In a truly long-term TEOTWAWKI scenario, the ability to fashion and shape metal will become critical. If you can work with metal, you will be able to make tools; repair, fashion and heat treat gun parts; fabricate household, farm and mechanical implements of all shapes and sizes; and have a valuable trade to generate income or barter for goods and services. On the frontier west, no town was complete until it had a working Smithy. To start into blacksmithing, you need two things: tools and information. The good news is that you can make many of your own tools and the information is readily available in various print mediums, as well as being obtainable in the fiery crucible of trial and error.
The initial basic tool load out will consist of an anvil, forge, blower, tongs and fuel. Look for an anvil in flea markets, farm sales and auctions. If money is not an issue, buy a new anvil. Expect to pay at least $1.00 to $1.50 per pound for a used anvil and $400 to $800 for a new one. Heavier is better than lighter, but remember, you may have to carry it somewhere, but get one that weighs at least 100 pounds. Make sure your anvil has the square hardie and round Pritchel holes through the top and that the edges aren’t too beat up. Look for an anvil that rings when lightly struck with a hammer (get permission from the owner before you go whanging away on his anvil). Avoid the cheap Chinese imports if at all possible.
The best vise for blacksmithing is a post, or leg, vise. It has a healthy post that goes from the jaws of the vise down to the ground, thereby transferring the force of hammer blows away from the vise threads directly to the ground. A regular mechanics vise will work but get a heavy-duty one, and have a spare.
The forge doesn’t have to be anything fancy; you need a place to build a fire, and a way to deliver air into the heart of the fire. Make sure the forge is capable of holding a fire of the correct size to do what you want to do. For example, if you want to make swords, you want to be able to build a long fire; that implies a larger forge.
Rick’s Maxim # 1. It is easier to build a small fire in a large forge than it is to build a large fire in a small forge.
Many people build their fireboxes out of metal, brick, old truck wheels, charcoal grills, wood, and even wheelbarrows. Once you have decided on a firebox, line it with fire bricks and/or fire clay. Even sand or red Georgia clay will work in a pinch. The object of lining the firebox is to insulate the box to keep it from burning through (your leg) and to conserve the heat of the fire. When you plan out your forge, make sure there is a way to get pieces longer than the forge down to where the fire actually is.
Introduce air into the fire through an opening in the bottom of the firebox through an opening called a tuyret. Traditionally made of clay, the tuyret can be as simple as a pipe bolted to a pipe flange on the bottom of the forge with a grate of some sort. Mine is just that, made of 1” diameter pipe. The grate is a piece of 1/8” steel with holes punched through it to allow airflow. Be cautious when using galvanized as the zinc coating releases toxic fumes when heated. If the air handling apparatus is exposed to direct fire, use black gas line rather than galvanized pipe.
The blower can be manually or electrically operated. The manual blowers are generally of a bellows construction or a rotary cranked blower. The manual rotary blowers are, if not common, at least they can be found at flea markets. If the grid is up, or you have a solar/battery/inverter setup operational, it is convenient to use an electric blower, AC or DC. Squirrel cage blowers can be salvaged off of cars, old oil heaters, and the like. The exhaust port of a shop-vac makes a fine, though noisy, blower. It is efficient to have a foot operated on-off switch to save wear and tear on your coal supply. Also, have some way to adjust the air supply, either by constricting the airflow, or by diverting some of the airflow away from the fire. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy or expensive.
Tongs can be made with specialized jaws to accommodate particular pieces of metal: flat for general-purpose tongs, round for pipe and rods, the possibilities are nearly unlimited. Your first set of tongs might be a pair of large channel-locks with long handles to keep your hands away from the heat of the fire. Speaking of heat, it is a good idea to get some heat resistant gloves similar to what the firemen use. Regular heavy-duty leather gloves are better than nothing, but they heat up in a hurry.
This brings me to Rick’s Maxim # 2: “Just because a piece of metal is not glowing red, doesn’t mean that it’s not hot.” Get some gloves!
The forge can be gas fueled, use coal, charcoal or even wood; but my preference is coal. To start a coal fire, use some wood kindling to get a blaze going then pile the coal around and over the fire and hit it with some air from the blower. Fat lighter makes really good kindling.
One of the first tools you should make is a poker to poke at and arrange the fire. Something a couple feet long with an ‘L’ shaped end like a craps dealer might use in Vegas to rake in the chips, and a ring to hang it up with on the other end. Another useful tool used to control the fire is a small soup can with a wire bail on a handle similar to the poker. Punch a few holes in the bottom of the can with a nail and use it to dip water out of your quench tank to control the fire. You only need to burn the coal in the immediate vicinity of the metal you are working, so use the water sprinkler to suppress the fire on the periphery.
Buckets – get two or three buckets, one for water quenching and one for oil (used motor oil works okay). Five gallon buckets work, but a 20 gallon metal can is much better. On the oil bucket, have some sort of a lid to smother out flash fires. Sometimes when you put hot steel into the oil it will flash up, burn, and splatter flaming oil droplets in all directions.
This leads us to Rick’s Maxim #3: “Never blacksmith without a shirt on.”
It is beyond the scope of this article to go into much detail about projects. Information abounds on the WWW and there are many fine books on blacksmithing. Many areas have blacksmith guilds and associations. Practice, practice, practice.
The first things you might want to build are simple objects to get the hang of it: hooks, pokers, tripods to cook over, blacksmithing tools such as tongs and hardie mounted hot chisels. Fireplace pokers are a good learning project as well as simple farm tools like hay hooks, log dogs, and pinch bars.
It is difficult to move large amounts of metal using hand tools so, when you have a bigger project, get at least a sledgehammer and a willing accomplice to swing it. This is why they invented power hammers; I suspect it was the “willing accomplice” that first got the idea. Practice making square things round and round things square. Practice putting decorative twists into square stock. When welding, don’t use heavy blows, easy does it and use Borax for flux.
One important thing to note is that when you are heating your metal in the fire, always have a plan of exactly what you are going to do to that piece of metal when you take it out of the fire. Picture in your mind how you will hold it, what tools you will need, and where and when you are going to strike or bend.
Rick’s Maxim #4 clearly states, “Indecision is not always the key to flexibility.”
Pay close attention to the irons you have in the fire, when you get distracted then turn around and see yellow sparks flying away from the metal, it’s too late, you’ve burnt up the steel. This is where the expression “Having too many irons in the fire” originated.
Much raw material can be salvaged from cars and trucks. For example, coil and leaf springs, struts, steering parts, etc. If you need a long square stock, you will be able to straighten out a coil spring and pound it square- learn to look at the potential of a piece of steel and don’t be constrained by it’s current shape. There are many other sources of raw material; the world is our scrap pile.
We live in a “disposable” society. Presently, if it breaks or wears out, folks get a new one. In a TEOTWAWKI society, that will come to a screeching halt. Re-supply will be limited and we will have to “improvise, adapt, and overcome”. Blacksmithing is a traditional trade that has evolved into an art form and primitive curiosity. It is fairly inexpensive to break into and great fun to practice. Someday it may again become a valuable trade.
JWR Adds: I greatly appreciate Rick sharing his knowledge and insights. Some important provisos: Always wear the appropriate safety items when working metal. Goggles or at least safety glasses with side guards are a MUST. Sturdy boots and a shop apron are highly recommended. Never work around fire alone, and always keep a big fire extinguisher handy.
You can never have too many references. Look for blacksmithing books in used book stores and on Amazon.com or eBay. OBTW, the books that look the grungiest are often the best–the grunge shows that they were used as actual workshop references. The Boy Scout merit badge on blacksmithing is a surprisingly complete starter book. The tome titled The Complete Modern Blacksmith by Alexander G. Weygers is a great resource. It is the book to buy if you want to get serious about blacksmithing. Weygers really knows his stuff! (Used copies are often available on Amazon.com.) Some other good references on blacksmithing are cited at http://journeytoforever.org/at_blacksmith.html
Look for use anvils, hammers, tongs, files, chisels blowers, and such at farm auctions. Leaf springs are one of my favorite items to salvage for re-forging. You can make everything from a knife to a scythe to a crossbow out of a leaf spring. If you scrounge around, you can find a lot of scrap steel free if you ask. Given enough time, with a forge, fuel, an anvil, a hammer, a good cold chisel, a few files, (and of course plenty of scrap steel) you can make just about any other tool that you need!