On Knives and Such. Or, Finding Out that You are an Amateur

So you have dabbled a bit with the fire and forge and think, "Now, I am a blacksmith, now I will make a bad ass weapon."

Think again.

Actually, no, go ahead and give it a shot. It is absolutely a learning experience that you should take part in. Word of caution: it will not go as planned. Hooks and bits of hardware are one thing. These items are usually made from mild steel and are fairly easily formed and not much is required for them to perform as needed. For sake of argument, we'll call weapons tools... they are, after all, designed to do a particular job.

Tools are something that require a considerable amount of skill and experience to make well. Part of this will be present in the actual working of the metal. Part of this, however, starts before you pick up the hammer. In this day and age, just about every question you have has already been answered on the internet, so your life is considerably easier than it would have been in previous generations. If you are setting out to make a particular type of tool (weapon) make sure you consider what metal you are going to use. How much carbon should be present, what other elements are desired, what elements and metal types should be avoided, what is the desired hardness, what should be used to quench, how long and what temperature (or color, if you don't use a heat treat oven) for tempering, what (if any) edge should be applied, how should it be applied, what type of scale material to use, what type of pins or rivets?... the list goes on and on for the types of questions you should consider and, better yet, have an answer to BEFORE you get started.

Research, man, I know.... And you just wanted to hit some steel.

This is what separates a smith from a hobbyist from an amateur that should probably just go do something else. I am not saying you shouldn't give it a try, we are all amateurs at some point in our lives. What I am saying, however, is that everything requires time and commitment. If at any point you think, "Damn! this is starting to feel like work!" then congratulations! You have determined that you have no desire to go beyond being an amateur. And, you know what? That is okay. Truly. If you don't feel like making the commitment to advancing your knowledge, and thereby advancing your skill set, then don't. But, I implore you, all hobbyists and professionals implore you, do not make things like knives and what-not and try to sell them.

Here's why: Tools, as we already know, require a great deal of skill and time. Many require an investment in not only the commitment to learn, but a monetary investment in equipment and proper resources. These commitments and investments carry a cost. One that is often blemished by an amateur trying to sell his wares.

Historical tidbit: There is not a Blacksmith Union in the United States of America. Why? Back when many trades were starting to unionize, smiths actually worked against protections afforded by unions. Their argument was that a union would protect the failing/inferior  blacksmith while making them equal (and greatly reducing the perceived quality) of professional blacksmiths. Without the protections of a union, the inferior smith would fail and close shop, leaving only competent smiths in the arena of commerce. This would guarantee that all works created would be of respectable quality and the perceived value of the products would be similar to their actual cost. In short, they believed that if inferior smiths were protected by the union then all smiths would suffer. They would be expected to perform superior work for inferior wages to compete with those that produced inferior work for the same wage.

To boil years of debate and argument down to a simple example: You and I both make a knife. You are committed to your trade and have made the investment to improve your skills. I, on the other hand, am doing this because I can but have not trained as much, have not read as much, and do not have the drive to become superior. When we have finished our knives, they look similar. Your knife, the professional knife, has a nicer appearance but does not look (from a consumer's perspective) that much different than mine. The apparent difference (an average consumer will have no concept of grain structure, plasticity, rigidity, flexibility, hardness, bevel and edge structure) is that your knife costs considerably more than mine. The average consumer will see these similar knives and purchase mine, thinking that the price difference comes from you overcharging rather than that your knife is significantly superior.

People are cheap, this is not a surprise. They are (almost) always looking for a deal. If they cannot tell that there is a difference, they will almost always go for the cheaper option. So they buy the inferior knife (meanwhile, you wasted untold hours of work), it underperforms... It might chip, crack, bend, or dull very quickly (or all of the above). Most, but not all, people will blame this on the fact that it is handmade rather than blame the smith that made it. They will either buy a mass produced knife or buy another cheap blade made by either me or some other amateur rather than spend the money on your knife. Because I am an amateur, I have taken a sale away from you and harmed the reputation of smiths in general. I have set an expectation that the price for your labor should be lower and created a price-point that is unreasonable for a skilled smith and a competently made product. 

So, if you are going to make something, make it right. Do the leg work. If you are too lazy or disinterested, then please, PLEASE, do not forge. And, if you say, "The hell with you, I'm going to do it anyway!" Then please don't sell or compare your work to professional smiths that have spent years of their lives training and countless dollars making sure they have the tools, equipment, and resources to make the product right.

There is nothing wrong with being an amateur, as long as you know are one.

On Finding a Focus

What to do, what to do? It is a hard question to answer, harder than it may seem, when you are first getting things started. If you have a trade or skill set that can be applied to a wide variety of goods, narrowing down just what you ply your skills too can be a daunting task.

So, how do you figure out what to focus on? For some, they'll feel a definite passion toward one aspect of work over another. For others, they may just be in the dark as far as what is actually worth their time. If you are trying to make a business out of this endeavor you have to, unfortunately, fall upon that age old adage that time is, quite truly, money. For instance, I really like the idea of a straight razor. To be honest, I think they can be made to look like beautiful and functional pieces of art. How often, though, do you think people are really going to buy them? Hell, they might think your straight razor is the best damn thing they have ever seen. Doesn't mean they're suddenly going to get in the habit of shaving with one. In the end, you have gained an admirer but have yet to make a sale and have yet to get paid for hours and hours of work. In short... passions don't always pan out.

Don't despair! If you are undecided about what to focus on I have some good/bad news: Variety. When you first get started you are going to make an assortment of things and just see how it all pans out. This means, yes, you will have some straight razors (or your version) gathering dust. Meanwhile, there will be things that you make because you have some spare time or just feel like, "What the heck, why not?" and find that they sell and sell often. As time goes on you will need to actually track what sells, how often it sells, and who buys it. Yep, market research isn't just for big companies. Tedious, far from fun if you are the type that prefers actually making something, but necessary.

In the end you may be finding yourself travelling down a path you did not expect when you first started. The real challenge then, is to find yourself impassioned by the items that people want, to find a desire to continue to make what sells over what first got you interested. You may need to swallow some pride, but heave a heavy sigh and get on with it. In my case, I thought it would be knives and razors and tools and axes... Instead it's jewelry. I still strive to form a market for those things I wanted to make a living making, but the reality is that, as you will find, you need to focus on what makes your business flourish.

Good luck.

On Lessons Learned: The Perils of Craft Shows

I have written about doing craft and art shows in the past and, well, I am going to continue to do so.

Spring is in the air, the grass in turning green, flowers are starting to bloom, animals are scurrying about, and rain... so much rain. Unless you happen to be a farmer, live in the South West, or are a fish, rain just plain stinks most of the time. When is it at its worst? When you rely on people wanting to walk through it to buy your stuff.

Outdoor craft shows rely almost solely on the weather (and some advertising) to produce a good turn out of people interested in what others are peddling. But who the hell wants to go out when it is 40 degrees and raining? I sure don't. Or when it is exceptionally humid and over 100 degrees? I'd be sitting next to the vents, sucking in all the air conditioning I could handle. But, "Them's the breaks, kid."

Not every day is going to produce lovely weather and, quite honestly, there is a comfort zone in the environment that loosens up inhibitions and wallets that just can't be hit every time. When going into a show, consider the climate and set your hopes accordingly. Or, just set them extremely low anyway, that way you will occasionally be pleasantly surprised but rarely disappointed. Hot, cold, humid, wet, soul sucking fluorescent lighting (for those indoor shows)? All of that will influence just how open people are to spending money. Heck, all that influences just how much they even want to be at the show.

So, in those less-than-ideal conditions be prepared to hear a lot of "Your stuff is so interesting," "This is truly unique, I love it," "I wish I had the time to look more thoroughly at what you have," "I'm too cold to spend any money," (yeah, that actually happened) and very little of that oh-so-comforting cash register "ca-ching".

The real peril of craft and art shows is that every single one is a bit of a gamble. Sometimes you'll hit it big, sometimes you'll lose money. Signing up for shows is not cheap, especially if you are just getting started and aren't rolling in the dough. Manage your money the best that you can because a failed show is like a skipped paycheck at any other job. Consider yourself warned.

"You know all that work you have been doing over the past weeks? Well, turns out, we're not going to pay you for it. Look at it like... volunteer service, yeah... doesn't that sound nice?"

Ghost Town

Ghost Town

 

 

On Apprenticeships: the "Good" Old Days

As I have said before (I think), apprenticeships these days don't really exist. They kind of do, but not in a traditional sense. Believe me, though, when I say that, for the most part, that is a good thing.

Imagine this: You have a couple older brothers. Your eldest has clearly been groomed by your father to take over the family business. In this case, we'll say the business is a farm. You, on the other hand, have been doing your daily chores and haven't been trusted with much on the business side of things. In essence, you are a hired hand that doesn't get paid, but you do get a place to live and some food, so that's good, right? 

In time, the family farm will become your brother's farm. Your brother's farm. Not the family farm, not anymore! I don't know about you, but not many people are thrilled at the idea of having an older sibling be their boss. So, at the prospect of having him rule your adulthood as much as he tormented your childhood (that is what brothers are good at, after all), you may start thinking of picking up a new trade to call your own. Welcome to the wonderful world of apprenticeships.

At a young age, we'll say 10-12 (if blacksmithing is your destiny, older if you want one of those edumicated positions like being a lawyer or something that uses books) you get to hit the road and be a working man. I do mean man - tough luck ladies, you don't qualify. Say good bye to your folks, you may see them a few times if they live locally (like, 10-20 miles), otherwise... well, life is short. Instead, you move in to your new master's shop. Not house, shop. 

Now, I am not talking about the modern era. Electricity? Central Heating (or any heat)? Air conditioning? Running water? Who do you think you are?! You get a roof, a blanket, and something to do every waking hour. Your master will feed you out of the kindness of his heart and will likely give you new clothes every year or so, but never expect more than that. If that sounds harsh, too damn bad. The alternative is pretty much losing your reputation and crawling on back home to one day work for your brother. You could be relieved of your position, but more often than not you could never simply just "quit" - you may be required to sign a Contract of Indentures. Indentured servitude is illegal nowadays (it was kind of like slavery, but "ethical" and I use that term very loosely), but boy did people love it when you could use it. If you did leave, you would be hard pressed to find another job, let alone an apprenticeship. No one likes a quitter, contract breaker, or lazy and stupid boy. As far as the public was concerned, you would be branded all of the above.

Your duties will start out simple, but as your skills improve so will your responsibilities. After nearly a decade of sleeping on the floor, working abysmal hours under conditions OSHA would cry over, you may advance to being a journeyman. Here you are, now 18-20 years old, a man by all accounts, and ready to set out on your own. Too bad you haven't been paid for that past 10 years. Instead you get to journey to other shops, hopefully find some work, and get a cut of the work you produce (hopefully), all the while learning a few new skills or approaches to your trade. This is how the trades, and yes even lawyers were a trade and offered a variation of the apprenticeship, persisted generation after generation. No standards, no promises at success or that your master would even be remotely good/ethical at his approach. Even today, there are a handful of right ways to do things and many smiths will tell you the "best" way, only for you to find another smith claiming his approach is the "best".

Eventually, apprenticeships went the way of education and required some level of order. Trade schools came into existence, labor unions influenced education and (of course) the work place, and the "good" old days became what they are - something many think they would like to do, but few would actually ever endure given our modern approach to life. People were tough back then. 10 year olds were tougher than most adults are now. Our lives have become easy, by comparison. The good news is that you now have the time to have fun, pursue a passion or hobby, take a vacation, and - best of all - your lives are not bound by the decisions you make as a child.

On the Metal that We Use

Traditionally, blacksmiths worked with iron (of course). The iron that would, eventually, typically be used was known as wrought iron. Essentially wrought iron was just iron that had been worked after it had been smelted in a foundry of some sort in order to improve its qualities. As a matter of fact, "wrought" just means "worked". All in all, it was pretty enduring stuff, easily workable (relatively), and had a interesting grain to it, almost looking like wood. These days, wrought iron is awfully rare and quite expensive. The reason for this is that most steel mills these days don't bother making wrought iron and those that do tend to only produce it for custom orders.

Instead the vast majority of modern ornamental iron work is done with mild steel. While this metal is significantly cheaper and has some desirable qualities over wrought iron, primarily composition consistency, it does not have the corrosion resistance. Word of caution: the term wrought iron is now widely overused and greatly misused. Remember that "wood grain" evident in wrought iron? The next time that you look at purchasing something claiming to be made of it, take a look and you ought to be something that looks like layers and layers forming a wood-like texture.

Mild steel is, relatively, easy to shape and twist and is the main metal used for ornamental work.

Mild steel is, relatively, easy to shape and twist and is the main metal used for ornamental work.

For those of you looking to get started in smithing, I highly recommend starting with mild steel. All in all, it is pretty forgiving for the inevitable mistakes that you will make on your road to mastering your skills. Just make sure if you buy something from a hardware store you don't buy anything that has been galvanized! Metal fume fever is absolutely no fun! The effects are temporary, but those hours will pass very slowly. Most welding rods are just fine for practice and ornamental work and, as mentioned earlier, they are pretty inexpensive since mild steel is produced on a massive scale and has a great number of applications.

Spend some time (as in one heck of a lot) working with this steel before you move on to higher grades, like the many types of high carbon steel. The hammer skills you develop and base understanding of steel will serve you greatly in the days to come. You don't want to rush yourself when it comes to blacksmithing - that's a good way to get hurt, damage your tools and equipment, or ruin your projects.

When you do venture into the complex world of high carbon steels, be prepared to do some research. Depending on what you will be making, you will want to consider the properties of various alloys. Always be familiar with the steel you chose and what can be expected of it, not to mention its limitations. You don't want to have your steel crack under your hammer blows or break apart in the forge because you got it too hot (I'm looking at you, stainless steel!). There is nothing more frustrating than being almost finished with a project only to have it be rendered useless because you pushed the metal beyond its limits.

High carbon steels can be tricky. This straight razor was rendered useless after it severely warped during hardening. The metal became so hard that, as it bent, the stress caused it to crack and break.

High carbon steels can be tricky. This straight razor was rendered useless after it severely warped during hardening. The metal became so hard that, as it bent, the stress caused it to crack and break.

I know, I know, research doesn't sound like a lot of fun, but you will be thankful for it in the end. Many engineering and trade books cover the many types of steel available and their properties in great deal... perhaps too great of detail. For those just getting started, and without high level metallurgy knowledge, read up on blacksmithing books (The Complete Bladesmith by Jim Hrisoulas is a good choice, especially if you plan on making knives one day) and even the blacksmith forums.

Time to get to work!

On Helping Out a Museum

Those that know me know that I got my start in the lovely trade while working at a local 19th Century living history museum. Since I started, the museum has dropped the whole "living history" bit... kind of. More like "living history light" (now with fewer calories!). Basically the education team still dresses up but other than that everything is from a modern perspective. It has its benefits and drawbacks, but it is approachable and can be a lot of fun.

Ready to work!

Ready to work!

Well, I left that museum to start pursuing the Cracked Anvil on a full time basis. Can't grow a business without time and I was at the point where I needed to invest a lot of time. Honestly, a hell of a lot more time than I anticipated. Read the Lessons Learned: Going All In for more details on that.

Anyway, what I am saying is that I still go back and help out from time to time when they need me and even though it isn't necessarily my dream job, nor as profitable as my current endeavor luckily happens to be, it is nice to actually work with a team. When it is just you, the forge, and the limits of your skill, it can be a little lonesome if you stop long enough to think about it. You better have a damn good imagination to keep your mind busy, or simply no mind at all, otherwise the work can be a little strenuous. Boo hoo, my life is so hard.

My point is, it is nice to get the opportunity to share something you are passionate about with other people, in person. Today I spoke with somewhere between 150 and 200 kids. Not all of them were blown away by blacksmithing, but some of them absolutely loved it. To see your passion light up another is a great feeling. Granted, these are kids and it is unlikely they will ever do a job that gets their hands dirty, but you never know. If nothing else, it starts putting things in perspective for people. Some things are hard and demanding and we come from a long line of people willing to endure hardships we can barely imagine in this day and age. We can take some level of pride in those that did the dirty jobs that built our society one drop of sweat and blood at a time.

Truly, some of these kids start to realize that. History isn't sword fights and valiant men and women. It is filth and loss and struggle. So be thankful for what you have, and for what you no longer have to do to get it. A few kids today just started thinking like that. Job well done.

On Getting Started: How the Hell Do You Get Started? The "Easy" Way

Want to become a blacksmith?

If the answer is even a vague "Yes!", I have some good and bad news for you.

Historically, in order to become a smith you had to enter into an apprenticeship at a young age (more on this in the future). Essentially, you become an intern when you were a young kid and continue to work to pay off your "student loans" after you received a basic education. The bad news: those programs don't really exist these days. Truthfully, there are almost no definitive paths to take in the modern world to become a blacksmith. Some, and I mean few and far between, schools teach blacksmithing as part of a metalwork program. Even fewer, such as Southern Illinois University, actually have a degree program for it. In short, finding a organized program is tough and not likely to happen for the majority of interested people.

So with that disheartening bit of news aside - time for the good. Many studios offer specific classes to teach folks a particular skill set, or simply an introductory understanding, in blacksmithing. This means you will have to look up schedules to see when classes are offered, as many are only given a couple of times a year. It gets better, though! If you join ABANA (the Artist-Blacksmith's Association of America) you potentially have access to a wealth of knowledge.

Smiths are, typically, happy to teach other people what they know and give them a helping hand in acquiring or refining skills. There are numerous resources out there that offer a variety of how-to's and demonstrations. That said, smiths are hardworking people, especially those that do this professionally, and will not likely take on an apprentice or even a journeyman unless you can prove your desire to learn and an understanding of the skills necessary to do the job correctly. Basically, they don't want to waste your time or you to waste their time. Understanding that this is a highly-skilled production oriented profession, and a dangerous one at that, will go great lengths to opening doors into the shops of many smiths. There is a large community out there, and it may be intimidating to approach, but I have yet to meet a smith that wasn't excited at the idea of someone else trying to learn.

Take a look at ABANA's website, see if there are any schools or studios in your area that may be offering classes. If all else fails, you may be made aware of other smiths in your area that don't work in a school but may be willing to show you the ropes.

Good Luck!

https://www.abana.org

On What to do in the Winter

Damn, it's cold out! You'd think a couple thousand degree fire would heat you up real fast. All that hot air is hell bent on getting somewhere else and it sure isn't planning on sticking around long enough to thaw those hands and feet.

Power through it and dress appropriately! You're supposed to be tough! Aren't all blacksmiths big burly men with bushy beards working shirtless over a glowing fire? No? You mean all of the movies and romance and fantasy book covers have been lying to me?!?!

Fact is, a good portion of the year is going to stink. It will either be extremely hot or extremely cold. If you, like me, don't have heat in your shop or, worse yet, decided to smith outside, prepare to be uncomfortable. Living in northern Illinois, outside of Chicago, I get about 3-4 months of good weather. The rest of the time is crap. Dark, flash floods, blizzards, air so thick you can drink it, we have all been there.

But this is your business, or at least your passion.  Winters will test how much you want to do this. Unless you live in Florida, but you have enough problems down there to worry about anyway. 

Speaking of business. Craft shows dry up and those that do occur have mostly window shoppers, especially right around and following Christmas. For the most part people just want to see nice things and talk to people about their work, but they have already spent their money on other things. I can understand that, did the same thing. Let this be your motto: Spring is Coming.

With spring, people are dying for something to do, someplace to be, or just something. Sign up for those craft shows early to guarantee a spot. Those cold months with a decline in business? Use them to stock up on inventory for shows. Seriously, there are a decent number of smiths but not many venture into craft shows. Since it is spring and, hopefully, the weather isn't abysmal, you may even be able to demonstrate your work which, if you have read my previous post about that very thing, is a huge boon.

Besides, if all else fails and you don't sell all the stuff you made when there were only like 2 hours of light a day, at least you have all the gifts you need for the year for your friends and family. If you don't have any friends, sorry... can't help you there. 

On Lessons Learned: Going All In

Well, hell, it has been a long time since I have posted anything. Too long, I know. I did it, finally... I made the leap and started the Cracked Anvil as an official business and all of the stressful and frightening things that entails. The past few months have been very busy but, also, very educational and exciting!

First thing first, if you are going to start up a small business being a smith, don't call yourself a smith or anything that sounds like a trade. Instead, officially refer to yourself as an artist. Why? I am so glad you asked! Essentially, artists have free reign. Without getting into local and national law technicalities (of which the County Clerk's Office has plenty that they are thrilled to discuss), if you are registered or known as a manufacturer then you may be held to a higher standard, as far as regulations and taxes are concerned. Let's face it, even though I work with a fire thousands of degrees hot, have potentially toxic and lethal aspects to the job, and make useable items, in no way do I compare or compete with a factory or even a modern metal shop. If you, like me, will be making things one at a time and trying to put a little soul back into what people buy, you are an artist. Not to mention you are keeping a trade alive that many people, sadly, think is pointless. Cut yourself a break and throw "artist" somewhere in your job description or tax forms.

I approached this whole thing a bit like a hungry person at a buffet. Bit off a little more than I could chew. Solution? Make a business plan. Not the type where you go seeking investors, but one where you have goals. DO NOT just let those goals float around in your head. Yeah, you may get them done eventually, but eventually isn't going to be good enough. What do you want to make? What are you best at making? What is necessary for you to make to be profitable? Do you have the tools and equipment to get close to being profitable? After sinking so much money into the job, do you have the means to recover that cost? How long is that expected to take? How are you going to expand your skill set? Do you even have the time? So many more questions! Who knew work would be so much work?!

Seriously, write it down and refer to it, keep yourself on track the best you can and plan realistically. You will get sick, unexpected expenditures will arise, things will break. These things can't be planned, understandable, but their impact can be diminished by giving a little extra time to deadlines and expecting costs to be higher than they may actually be, plus a whole lot of other tips people far more educated than me can tell you about. Use the internet, read dreadful forums about it and be willing to ask for help. It is easy to get lost without a map, the business plan is your map. Anyone that has used one of the first GPS devices for cars can tell you that even the "best" maps can have problems, but it is a hell of a lot better than having no idea what to do next.

So, before you even consider making your passion a full-time deal, sit down, think about it, and write out what it is that you want to do. It will be boring. So boring. But you'll kick yourself later if you don't.

You will look like this, cigar included, when doing the necessary (and it is necessary) leg work.

You will look like this, cigar included, when doing the necessary (and it is necessary) leg work.

On the Importance of Demonstrations and Answering Questions (Also, Crushing Childhood Fantasies)

As you may have read, I have just recently participated in an art show, but prior to that I have done a great number of demonstration in various locations, mostly for educational purposes. The educational side will not be part of this post. Here we talk about why it is important to show people you are not a factory pounding out soulless items for pennies on the dollar. You are a hard worker, you breathe, you most certainly sweat, and you, hopefully only occasionally, bleed to get the job done. 

Justin demonstrating his craft at a recent craft fair in Plainfield.

There is nothing quite like watching somebody shape something from nothing, to start with the formless and end with the complete. Further still, the sound and smell makes people feel like they are truly experiencing something genuine. This isn't some video being streamed, not some podcast or TV show, and it is most certainly not some game with big blocks and pick axes (you know which one I am talking about. If you don't, just ask if a kid knows what a pick axe is and how ingots are made, you'll get an earful), this is honest work being done right before their eyes. They may not remember your name but they will remember your actions and they will remember the time they saw someone shape metal to his (or her, this is a modern world after all) will.

Demonstrations, especially while at a craft fair, give you the opportunity to truly show people the work and skill that go into making something. It gives the individual a true appreciation for your dedication, the practice, the passion. It gives you the opportunity to actually explain what you are doing and how it differs from what they see in regular stores. It proves that your goods are hand made. And, frankly, it is just damn interesting. It does not matter if you smith, carve, spin, sew, mold, whatever... If you take the time to physically do the job rather than just talk about it people will listen, people will watch, and even if they don't buy what you are selling at least they walk away knowing you are the real deal, you are the face of your work. 

So go out there and be proud of your failures because they lead to your successes. Be proud of your struggles because it lets people know your not the faceless factory shaping the same item every time, every day.

Also, be proud of the fact that you have to tell kids you can't craft a set of armor in minutes, scare them by saying your fuel (coal/charcoal = mostly carbon) is basically baby diamonds, and no, blacksmiths don't make gold swords (again, if you don't know what I am talking about you should spend more time around young people - they are the future, like it or not).

On Getting Started: Choosing an Anvil

So you decided on how you are going to heat up your metal, but what are you going to pound it on? There is a little bit to consider before you go getting the hunk of steel you'll be practicing on and making your masterpiece. 

What do you plan on making? If you are just getting started, chances are slim you are going to be making some high quality items. No offense, but good blacksmiths don't happen over night. In all likelihood, as proud of your work as you may be, the first few times you make something it will be pretty crappy. Having the proper anvil weight will reduce the stress you'll face while trying your hardest trying to make something worthwhile. Generally speaking, heavier anvils for larger projects, lighter anvils for smaller projects. 

If all you want to do is fulfill that childhood fantasy of making knives, you don't need some 200+ pound anvil. When it comes to anvil weight, heavier anvils effectively let you shift more metal with each hammer blow. This is because, essentially, the heavier anvils have higher intertia and resist any sort of movement. Since the force of your hammer strike needs to go somewhere, more of it goes into the metal you are trying to shape. From the sounds of that, it would seem that you want as heavy an anvil as you can get. After all, faster changes, fewer strikes, what is wrong with that?

The problem arises when you are trying to do something a little more delicate, say, trying to finish an edge on a blade, or doing some work on small pieces. Unless you have a collection of hammers and a good amount of skill, a too-heavy anvil will just lead to you spending almost as much time correcting overstrikes and dents as you spend actually properly shaping your project. In short, bigger is not necessarily better. 

When it comes to smaller anvils, there are a lot of do-it-yourself attempts out there that have various levels of effectiveness. A bit a railroad rail, for instance, can have a decent surface and spring to it, but shouldn't be a long term solution. A properly made anvil will ring with a nice pitch and your hammer will bounce back with a nice spring quality. It shouldn't be a dull thud with no life to it. 

If you are just getting started, my opinion is that you may be best off with an anvil between 100 and 150 pounds. This will give you pleanty to work with as far as size of the face (top part) of the anvil, will be heavy enough for rapid enough shifting for you to develop your hammer skills without worrying about shifting too much metal, and, in a similar vein, it is heavy enough that you won't be pounding away forever hoping for the metal to change shape.

This anvil cost about $1.25 a pound. Not a big investment, but the quality was apparent. It had almost no life to it. Dull sounding and easy to dent, it served it's purpose until a better anvil was purchased. Now it serves as a practice anvil for beginners and for chisel work.

This anvil cost about $1.25 a pound. Not a big investment, but the quality was apparent. It had almost no life to it. Dull sounding and easy to dent, it served it's purpose until a better anvil was purchased. Now it serves as a practice anvil for beginners and for chisel work.

Like with everything I talk about, make sure what you choose is within your budget. Nothing wrong with using an unconventional anvil until you save up the money for the real deal. As of late, anvils have been running about $4+ per pound. Blame the anvil collectors, they exist, and they have taken a lot of usable quality anvils off the market to gather dust somewhere. That is a tirade for another time. 

On Getting Started at Home: Choosing a Forge

So you want to pound some metal in your own backyard/workshop/garage. You're going to need a forge to get the job done, unless you want to be one of those people that just uses torches. Sure, they have their uses and you may need them unless you have a full-scale blacksmith shop at your disposal, nontheless it is best to get a forge and do it right. But, slow down, don't just go out there and get any old forge. There are a few things to consider first.

First amongst those is price. Blacksmiths tend to be cheap... I mean frugal and prudent with their purchases. If you are just getting started, don't go out there and buy the finest coal or gas forge you can find. Sure, they have a high resale value and you are almost guaranteed to find a buyer, but you are going to need that money for supplies. Start small, if you like it, progress to a larger/better forge if you feel the need. Price, though, is tricky. Assuming you have access to a good number of power tools, you can put together a coal or charcoal forge from old iron car parts for about $50-$75. Any junk yard will have everything you need and there are plenty of tutorials online about how to set one up, 

What if you don't have the tools and can't get them? Then, my friend, price goes up. There are a number of prefabricated forges out there, but before you drop money on those you need to consider what fuel you want to use. Which brings us consideration two... 

What fue do I choose? Your options are basically coal, charcoal, or gas. They all have their merits and they all have different price points. Gas is easy to get, burns at a constant temperature (essentially. And you can adjust it too - no more scorched metal!) , and easy to light. Depending on how you manage your fire or the work you are doing, though, you will use a lot of gas. They can get expensive for something that may just start out as a hobby ($600+ for a decent low-range forge). The way I look at it, you will learn a lot from trial and error. That said, solid fuel forges (coal and charcoal) make you pay more attention, require effort to keep at a good temperature, and have a higher learning curve, but are much more rewarding, in my opinion. Cheaper too... I mean more financially prudent for the beginner smith.

Solid fuel forges have their own consideration, though, outside of just learning to use one properly. You will need to check with your local laws on burning coal (almost every county could care less about someone burning charcoal). If you plan on making a business out of your endeavors, you may even need to register with the EPA, despite the fact that you would be seriously hard pressed to burn enough fuel for them to care. Essentially, if you burn coal and make money off of it they want to see how you do business. At worst, you get an EPA rep to check out your forge and that is about it. Keep in mind, not all counties/states require this, but it is something to look into if you consider coal. No one wants the Man knocking on their door when they were just trying to have some fun.

Which is why, finally, I recommend a charcoal forge for someone that wants to see if he or she wants to invest more time/money into this. Cheap to buy or make (really, an old grill and a hair dryer will hold for quite a while before you need to worry about getting serious), fuel is extremely easy to acquire but does not last as long as coal, and as far as the government is concerned, you are just burning something in a grill or fire pit. Since it is a controlled fire just about every local law is okay with it (still check, chances are you live in the one area you can't, because that's just how lucky you are), you are burning a wood product and not a fossil fuel, if something goes terribly wrong you don't need to worry about any explosions, and if you run out of charcoal just use scrap wood. Yes, it will take longer to heat up the metal, but as far as learning what to do you are likely better off for it. If you want a reliable charcoal/scrap wood forge that is actually sold at a reasonable price, check out Whitlox Forges (www.whitloxhomestead.com).  

You have some options to consider and some thinking to do. Look at local laws, check that bank account, consider how much patience you have and how devoted you think you will be. Give it a shot, you may find your calling, a hobby, or painfully learn that playing with hot metal is not for you. Hey, at least you tried. 

On Lessons Learned and a First Art/Craft Show

Recently I attended my first art show, which took place in Ottawa, IL. All in all it was a fantastic experience and certainly a good starting point. As you'd imagine, a lot of preparation went into the event, a lot of time spent over the fire and hammering away on the the anvil. That said, deciding what to make prior to the show should have been given more time than I allowed and it is a lesson I am happy to have learned early on at a (somewhat) local event. 

Online and word-of-mouth sales had been slow but steady leading up to the show,  the majority of which were fire pokers. Naturally, knowing that since the pokers sold best in those situations, I thought they'd sell best at a show. I put that vast majority of my time making pokers... Didn't sell a single one. Had plenty of people look at them, comment on them (thankfully mostly compliments), but ultimately I ended up with all of them still in my possession. What did sell, and why it sold, made a lot of sense after the fact, but I was a bit ignorant of the whole art show approach going into it.

It doesn't matter how pride-inspiring or impressive you think your work is if it is too big or too expensive to justify an impulse purchase. People plan, or at least go into a show thinking, that they may buy a painting or some nice decoration. I do not think they go to an art show and anticipate seeing a blacksmith. A number of my items may have been truly different or unique compared to the other artists, but that wasn't necessarily a good thing, they were still outside of what people could quickly decide on buying. What sold were key chains and pendants. Things I made because I had a few extra minutes here and there and was running low on stock for heavier projects. I couldn't make these items fast enough.

What the people wanted was something unique, yes, but also something they could easily carry and wouldn't burden their wallet. They could wear these things or just slide them into their pocket and walk away, having purchased something that will always be one-of-a-kind but not feeling too bad about spending too much money on something that may be nice to look at, but may not get a lot of use.

Variety is the spice of life and all that, in this case variety allowed me to see what people were interested in and learn that, even though it may be a craft show, people are still often governed by whims. Have those large projects, have those time-consuming but chest-swelling works of passion, but also have those items that may not fill you with a sense of accomplishment but fills your customers with a since of owning something crafted, something genuine, something they can more easily afford, and something they can show off and say, "This was made by a blacksmith." 

 

Oh, and make miniature swords. 

The Beginning of a Blacksmith

To say becoming a blacksmith has been a dream come true would not by any means be an understatement. Of course these were the dreams of a child dreams, born out of fantasies of sword fighting and dragon-slaying knights than any practical, employment-related realities. Still,  when someone asks if you, as an adult, if you would like to learn how to blacksmith, something you've fantasized about since childhood,  you say yes.

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