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.|
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:
- 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.
- Arc welded metal has the grip strength of a toddler when you weld before you have learned anything at all about welding.
- Concrete slab ≠ a fantastic anvil.
- 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.
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). 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:
|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.|
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 2.1 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|
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).|
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.|
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...