can visit for some advice.

If a person is interested in learning more about blacksmithing there are a number of good books that can help them get started. One excellent reference for the amateur is The Backyard Blacksmith , Traditional Techniques for the Modern Smith, by Lorelei Sims (Quarry Books, 2006, ISBN 1-59253-251-9). Her book is informative, conversational, and is full of clear diagrams and color photographs. It is an excellent book for the beginning smith.
Another excellent book for beginning smiths is A Blacksmithing Primer, A Course In Basic and Intermediate Blacksmithing by Randy McDaniel (Hobar Publications, 2004, ISBN: 0-9662589-1-6). This book is a step-by-step guide to learning technique, and has many computer-drawn sketches and illustrations. It is detailed without being overwhelming.
I would be remiss if I did not add that visitors are always welcome to visit me here at the Farmers’ Museum to see a little blacksmithing. The Field Blacksmith Shop is in operation most days, and also teaches one-on-one blacksmithing classes throughout the summer. More information on our schedule and our class offerings can be found on the workshops page of our website.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Flint and Steel

Lighting a fire using flint and steel is no easy task. It is a lot harder than it looks. The first requirement is a flint striker made of hardened high carbon steel. Since steel was very expensive and valuable some strikers were made from worn-out files. When you strike flint and steel there are tiny slivers shaved off from the steel. The friction involved sets them on fire. So the sparks from flint on steel are tiny slivers of steel burning at over 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit.

We forge a variety of strikers. Blacksmiths from different regions and of different nationalities used different shapes when making their strikers. We make the basic C shape as well as English, Irish, and French fur trade strikers.

Flint is an extremely hard stone that can be shaped using basic tools. It is excellent for striking a spark from hardened steel. But other stones work as well. Two kinds of Chert are found in the Cooperstown area. The lighter colored is Esophus Chert while the darker is Kalkberg Chert. Not true flint, both can be shaped much like flint and are hard enough to strike sparks.
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