“Wanna learn how to forge a coathook?” asked The Resident Carpenter, “I thought you might like to try blacksmithing…?”
“Sure!” I said eagerly, and we headed for the shop.
The blacksmith shop. The one in the backyard.
Now, it’s not like having a forge out back was EVER on my to-do list. I blame Christmas for this one.
I THOUGHT I’d made the perfect Christmas gift for Nathan–a sculpted silver squirrel pendant–when it occurred to me that I’d never actually seen The Resident Carpenter wearing jewelry.
Was I about to handle Nathan a dreaded polite-but-strained-smile gift that would never leave the back of the closet?
“Oh, wow. A pair of socks covered with pink glow-in-the-dark-daisies. And a squirrel pendant. How very…uhm…thoughtful…”
Damn. I needed a backup present, ASAP. I vaguely remembered Nathan saying he’d always wanted to learn knifemaking…
The art of knivery…
We both collect knives, which are an incredible, utilitarian melding of art, craft, and science. Admittedly, where my knife collection runs to art-and-cooking, Nathan’s is more stabby-hand-to-hand-combat-in-the-woods, but still…
I hit up Google, looking for local blacksmithing schools, and on Christmas morning that jewelry box had two occupants: A little silver squirrel sporting a tiny emerald, and Blacksmithing 101 lessons at Portland’s Oaks Bottom Forge.
Three guesses as to which got the biggest smile…
…and of course, The RC turned out to be a natural blacksmith. By class end he’d made his first knife, invented a new twist pattern, and was assisting other students. “Are you sure,” asked Pat, the school’s owner, “That he hasn’t been doing this for years?”
His steely output is impressive, so much so that I’ve renamed him “The Resident Carpenter-Blacksmith,” or RCB. I dreamed of fancy forged door handles, drawer pulls, gardening tools, coathooks…an entire house forged in steel and bronze and copper.
He’s making axes and tomahawks and knives and probably thermonuclear devices. His expert carpentry skills now run to building handles, and we’ll wind up with more tree-choppy things than trees.
That gift thing. Again.
Christmas, alas, comes every year, and this fall I realized I’d once again need to come up with a Nathan-gift. What do you give a guy who can pretty much make anything he wants?
Stuff to make it with, of course.
Oaks Bottom Forge is a wonderful place with great folk, but it’s also cross-town through the most brutal traffic in Portland. Hmmm..half the garage is filled with kiln. Couldn’t we just drop a forge in there, too…?
I already had an anvil, courtesy of a lovely, lovely friend in Boston whose buddy was unloading an antique 70-pound beauty. In absolutely perfect condition, he was asking about a quarter of the anvil’s true worth, literally less than the cost to ship it to Portland.
70 lbs is huge, and admittedly overkill for my purposes–raising small copper and silver vessels I could enamel– but I couldn’t pass up such a deal.
When it arrived, it put a blacksmithy gleam in The RCB’s eye. “Your anvil,” he said longingly, “Is sexy as hell.”
So the anvil, the most expensive part of a blacksmith shop (outside of power tools) we already had. All we needed was the forge. I thought.
Remind me to stop thinking.
Lithuanians are timely folk
Online, I found a lovely two-burner forge from Lithuania for a reasonable price. Delivery from overseas would take a minimum of six weeks, they said.
From experience, I knew that six weeks could easily turn into 8-12 weeks. It was already October, so I hastily placed the order. When the forge arrived (hopefully before Christmas), I’d get Nate out of the house for a couple of hours so I could wrap it…
One week later, it landed on the front porch. Lithuanians, it seems, are very prompt people.
The porch security camera recorded The Resident Carpenter-Blacksmith inspecting a giant box and grinning. By the time I got home, he and the box were waiting in the entry hall.
“Is there a forge in this box?”
So much for surprises.
“No,” I lied, “It’s someone else’s Christmas present.” But I paused; the box had some dents.
If the forge was damaged in shipping but we didn’t open it until December 25, three months hence, would the Lithuanians let us return it? Probably not.
I contemplated sending Nate out of the room while I checked the contents, but (a) I know diddly squat about what constitutes “irretreivably broken” in a forge, and (b) The RCB is extremely good at big sad puppy eyes.
“We are opening this box ONLY TO CHECK FOR DAMAGE,” I warned him, “Then we close it back up until Christmas.”
He nodded vigorously, pulling everything out for inspection. “All good,” he confirmed.
“Wonderful. Pack it up,” I ordered, “And I’ll wrap it.”
Uh-oh. Sad puppy eyes again.
“We COULD do that,” he said, “Or you could just wrap the empty box and I’ll pretend to be surprised…”
Twenty minutes later he was was painting refractory cement on his newly assembled forge.
A blacksmith shop in the backyard
The next day, he set up shop in the studio shed out back and lit the gas. He’s been hammering ever since, and outfitting the shed out back with hammers, tongs, grinders and assorted tools.
Here’s what they don’t tell you about blacksmithing shops: They’re Malthusian. They grow to exceed the available space. “I need,” he said defensively, “Somewhere to put all the tools. And a belt sander. And an oil quench. And…”
My dream of a coldworking shop in that shed has been somewhat, er, modified.
Nate gifted me his first project, a beautiful railroad spike knife, courtesy of the abandoned Tillamook Railroad. It’s an amazing piece because he’s deliberately preserved its history in the final form. You can admire its origins while you’re cutting vegetables.
So far the neighbors haven’t objected to the sounds of clanging steel in the afternoon; they’re probably more opposed to the musical death metal strains that accompany Nathan’s pounding. (Or maybe not; our closest neighbors are six party animals in their 20s, with girlfriends. They can outnoise us any day.)
Blacksmiths–I didn’t know this–are the ultimate recyclers; they’ll repurpose just about any steel whatchamacallit, although they keep a sharp eye out for “high carbon” steel, tool steel, and stainless steel. We’re slowly packing the shed with old sawmill blades, springs, files, hammers, and wrenches, just waiting to be made into stuff.
Blacksmiths also make their own tools. Nathan’s constructed a very cool jig for beveling blades, and numerous hammery-slammery things that go on an anvil or into a vise. My two old non-working baby kilns have become a forging stand (at least until I can get a new controller for one, which will probably become a heat-treating-and-annealing oven).
And those aren’t the only tools being made. “Show me what you need for your art, and I’ll make them,” he promised.
If you’ve ever sculpted faces, you’ll know how tough it is to use standard dental tools to form eyes, noses, lips, etc.
Most specialized portrait-sculpting tools are full-sized, meant for working large in earthen clay.
My sculpting these days is miniaturized, working in silver, bronze, and copper clay, sometimes with enameling.
I showed The RCB my favorite full-sized tools, and he headed for the shop. An hour later he returned with an assortment of baby portrait tools in various sizes.
Hooooooly cow. You’ve gotta use these things to believe them. Beautiful in the hand, absolutely precise in the way they shape eyeballs and nostrils…where have you BEEN all my life?
“What else can you use?” he asked as he delivered a couple of pointy tools and a spatula forged from thick copper coil.
Hmmmm. Now I’m busy designing other tools that would be useful for sculpting in metal clay, carving wax, cutting strips…and trying to pursuade The RCB to sell this things online, maybe in Etsy.
They’re that good. More on that in another post.
Experienced blacksmiths were surprised at Nathan’s prowess; he says a lifetime of whacking hammers onto nails translates easily into skill at whacking steel.
I am not, by trade, a hammer-whacker, I’m a keyboard whacker. When we headed out to the shop to forge my first coathook, I didn’t expect much.
I had a good teacher: I made a coathook on the first try! The RCB demonstrated with a second coathook, patiently showing me how to match his moves. We started at one end of about 8 inches of “mild” steel square rod. “That’s a good beginner metal,” he explained, “because it moves easily even when it’s not that hot.”
We heated one end of the rod until it glowed saffon, then I carefully clamped onto it with tongs and carried it to the anvil.
“Let’s use your dad’s hammer,” he suggested, “It’s got a nice flat side and a good ball peen on the other.” I’d inherited that hammer, and other tools, from my dad, who always took the family on new adventures. Using it to make my first foray into blacksmithing seemed both sad and somehow just right.
I held the tongs in a death grip with my gloved left hand, while the right hand whacked steel. Under Nathan’s careful tutelage, I tapered one end of the rod into a flat, sharp point.
“Keep checking to make sure it’s straight all the way down the length,” he commanded. I found I could either get it pointy or straight, not both at the same time, so it took about 10 reheatings before my metal resembled his. Nathan, naturally, did it on the first heat.
“Now, we flatten the other end and dish it in slightly,” he said, as I set the OTHER end into the forge. I pounded and flattened and then, setting the flat part over a convenient anvil hole, punched all the way through the metal to make a nail hole.
Back into the forge to heat and heat and heat, then Nathan clamped the piece in the vise, just above the glowing section. He handed me a flat-looking wrench. “Clamp that onto the metal and TWIST until I tell you to stop.”
Twisting put an interesting spiral into the body of the hook. We heated again, and I coiled the pointy end of the coathook and beat it into a hook shape. The hole in the top is a little off-center, but I swear that’s the most beautiful coathook ever made.
The Resident Carpenter-Blacksmith grinned. “The first thing I made was a coathook, it was so damn amazing. I couldn’t stop smiling.”
Just for the record, I do NOT giggle. Small children and hyenas giggle. I may, on occasions such as these, chortle in a refined and genteel way. Not the same as giggling.
Not at all.
I’m still carrying that coathook around with me. And chortling, in a refined and genteel way.