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.



  1. Looks like fun Ben. Hope you are doing well.

    1. Thanks, Paul! Good to hear from ya - hope you're doing well too.

  2. I love it!
    love it love it love it!

    Your charcoal process is really pleasingly bonkers.

    1. :D Thanks, D-Millz. It would be so much fun to have you join the project! If you're ever up this way again, give me a holla.

  3. So many thoughts come to mind as I read about your crazy project (and subprojects).

    It reminds me of Douglass Adams about Arthur Dent: "He had been extremely chastened to realize that although he originally came from a world which had cars and computers and ballet and Armagnac, he didn't, by himself, know how any of it worked. He couldn't do it. Left to his own devices he couldn't build a toaster. He could just about make a sandwich and that was it."
    And this guy who went ahead and made a toaster from scratch:

    I also thought of this quote from Carl Sagan:

    Heck, if you're going to make your own charcoal, why not make the firewood first:

    It's a fun project and I'm glad you're pursuing it. And for your fans, it's entertaining to follow your progress, so thanks for sharing.

    1. Haha, that clip of Cosmos out of context is way funnier than normally. Thanks for the support! I'm glad you're enjoying it, and I hope that someone down the line finds it in some way useful for their own project. I know I couldn't have done it without the help of people writing up their experiences online. I remember you talking about your "pay-it-forward" attitude towards the internet years ago, and I have tried to take that to heart.