Friday, November 21, 2014

Firsts and Futures

Time was, so I'm told, when a body could open up a shop with naught but brow sweat and boot strap exercises and still come out with enough change to pop down to the barber shop for a mustache trim. Times they are a changin', my friends. Yesterday was a day of many firsts, one of which was the forking over of my first thousand bucks of "skin in the game". I feel safe declaring myself officially "in the game".

Of course, $1k is small fish on the grander scale of business investments and I'm sure that those my senior are having many a knowing chuckle and head wag at my childlike innocence, but considering I'm both living off and investing from my savings, scant to begin with and rapidly becoming scanter-er, perhaps I may be forgiven.

However for all my hyperventilating in the Lowes plumbing isle over $2 pipe fittings, yesterday was a day of many auspicious firsts as well. BEHOLD!

 Wait, that's not the right one...

Tada! Tada! Tada! Tada forever!
The fruits of Nail Forge 1.0.2, a pair that only a mother could love. Nevertheless at least one of them is not so ugly that it didn't prevent me from canvasing the internet with my new business. The astute and/or slightly creepy of you may have noticed that since yesterday, you can now find me on Etsy, Facebook, for some reason Twitter, as well as, I'm sure your favorite, here. Which brings me to the part where you may have noticed that the forge proper has got a proper forge name now! If you're curious as to why Sweet Hollow Forge rather than a different combination of letters and sounds, it doesn't have a huge story. You may recall that it took a while to get the details in order and paperwork drawn up for the space, but I did get a "contract" eventually. In there, G&J (the owners) agreed to rent me space in "The Hollow". And I was like cool, the barn has a name I guess, but The Hollow is a little forbidding and dirge-like, and initially I was going to go with Fox Hollow (on account of my home turf in Georgia) but I'm not positive there are even foxes around here, and if there are they probably aren't very good blacksmiths. Anyway, Sweet Hollow has a nice kind of faintly southern ring to it, and so do I sometimes*, so there it is.

*I seem to have a southern accent in direct proportion to the southern accented-ness of the people I'm talking to.

But before I get too far ahead, let's get back to that first picture.

The worst meringue.
Pretty wild, huh? So I mixed up some of my freshly cooked water glass...

Almost the exact same consistency as those corn syrup hourglasses. Notice the deformation in the plastic - fun fact: peanut butter jars exhibit fascinating behaviors when you fill them with scalding hot liquids and then panic and dump them out again really fast.
...with ~100ml water and a quart of rough pumice to make a sort of cement. However, lacking aluminum oxide (which apparently nobody in Bend possesses or has heard of - there are a lot of fun "standing in a store being stared at blankly" stories behind that sentence), it thus lacked quite a lot in terms of refractory properties. But heat resistance be damned, I was going to whack flat some nails come hell or high water, so I crammed it in a tomato sauce can with a bit of pipe and a drill bit.

The drill bit was the only 1/2" thing I could find that I could put in the oven. I'm not crazy.
Now water glass cures by simple gas exchange so at that point I had three options to set it up: let it sit and dry for a week, inject it with compressed CO2 or heat the everlovin' jessy out of it. Lacking patience or a Soda Stream, I opted for the oven.

Nail Forge 1.0.1 was a real beauty. I wish I had pictures to show you, but in my enthusiasm to make progress, I forwent documentation. Suffice to say that after an hour of as-close-to-broil-as-possible treatment, the cement cemented. It cemented hard. Too hard. It fused to the center form and burner tube form like something out of The African Queen, and no amount of hammering, cajoling, sweating, or desperate scrabbling was going to persuade it out. At one point I literally tied a rope to the center form, tied the other end of the rope to Big Bgog's trailer hitch, and spent ten minutes yanking on it stubborn-loose-tooth-when-you-were-a-kid-style. Eventually though, I did get it free at the expense of cutting a hole in the bottom of the can and hammering it back and forth until it pulverized 50% of the rock and came out. There was about a 1/4" of cement stuck to the form that I could only get off by flattening the pipe with a hammer. C'est la vie, but at least it wasn't much work to whip up another batch and try again.

Unfortunately, being the disenfranchised, Recession Era, twenty-somethings that we are, Bucket and I only have one tomato sauce can to our names, so I had to repack the same can for Nail Forge 1.0.2 (as I said previously, taking the precaution of greasing up the forms this time around). The unforeseen complication introduced was, to quote Dear Henry, there was a hole in it. A quite alarming amount of that hard-earned water glass percolated out the bottom, oozing and boiling into that fantastic goo you saw earlier.

Undeterred, I cleared Nail Forge 1.0.2 for duty and got to forging.

During operation, the propane torch is lovingly crammed into the side of the forge. 
Soaring new heights for the non-literal use of the phrase "baby steps".
It took a lot longer than I expected to preheat the little sucker (close to 15 minutes), but once it was up to temp, I had fun experimenting with the duplex nails, seeing what kind of swords I could turn them into. I opted to start with the traditional Flat Duplex Nail style, and then moved on to a more conventional Sword An Extra Might Be Given to Hold in a Period Piece style. After that my mind started simmering with ideas of how to do this better (a simmer which, lucky me, boiled over at around 3am today with dreams of katanas, sabers, and epees), but before I could play around too much, I started to get worried about how much the forge was melting and smoking. Though ventilation was good and every measure to make this safe was observed, the forge started degassing some sort of tomato/pumice miasma after about an hour of duty, so I decided to shut things down until the snow clears enough for me to move into... The Hollow†.

† sotto Batman voce

Speaking of which, here's a quick peep tour of the space. I went over on Monday and did a little work clearing it of petrifying horse poop and forklift pallets, and doing my best to level out the ground a bit.

It's hard to tell how much like standing on a 1:1000 scale model of the Himalayas this is, but I promise it was Not Good before I shoveled my little heart out on it.
An arial view of my brilliant dirt layout of the space. Labeling to follow. 
I'm colonizing the right side to start, but theoretically I'm allowed to expand anywhere under the eave... 
...Or, as I said under my breath when I thought G couldn't hear me, "Everything the eave our kingdom."
Tentative layout labeled for your convenience.
That's it that's all for now. Bucket and I are off to St. Louis for Thanksgiving today, so enjoy your weeklong reprieve from my prolixity.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Nail Forge...ASSEMBLE

They say you can't make a cake without breaking a few eggs, and if that's true then I'm absolutely doing it right. I'm crackin' eggs like the rapture's hot on my tail. There's certainly something to be said for taking the scenic route on your way to a goal. You can learn a lot by asking yourself, "Can I figure out how to make this?" Unfortunately, it's easy to forget what you were doing in the first place while you agonize over a specific component.

Things have been a little up and down the past few days. I've finally successfully produced a batch of (EXTREMELY) concentrated water glass, which was a major confidence boost, and a big step forwards to getting a forge in place. In case you're curious, my efforts to make it from some local silicate didn't work out. At the last COMAG meeting, I talked to a lovely geologist and she told me I should hunt down some diatomite, which is a more rock-like form of diatomaceous earth and similarly composed of trillions of bitty critters of yesteryear. I then left town for a week and then it promptly dumped a foot and a half of snow on all my hopes and dreams. So I conceded to buying some flower drying silica from Michaels just so I could move forward with the project.

I've been throwing a lot of money at some of these miscellaneous projects like that, and it's become a little frustrating. Lots of DIY sites/YouTubers like to brag about how cheap it was for them to throw together something that would have cost them a pretty penny at a box store, but a lot of times they sidestep the cost of not being established and networked. They throw out things like, "I have these 5 lb sacks of silica gel lying around so I used them as..." or "I borrowed my buddy's welder to..." What starts as a $10 forge burner quadruples in price when you realize you don't have the tap you need to thread that one vital piece. It'd be nice if Bend had a tool library like Portland's.

Anyway, now that I have the water glass made up, I've spent about the whole day experimenting with it and the pumice I collected back in the fall. My goal today has been to make a nail forge. My Paw told me about this guy he met who was taking duplex nails and flattening them out into little swords. I thought that'd be a swell reason to make a forge in miniature to test some of the components I've been assembling.

So as I write this, I've got a tomato sauce can full of home-brewed refractory speed-curing in the oven. I made one earlier today which set up beautifully. A little too beautifully in fact - it practically melded to the tube form, and I ended up destroying it just trying to get it out. I took the advice of ye venerable internet and coated the form pieces with vegetable oil this time around, but so far this seems to be having the effect of making the water glass bubble into a sort of glass meringue. Probably I will not eat it.

Lord almighty, if our landlord could see what's going on in here right now, his head would probably explode. Anyhow, we'll see how this all shakes down (or at least I will - I realize that I may be the only one reading this anymore). Fingers crossed. Big money, no whammies.


Friday, November 7, 2014

Storm's a Brewin'

Well it's definitely been longer than I expected since I last updated ya'll on things. Let me set that aright.

Things were slow for a while, I spent a lot of time reading through some new books: New Edge of the Anvil by Jack Andrews and Metal Techniques for Craftsmen by Oppi Untracht, as well as every book on blacksmithing that the library has available (which is three). So my head is fairly swimming with terminology, metallurgical data, and techniques, and I'm super pumped to start putting some of it all to use.

Which will be SOON. A couple nights ago, I went back over to the meet with the folks with some barn space they might be willing to rent out, and we fleshed out all the necessaries and quid pro quo's, etc., and I got a brief look at the specific area they've got in mind for me. I head over again on Monday to, I think, sign a rough agreement and get working.

The past couple months I've been lurking at the Central Oregon Metal Artist Guild (COMAG) meetings and getting to know some of the peeps in this neck of the woods that are working metal. There are a lot of incredibly talented people here, and they've been incredibly generous with their knowledge and advice. To that end, I've been talking more with Hunter and Kellen (who I met back in April, but never had much opportunity to get to know) - two unbelievably talented, hilarious, and gregarious smiths who own/operate at the Orion and Dry Canyon Forges.

I had a chance to go over to Dry Canyon yesterday and meet up with Kellen for a day of tool making. He was mega patient with me and let me work at my own pace, which I was soooo grateful for. His style of teaching really strongly reminded me of climbing with El Jefé. Jefé is a way better climber than me, and I always feel really intimidated and self-conscious of how annoying it must be to have to belay for someone so agonizingly slow and ignorant. But that embarrassment and intimidation is entirely self-imposed - Jefé manages to be effortlessly patient and forgiving of my childish flailing and screaming, and seems to enjoy hanging out with me regardless of the vast difference in our ability levels, which makes it way easier to learn at my own pace. Kellen has a lot of those same qualities, and it was great to be able to make mistakes and ask questions without feeling worried about asking something stupid or not getting it perfect on the first try and I flailed and screamed a pair of tongs into the world.

For grasping square stock in the 5/8"- 1 1/4" range.

Especially in contrast to my first* tong making experience in Michigan, which involved being crowded into a very small garage with a great number of hot objects with an especially grumpy old man, who would frequently become flustered and pry the metal from my hands and try to reshape my mess to match his increasingly terse instructions.

* First actual - as proud as I am of what I accomplished in Oz, the products of my work there are as close to tongs as Atlanta is to Tokyo.

Exhibit A: Tongs
Exhibit B: Panic Tongs
While to be fair, I did spend about an hour and a half on the Michigan tongs and the better part of an entire day on this pair, I think Kellen's attitude and willingness to let me do it for myself is the biggest difference between them.

As an aside, let's get just...balls to the wall, high school drama up here for a minute or two. Now most of you will not be shocked to know that I'm a huge dork. I have Serious Thoughts about freshwater macro-invertebrates. I am easily enraged by poor board game box design. I know more words to camp songs than [musician you think is cool][/musician you think is cool]'s. I make jokes that have a passing knowledge of HTML coding as a prereq. I do pretty convincing pigeon and eagle impressions. I run a Minecraft server.

I'm not particularly worried that anybody know this about me, because I am a generally confident person. I take pride in many of my personal accomplishments. Maybe I should be embarrassed that I've spent days constructing making a 1:1 scale model of Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water in a video game populated these days mostly by 8 year olds, but I'll happily brag about it if you ask (it took forever to get the fireplaces right). However, I am often very worried that knowing this will stop someone from considering getting to know me any further. In the same way that I'm worried that someday Bucket's parents might find out someday that I've donated money to NPR, I find myself moving through a lot of social interactions like I'm made entirely of knees to avoid revealing things about myself that I think might cause someone to narrow their eyes and think, "We are not alike."

Yesterday was a great example. Kellen and Hunter have talked a little bit about possibly extending an "internship" type deal to me - work here and there in exchange for valuable experience and "literally dozens of dollars" - which would be an actual dream come true for me. Now, I don't know a lot about Kellen and Hunter, but they're cool dudes - I'd like to work with them and I'd really like to be friends with them, and the part of me that I'm talking about is worried that if they knew how much money I have spent on virtual space ships, they might decide not to talk to me anymore. Inconveniently, my strategy for concealing this information is torn out of the playbooks of Behaving Like a Marionette-Person, and How to Maintain a Mistrustful Awareness of Your Hands and What They are Doing, and Talking Like You're a Big Fancy Grownup. Especially having spent the past several months interacting almost exclusively with large groups of 2nd-7th graders, I have to be extremely careful to modulate my voice so it doesn't get too loud and/or start doing Arnold Schwarzenegger impressions.

I think probably a lot of introverted people tend to mirror the personality that is expected of them in a social situation and, if it leads to a connection, sort of side-door their actual personality into the relationship as it evolves, but the flaw in this strategy for me is that the personality that I front isn't actually super good at making friends.

Also, jeezy chreezy, I'm so flip flappin' exhausted with being the person in a social situation at a disadvantage. Trying to make friends and network is so hard when you're the only one in the conversation that really needs a connection to form. I know that the healthy reaction to this frustration is not to burrow deeper, but to force yourself to stand woodenly and maintain eye contact (but not too much eye contact); still I'm seriously looking forward to having my own, private space if not just to have somewhere to build my confidence.

Anyway, lest this morph into a Live Journal, the point is that I'm glad I had a chance to work with Kellen yesterday, but I wish there had been 30 seven year olds there because apparently that's really where I'm in my element these days.

Some tools gathering for the migration to the barn.
Que sera, sera. Any way you look at it, things are really clacking along at a good pace now. I'm hoping to pick up some nice Virginia Coal from a fella up in Hood River this weekend, and Hunter and Kellen lent me a coal forge firepot, so it's possible that as soon as a week from now, I might have a forge operational! Name suggestions are welcome. I'm leaning towards something unicorn themed*, but you never know...

*I don't know if this is a joke either.

Monday, September 29, 2014

I Digress

So I have been tinkering around with the geopolymers, without great success so far. I'm attempting to make a couple videos of the process, so I won't talk too much about it except to say if anyone knows any free video editing software, that would be helpful.

I have a couple of ideas of why it hasn't been working out, but I'm having a hard time justifying spending more money on it until I know I've got a place to put the eventual forge. The good news on that front is that Bucket met a nice lady at a get-together who might have some property she'd like to see used for something interesting. We're going out on Wednesday to meet her and her husband and see if we can work something out, I expect I'll write about that and how it went soon enough.

In the mean time, I thought some of you might be interested to see how my other side-project has been coming along! During the summer I taught a class on photography, and one of the projects I did with the kids was Cyanotypes, (sometimes called "Sun Prints"). They're a really basic, entry-level, relatively safe developing style that was used to make architectural blueprints, as they're cheap to prepare, quick to develop, and give you extremely high contrast contact prints. 

Anyway, I had a lot of the chemicals and resources I needed leftover after the summer, so I've been messing around with it and seeing how far I can take it. Most of these are just little 4"x5" watercolor paper prints, but I did get some bigger ones in.

This is the only 8"x10" print that turned out in the first batch. I plan on doing most of the rest in this size eventually.
All of the first batch were supersaturated with the chemicals because I had accidentally mixed about 50x more sensitizer than I had paper for. As a result, they all turned out a little weird except the two that I left what I thought was a "normal" amount of sensitizer.

You can see along the right edge where the sensitizer was laid on so thick that when I fixed it, the sun hadn't penetrated deep enough to expose anything attached to the paper, leaving a big white strip.
 I've also been experimenting with toning them so they aren't all that eye-watering cerulean. The lovely folks down at Lone Pine Coffee generously donated some used grounds to my cause, but unfortunately I came away with extremely mixed results. The process involves bleaching the photos with sodium carbonate, and then re-toning the remaining gel layer with a natural tannin. You can use tea, wine, coffee, etc.

This was the only one worth sharing of the lot. This was a direct contact print of a handful of grass.
 As you can see, it didn't go super hot. I toyed around with varying levels of bleaching (from none at all to ultra-mega-super-bleached) and coffee strength/soaking time. Strangely, every single one turned out completely differently, and in ways I wouldn't have expected. In any case, I plan on trying again with some new prints using espresso instead (my guess is that the tannins will be more concentrated and the oils better released this way). I talked to a lady down in the Maker District who paints with coffee and beer, and she suggested letting it dry out/boil down a bit so there's a closer ratio of oil:water. We'll see how it goes!

 You can really see the difference between the supersaturated prints and the ones that just had a light brushing of sensitizer (the oval ones). I got some really strange dark splotches on a few of them that look like finger prints, but whether they were made during the initial sensitizing, the exposure, or the fixing, I have no idea.

I used Photoshop to make black and white negatives of a bunch of my photos, and then printed them onto transparency paper. From there it was just a simple 30 to 90 second exposure in direct sunlight to print them out.
This one got a lovely finger print right in the middle. :/

My favorite one by far. I've done a few prints of this one, but none have turned out as nice as this one. Thanks to Bucket for brushing the sensitizer on this one - I think it made all the difference.
So there it is! We'll see what comes of it. Hopefully I can combine the two projects and make some nice frames for the prints out of wrought metal.


Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Shopping Day

Well, today has been both productive and frustrating. I did manage to find a 1 lb. bottle of 100% lye right off the bat, and that will help a lot with the experimentation.

I have some leftover sodium carbonate that I made in the oven for my cyanotype project, and my pH test strips have clocked it at 11 (almost 12 even!), but I'm worried it won't be strong enough. I feel confident that the lye will work even if my homebrewed Na2CO3 doesn't. Four bucks was a little steep for such a small bottle, but worth it for the piece of mind...

Outside of that, I spent a lot of time wandering around different farm supply/hardware stores looking for perlite (without fertilizer, which is apparently impossible), diatomaceous earth, limestone, etc. to little avail. Lowes had this:

I was pretty excited when I found it, but then I checked the ingredients.

I'm not totally sure, but I think this is too many things. Also, I'm no math expert, but those numbers don't seem to add up right. Anyway, I also found this pretty sweet shed at Lowes marked down from either $900 or $2300 depending on which of these you believe. it' much for what exactly?

If I had a place to put this, I feel like it would be stupid not to get it, but I guess not having the option has conveniently reduced the complexity of the problem for me!

Here's a quick look at some of the other fun things I picked up today!

This blower might end up proving too powerful for the forge, even with a damper flap, but it was only like $10, and will find a way to be useful for something.

By a stroke of luck, this package deal saved me a lot of money in brass.

No science project is complete without huge PVC gloves.

Stainless bowls and tools to get messy with.

That's all for now! A mercifully short update.


Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Rest of The Story So Far...

So it occurred to me that for a lot of you who aren't my parents or one of the like six or seven other people I talk to "regularly", you probably couldn't name off the top of your head more than three or four of my deepest hopes and aspirations in life, at most. With that in mind, let me try to paint a big, messy picture of what I've been up to in the blacksmithing scene to date, which is probably how I should have started the first post, but so it goes.

In the beginning: My parents, lord knows I love 'em, but they raised me in the suburbs. This has a lot of perks, to be sure, if you're into that sort of thing - and I don't begrudge them or anyone that -however HOA's don't particularly leap with a quickness to support activities that involve things like, say, fire, or loud noises, unsightly and crudely built structures, large piles of scrap metal, frequent use of large power-tools, or aesthetic choices that may suggest that mankind existed before the 1950's and did anything more unordinary than host dinner parties. That's tooootally fine with me, I've made my peace with it, but it has resulted in a latent, untapped interest in a handful of activities which -because, y'know, suburbs - have rarely been expressed or acted on up to the last few years of my adult life. These include things like sailing, mountaineering, shelter-building, permaculture, fermentation, woodworking, and, topically, blacksmithing. Now, to be fair, my parents did a great job of exposing me to lots of different great things, and if I had had all the things I just listed growing up, then I would most definitely not have the robust background in computer science, business management, cooking, game theory, etc. that I thankfully do have. What I mean is that if I had been raised in the woods, I would probably have just stayed in the woods and had a less rich experience as a person, and most likely wouldn't be here on the internet blabbing about this junk to you guys.

Which brings me to Australia! Last year, Bucket and I were invited out to Mt. Malloy to spend some time living with my biological father (or as Bucket insists I call him - BioDad, which to me makes him sound like either a supervillain or an alternative fuel, of which he is neither) and his wife and their two daughters out there. They live in a great big Queenslander (a style of architecture where you generally start by building a box, then wrap a porch around it, and then put a nice, big hat on it and call it a day) with a healthy bit of property around it, and several crumbling relics of a copper smelting/lumber mill operation surrounding it. In a word: heaven.

That was an amazing experience for a lot of great reasons, but important to this blag is the fact that that was one of the first times in my life where I had a bit of space to get good and properly messy. Since BD generously agreed to play along with my premise that nobody in their right mind wouldn't want part of their back yard turned into a big, sloppy heap of metal shavings, dry mud, and repurposed trash, I had a chance to explore blacksmithing for the first time!

Part 0.5, The Prequel: Forge 1.0 was literally born in the middle of the night as a result of Overthinking. After wracking my brain for hours and days, agonizing over my options and drawing up plans for how to make it happen, it recurrently nagged on me that for thousands of years, humans have been whacking on shit without worrying about whether their steel is carbon-y enough, or their hardy holes have the best swaging, or their anneals are optimally quench-y, etc. I'm not training for the Blacksmithing Olympics - I just want to bend some effing metal.

With that in mind, I gathered some charcoal left in BD's nice, big fire pit, picked a good looking cinderblock, started a fire, and shoved some metal in it.

It's hard to tell because it's so blurry, but there is indeed a glint of insanity in my eye.
My metal of choice was six or seven lovely little rectangles of steel that I found. Now, at the time I had wildly romantic notions of making a little billet of damascus steel to make a knife out of, not fully grasping that damascus steel requires some intense heat (hot enough to forge weld - a process where you join metal bits together by hitting them with a hammer until they forget how many pieces they were originally), a huge amount of work (folding and refolding the metal to get that lovely wavy pattern), and at least two different types of metal (so that when you acid etch the blade, the metals dissolve at different rates, letting you see that lovely wavy pattern). My awesome plan was to arc-weld all these bits together at their ends, arc-weld a stick of rebar to the resulting block, stick them in the fire, and then bang the everloving shit out of them until I got what I wanted.

Great plan. While (shockingly) I did not succeed in making my billet, I did succeed in quickly breaking the welds, sending tiny rectangles of red-hot metal hurtling into the brush, and making a lot of noise. Things I learned:
  1. Be more careful to only whack hot metal when you're absolutely sure it's not a small fragmentation grenade of smaller bits of metal.
  2. Arc welded metal has the grip strength of a toddler when you weld before you have learned anything at all about welding.
  3. Concrete slab ≠ a fantastic anvil.
  4. A bike pump, though simultaneously advanced in a sort of 21st century, plastic moulded way and quaint in an "I'm using man-powered forced air to make my tools!" kind of way, is not particularly suited to the task of forge bellows.
Though I made a spectacular mess of things, in the end I had, in fact, made some quite interesting shapes out of the rectangles. Sort of a Salvador Dali-esque exploration of the rectangle shape. This provided me with a flood of "BELIEVE IN YOUR DREAMS AND YOU CAN ACHIEVE ANYTHING" and "I AM BECOME A GOD" type emotions, and for me it's that delicate balance of positive attitude and megalomania that helps me get anything in my life done.

Thus I was motivated enough to put some more thought and work into Forge 2.0. 

"Look, Ma! I made it for you!! BE PROUD OF ME."

Part 1, "The Plan": My first obstacle was that I had burned pretty much all the useful charcoal left in the fire pit and would need to secure a new source of fuel. Forges tend to come in two major categories: gas and coal (though there are plenty others; my favorite is the induction forge[1][2]). Since the gas route would involve buying gas, and working with compressed gas (which was scary to me as someone who is consistently paranoid that my oven might just explode for the jollies), I decided to go with coal. Not being an expert in Australia's major exports, I have no idea whether there is bituminous coal lying about the hillsides, and being rather shy on account of my American-ness anywhere outside America, I decided that rather than spend time searching for a source of coal, I'd just make my own.

Part 1.5, "The Distraction": Consequently was born side-project Charcoal Retort 1.0. In case you've never heard of a charcoal retort, let me save you a Google. The idea is essentially to cook wood until all you have left is charcoal. But why?! Well, let's back up... [WARNING: HUGE TANGENT AHEAD. TL:DR version: Charcoal burns much hotter than wood. Why?! Because of the way that it is.]

If you take a piece of wood, or meat, or any biomass, you could (and should) confidently shove it in your friend's face and proclaim,"There's a lot of carbon in this." This owing to life on Earth being carbon based (carbon being great at chemically bonding will all sorts of crap and allowing the pretty complex molecules necessary to life to form). So life is chock-full of all sorts of really complicated crap that don't burn so good. As a result, like tying a sack of cannonballs to a dog that's really excited for a walk using a bunch of kite strings, a wood fire simply cannot do as much as it would like to do, and not nearly as fast unless it puts the work into gnawing off a few bonds.

But, all those complicated molecular bits that have been diligently insisting things like "I'm a complex carbohydrate making up a cell wall!" and "I'm a bunch of tree DNA!" under the application of ever-increasing heat are, similar to people, suddenly like "WHAT IF WE COULD DO ANYTHING WE WANTED?!" and start running around combining with one another in newer, simpler ways. What fire, as a self-sustaining endothermic reaction, likes the most, though, is chemical equilibrium. In pursuit of this, it's pairing up free radicals with other, freer radicals, like some sort of furious, ultra-Sandman, pairing up molecules at ludicrous speed and sending them off into the clouds, or as a cloud as the case may be. This rapid matchmaking generates heat, which creates more free radicals as the more attention deficit elements break ties with their plant jobs and go see what Mr. Oxygen is up, which in turn generates more heat, etc. etc., ad finem when there is nothing in reach that can be convinced to combust without additional energy. 

Since carbon is so fantastically un-picky about what it bonds with, it would be awesome if we could turn biomass (in this case, wood) into JUST carbon. Doing that would mean creating a low-oxygen environment that frees up all that carbon, but doesn't let it combine yet. But then again, if we want it to run off with oxygen later, then we had better account for proper ventilation - it is, after all, hard to set a pile of ashes on fire. If only we could cook off all that junk in the wood but leave enough non-carbon material to act as sort of a glue to keep that carbon in a sort of ultra-porous superstructure. Enter hydrocarbons. Our good friend tar will stick around (HAH.) and hold it all together as long as we don't overcook the wood, letting all its hydrogens go.

So there you have it: pyrolysis! There are a lot of ways to do it, heck it happens in a normal wood fire anytime you make one, but to get good, pure charcoal, you have to try to seal off the wood you're wanting to pyrolyze or else it will just burn to ash and be done. 


So this is what I did: I put a big metal drum inside another big metal drum and set it on fire. Combining the best qualities of a rocket stove with a double burner and a pressure cooker, the theory was, get a right proper blaze going through the stove while keeping the charcoal wood bottled up inside it, and you'll be able to cook the wood without actually letting it "burn". 

This is actually a crude drawing of Retort 1.3, but it's the one that worked best so it's the only one I'm drawing. Sorry I spelled flue wrong.
A cool thing that happens as you're cooking wood into charcoal is that it starts giving off wood gas. You can reclaim wood gas in the same way that you would distill whiskey or anything distillable, but rather than collect it, I designed my retort to have a second stage burn where it runs on the wood gas instead of wood. The part labelled "Gas stage checker", during Retorts 1.0 to 1.2, had a pipe that would run from it along the outside and vent into the spy hole, and there was no de-gassing center tube. This proved to be problematic, as half-way through a burn, tar built up so thick in the pipe that it sealed off and blew the pressure-release valve (which I had stupidly built into the TOP of the inner barrel), wasting the gas and resulting in an incomplete pyrolysis.

Here's a rough walk-through of the process of firing Retort 1.3:

Load the inner barrel with your good wood. You can see the degassing tube in the center (that square thing). Rather than just cut holes in the bottom to let the gas escape, forcing it to collect at the top of the barrel and then pressurize before escaping out the bottom goes a really long way towards creating an hypoxic environment inside the inner barrel.

Batten down the inner barrel and close the degassing tube at the bottom. Then stuff the outer barrel with your crappier fuel wood and some smaller kindling. Here you can see what's labeled in the schematic as a "Gas stage checker". It's that grey pipe welded to the barrel lid's bleed valve. It's important to have that in order to be able to periodically check to see if the inner barrel has reached pyrolysis temperatures.

Having left some breathing room down at the bottom, fire up some kindling below. I left the lid off at this stage because for some reason I couldn't get the air flow to cyclone properly during the early part of lighting the retort, resulting in a lot of unused material on one side in both barrels. Once the wood took fire though, it would cyclone properly with the lid on.

Put on the top lid, threading the Gas checking valve through carefully because, let's be real, welding galvanized pipe to ultra-thin oil drum metal is sketchy at the best of times. Here you can see the stubby little flue #1. By having a few different lengths of flue, I was able to control the rate of air draw and thus burn during the process. I could have done that with a damper flap, but then I'd have to build one. This was easier...for reasons.

Once it's roaring, plug the spy hole and put on the long flue #2 to increase the draw to its max. This gets the inner barrel up to gasification temperatures quicker, and saves you a lot of scrap wood since once it starts degassing, it cooks itself.

Check incessantly because you're paranoid that something might have gone terribly wrong inside and your whole effort has been a waste. This happened a couple times with something melting and falling off or crumbling apart or exploding. For example the first inner drum had a few holes that were patched with some rivets and sheet metal. All of which seemed to vaporize during the gas burn. Several rocks that I missed in the clay cob exploded, which was very exciting.

Check the Gas checking valve with a lighter every now and then to see what's up. For a while you'll get a lot of steam (pictured here) coming out of the valve, as there is still quite a bit of water in the wood that's is the first thing to go. A lot of tar condenses in the cap next, and you have to clear it out a lot, and then eventually the gas will go clear. Pretty soon after that, it will start to flare off when lit and then sputter out, and then eventually will be clean enough to stay lit like a blowtorch.

Once it starts blowtorching gas, I would cap it and pull the plate keeping the degassing tube sealed out of the spy hole, letting the gas blow out onto the burning coals of the outer barrel, which would combust the gas and cause it to cyclone around the inner barrel. At this point the whole thing starts to get serious. Like...serious business serious, it is roaring like an angry lion and glowing red hot beneath the clay cob, and the ground around it for like ten feet is warm, and there's a ten foot column of shimmery death air rocketing out of the flue, and it's scary to go too near it.

After like ten or twenty minutes, it starts to calm down and run out of gas. Once it sounds like it might be sputtering or losing enough gas pressure to prevent oxygen from getting into the inner barrel, I quickly slide the sealing plate back into the degassing tube, then rip the lid off the outer barrel, yank out the inner barrel, and set it in a pile of clay cob and sand, putting a good seal on the bottom. Then I start throwing super wet cob onto all the spots where I think air might get into the barrel, like the rim, the pressure release valve plate, the occasional rusted through hole, etc.

It's really important to choke off the barrel at this stage because it is now ready to explode into fire, if only it could reach oxygen. Once it's cool, it won't be able to combust, so I leave it there to chill out. Once cool, tag it and bag it up because that, my friend, is charcoal.
"I don't always make charcoal, but when I do, I wear flip-flops"

Part 2: So jeez, the forge, right? That's the whole end goal, and I haven't really even started on it. If you're noticing a similarity here between my approach to making charcoal and my approach to making refractory bricks/cement, well, you're not the first.

Thankfully forge construction is a little simpler. You just need a bowl that can hold some hot hot coal, and you need a hole somewhere in it where you can shoot air into the coal, allowing it to go nuts and live up to its fullest potential. Forge 1.0, you may remember, was a cinderblock with a hole in it. Not ideal, but it did check all the boxes and lest you forget I did bend some metal with it. Forge 2.0 started its life like the A-Team. An unlikely band of misfits come together for a nobel cause: the brake drum off a big-ol' truck, the inside of a washing machine, an oscillatory fan motor with a boat propeller attached to it, a drain tube, and some odd bits of bricks and cinderblock. Thus optimistically held together with some drywall screws and hope, Forge 2.0 was born.

Winning the prize for "Shiniest Forge in Australia", Forge 2.0-2.2 made up for in style what it lacked in practicality.

The first lighting of Forge 2.0. Note the uncanny exactness with which the brake drum is seated in the washing machine tub. Clearly proof of an intelligent designer as this is a match made in heaven.
Forge 2.0 actually only made it for about thirty minutes before an obvious design flaw resulted in a collapsed lung. It only had one to start with (the propeller fan) so this was pretty serious. It was my fault, and I take responsibility for it - I didn't have a T- or L-joint pipe that would let me blow air in from the side and then direct it upwards. Being impatient, I made the executive decision to put the fan directly beneath the pipe, which stared straight up into the hottest part of the fire, separated by a worryingly thin bit of chicken wire as a "strainer". I knew this would end in sadness, but I wanted to whack some metal, so, to quote myself in that moment, "Meh."

Forge 2.1 and 2.2 had similarly unfortunate arrangements of bellows made from increasingly desperate and pitiful FrankenFans. In the end it was clear that even if I did have the right shaped pipes, I wouldn't have a lot of room to position the bits, and it would still lack control over the air flow. I could have cut through the washing machine guts, but they're so shiny!

Back to the drawing board.

Forge 3.0 ribbon cutting ceremony.
Forge 3.0 was my finest hour. I had been experimenting with clay cob throughout the month, and I felt like I had a pretty good formula down. I also managed to pick up some proper "fire" bricks. There are a lot of abandoned tobacco smoke houses about the Oz countryside lined with them. I took all the thoughtfulness that I had omitted from the previous two forges' bellows solutions and applied them to 3.0. I ended up with a couple pieces of plywood hinged together at one end joined by their hypotenuse with a double lining of tarp. You can see it squished shut in the picture above, and opened to its fullest in the picture below. A set of double flappy wood blocks hinged with bike inner-tube seals made for a proper and, I thought, pretty well designed bellows.

Inaugural firing of Forge 3.0
In that first picture of 3.0 you can see the box on the backside of the plywood that the air flows into from the bellows, and which also prevents back draw as the bellows are reopened. You can't see it in the second picture because it became immediately apparent that I had neglected to account for the prevailing winds in the area, which cheerfully swept the blasting heat from the mouth of the forge right out over the bellows and the unenviable person (usually Bucket [I love you, Bucket. Thank you. I'm sorry again]) operating them. A blast shield was quickly cut and thrown into place to at least prevent the tarp from melting too much, if not my bellows slave (who, again, I love very much and again, I'm very sorry).

Though I had put an unusual amount of effort into staking down the bellows to keep them from wobbling too much during operation, I was eventually able to extract them (with BD's help) and move the thing to the other side of the forge. Thus was born Forge 3.0.1. Sadly, there was a casualty during the upgrade: The pipe that connected the bellows to the base of the forge was partly constructed with a little bit of a purple, plastic drain pipe, and while it was on the right side of the forge, it made this cute little whistling noise like one of those pipes you wave around over your head and it goes "OOOooOOOOoeooWOwoOOOooeoOOeoEOOOOOooo." After it was moved to the left, I could never get it to sing again, which was a tragedy.

Part 3: The anvil. Fairly simply, it started as a concrete slab, as you may recall. Concrete's qualities do not inspire great praise as a hammering surface. BD donated a nice, thick slab of metal about 1'x1' that I first affixed to a nice bit of 4"x4" post,  but then screwed down onto a hurkin' big log I dragged out of the mill and seated in a really big brake drum filled with sand to level it.

Though I had not smithed nearly enough to justify acting on my petulant desire for a better anvil, I nevertheless would not be satisfied until I had something that more closely resembled the romantic silhouette of an anvil. BD then generously acquired a bit of rail track from a scrap yard for me, but even this not satiate me. I went so far as to take a grinder to the thing and carve a little horn-shaped end on it. It proved helpful, but I think if I had been thinking more clearly, I would have been able to come up with better solutions that wouldn't have put the grinder's poor little motor at so much risk. In the end, I never did come up with a great way to affix the rail securely enough to the wood block to satisfy me, but que cera cera.

Angle Grinder + like 8 discs + 2 hours = Anvil (or so the equation went in my head at the time).

The Operation.
Conclusions: If I told you that I spent like a month combining and recombining bits of trash with the literal expectation and intent to use them to make exactly one knife, you would probably find that very curious, and possibly remark, "Then I hope it's one hell of a knife."


In the end my greatest achievement was this:
If you look closely, you can almost pretend that you understand what these are meant to be.
There are lots of helpful tutorials on Youtube explaining how to make your first tongs, and I honestly did my best to apply their advice. These, as you can likely tell, are not very much tongs per se. I have referred to them affectionately since their birth as "Possibly Tongs". They are not really approaching tong shape in their present state, nor are they functionally tongs even in a sort of two-hand, salad tongs sort of way, however considering the amount of 3/4" bar stock that went unused at their handle ends, they still possess the strong possibility for tongs in the future. Provided that you cut most of what I did to them off, probably.

In the end, Forge 3.0.1's downfall was over-enthusiasm. Since my Possibly Tongs were going so swimmingly, I decided to skip ahead to "decorative ram's head poker". This is a major theme in my life. Momma, if you're reading this, you will probably recall that upon receiving piano lessons, I threw out the teacher's ideas of how they were going to - all that nonsense about "learn how to read music" and "know things like what a major 3rd are" - and insisted that I immediately embark upon Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. If any of my college professors are reading this, you may fondly reminisce on my belief that 100-200 level courses were unnecessary inconveniences when considering 300-400 level ones. What I'm saying is that I sometimes I hurl myself in the deep-end and find me with a lot of pool water in my nose.

Anyhow, the ram's head was looking a great deal like something you might see in a low-budget horror film whispering, "Please...*gurgle gurgle*...kill me...*burble*...pleeeeeaaase..." from a blood-smeared operating table caught in the shaky beam of a flashlight, and in my frustration to manifest my vision in rebar, I was happily obliging it with a sledgehammer. Part of the operation involved needing the ram's face to be really hot so that I could squish it down in sort of an S shape. I had enlisted BD for bellows duty (Bucket was mysteriously busy during forging hours that day), and being an impressively built, 7 or 8 foot tall man, he diligently plied the bellows up and down until, to everyone's complete lack of surprise, they blew apart spectacularly.

It was a sad day, to be sure. If my father had been there, I'm sure he would have issued it one of his trademark catch phrases like, "That Didn't Work Out." I think BD felt pretty bad about being the one who busted the bellows, but hopefully he noticed that the tarp was only stapled on in a way that conveyed clear desperation, and was held together more by sheer force of will on my part than anything else. It could just have easily have been his three year old daughter that ended up holding the hot potato when the music stopped. So it goes.

In the end, I learned much more than I made, and it laid the groundwork for what I hope will end up being a successful blacksmithing future. Everything I made was powerful and moving in its unattractiveness, and bewildering in its uselessness. Still...

It's the things that keep us that delicately balanced somewhere between congenial optimism and megalomania that keep us moving forward in life.