So if you’re reading this, then chances are you have sat around a campfire cooking up a meal. It may have been something as simple as a mountain pie in a press, or as complex as a full 4 course meal for your whole campsite. And if you were in this position, you may have experienced what I refer to as Rule #2. This rule is on my list of life’s rules that I am trying to impart to my girls as truisms, to be remembered for all sorts of occasions. To be specific, Rule #2 states that ‘Hot metal looks like cold metal’.
Anyone who carefully pulled a cast iron skillet off of a fire is reminded of this soon after grabbing the handle with a bare hand not 3 minutes later – it’s amazing how fast we forget Rule #2 unless we remind ourselves often. And after properly cleaning and bandaging yourself, you may have even considered the skill and concentration it must take to properly turn a hunk of steel into a useful tool (like a scalpel). Well The Book of Blacksmithing by Michael Cardiff may not have you blacksmithing fine surgical instruments, but it will help you to hammer out some basic hand tools, repair others, and dispel some of the misconceptions that plague our technologically rich society. Whether you’re a weekend camper or a hard core homesteader, skill in shaping and forming metal can be a valuable asset, and we all have to start somewhere. The Book of Blacksmithing is available from Paladin Press and is available on Amazon for around $15.00 US.
Just like the metals you would work with, this text is dense with information and helpful illustrations. This book packs an amazing amount of information into a mere 95 pages. Starting off, Mr. Cardiff begins sensibly with an entire chapter on safety. And once again, we are back to Rule #2, plus a few more points to remember, like not setting your shop on fire, and not breathing in poisonous gasses.
The next section of the book covers the basics of setting up a blacksmithing shop. From the bellows/blowers that supply air, to the exhaust that takes it away, everything is covered in detail good enough for a novice to understand, but not so complex as to make the book a pure reference manual. For example, different styles of anvils are discussed, and their design and function are addressed, providing the reader and understanding of what anvil should be used when. Next we come to a lengthy discourse on tools, both hand and powered. There are numerous illustrations, as many of the tools presented are very specific and can be bewildering to the novice. Mr. Cardiff intersperses simple anecdotes throughout, making the learning process an adventure, rather than an exercise in rote memorization.
Now that the basics have been covered, the reader then moves on the area which, in my opinion, receives less consideration than it should by the beginning blacksmith – the selection of your stock. The grade and type of stock you use is for me the most critical decision a blacksmith can make, and The Book of Blacksmithing addresses the basic considerations very well. To many, steel is steel. But to anyone who has placed a bar into the fire, not knowing the proper temperature (or color) can mean the difference between an easy strike and a shower of pretty but useless sparks. For my own, this section of the book is clearly tabbed for easy reference. And after reviewing the options for stock and how to select the right stock for the right task, the text then goes through the process of beginning to actually heat and move the metal. Treating, tempering and annealing are each covered in turn, as well as my personal nemesis; forge welding. I have failed more forge welds that any other technique – at this point I think it’s more psychosomatic than anything. After reading (and re-reading, and re-re-reading just to be sure), I feel confident that in a few short weeks when I’m back at it, I’ll be better equipped to conquer my own mental block and make ‘two become one’. Trust me on this; it’s a big thing for me.
And while we are on the subject of making mistakes, that takes us to the next chapter. Addressing the more common errors a new smith will face, and how to troubleshoot and correct them. Here is my favorite one. Not hammering equally on all sides to maintain a true square is a common beginner’s mistake. You now have a tilted square or parallelogram. Okay, in your head it seems easy; all I have to do is squish it back flat. But your stock cools as you work it, and unless you want to spend most of your day on this, you had better know what to do, and fast. I know I have been snickered at on occasion, trying to undo some error, only to make it worse. I think it comes from thinking about metal as a hard, immobile substance, yet trying to force it into shape when it is anything but immobile – it can mess with your thinking. That’s why a good book explaining not only what you have to do but why you do it a certain way is important. The Book of Blacksmithing explains the proper technique to correct this, as well as splits, poor draws, and cracks, to name a few.
One thing that was also addressed in the troubleshooting section that I had not previously seen in other Blacksmithing books was the issue of personal hydration. Hammering metal in a hot forge is tiring work, and for the novice, dehydration is a serious issue. Mr. Cardiff makes reference to an old recipe that includes water, vinegar and honey. This is very similar to Shrub, which we use in the field during SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) battles to keep our electrolytes balanced after a hard day of fighting, and it works just as well in the forge.
Capping off the book is a section on simple projects that the beginner smith can test and hone their new found knowledge. No surprise, it opens with projects to make more specialized tools for future blacksmithing projects. Hardy chisels, Nail heading tools and simple wall hooks are detailed, again with illustrations, and provide a great starting point to begin your journey to making metal work for you.
So the next time you are sitting around a camp fire, watching the stew pot bubble on its tripod, I urge you to consider trying you hand at making some metal tools of your own. Even the simple tent stake can be a source of pride if you look at it and know that it was your hands that hammered the tapered tip, and your knowledge helped to make the perfectly centered three twists. And The Book of Blacksmithing by Michael Cardiff will help to you accomplish this goal – just keep your gloves on and don’t forget Rule #2.
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