Advice to New Blacksmiths
By Richard Hanson © 2003
Acknowledgement: This document is the accumulation of tips from many professional blacksmiths among them Glenn Conner, Jim (Paw Paw) Wilson, Tom Stovall, Bill Epps, Rich Hale, Jock Dempsey.
So you want to be a blacksmith. That is a truly noble aspiration. To take metal and form it by your hand into something useful and oftentimes beautiful will bring you joy that most will never feel. To become a passable smith, it will take considerable learning, trial and error, and a great deal of labor on your part. Many truly talented smiths have freely shared their knowledge with me and some have contributed to this document.
To you, I pass on some of the lessons that we have learned the hard way so that you can start out making your own mistakes instead of repeating ours. Welcome brothers and sisters, remember experience is that portion of our knowledge that lets us recognize a mistake when we make it again. Read all of this before you pick up a hammer.
1. Practice SAFETY FIRST always. Wear all appropriate personal protective equipment. Safety glasses are not uncomfortable, being blind is. Steel-toed shoes are not uncomfortable, crushed toes are.
2. You can't make it idiot proof. It is perfectly all right to be incredibly stupid as long as you are the only one that knows. If you do not pay heed to Rule #1, sooner or later everyone is going to know that you are incredibly stupid.
3. Acquire the tools of the trade by honest means. Don't expect the rest of us to donate some of our tools to you just because you are poor. We are poor too, and we have been poor a lot longer than you have.
4. An anvil does not have to look like a London Pattern Anvil to be an anvil. Any large solid block of metal will do. If you can't make what you want on a piece of railroad track, you probably can't make it on a 300# Hay Budden either.
5. Learn good techniques. You will produce better work with good techniques and little talent than with poor techniques and great talent.
6. If you can't hit a bull in the ass with a bucket of wheat, stay off the good anvil until you learn hammer control. Better to mark up that cast iron POS ASO than put half moon dings all over the face of a good anvil.
7. No whining.
8. God gave you two ears and one mouth because he expected that you would do twice as much listening as talking. The only thing you will learn with your mouth open is what a fly tastes like.
9. Don't expect blacksmithing to attract members of the opposite sex to fill the void in your social life. That only happens after your are rich and famous, which in most cases takes more than 30 days.
10. Ask permission before you use someone else's tools.
11. Always use the right tool for the job. If you don't have the right tool, make it.
12. Black iron is hot iron. If you continually have to re-learn this, take up finger painting.
13. The first thing you attempt to make should not be a sword.
14. The horn of the anvil is sharp and just about high enough to qualify you for the soprano section of the Vienna Boy's Choir. Be careful, you will not be afforded an opportunity to learn this lesson a second time.
15.Black iron is hot iron, red iron is much hotter.
16. Colors look different to each of us. What appears to you as bright red may be orange to me and just red to someone else. Know what the colors on your personal color chart look like.
17. Don't try to impress us by ranting on about all the books on blacksmithing you have read. Take what you have learned from the books, then see how we apply it. Don't tell us we are doing it wrong just because our techniques may vary from the book.
18. Select a hammer that is comfortable for you. If you can't swing a 2-pound hammer comfortably start with a 1 pound hammer and gradually work up. It may take you a bit longer to complete your project, but the quality will be much better.
19. Don't rush, haste not only makes waste, it can also get you a trip to the emergency room.
20. Some things that you are not necessarily conscious of also get hot. The tongs and anything in contact with the hot iron also begin to warm up. At the end of a long day of forging, if you decide to rest by leaning your backside against the anvil, you may find that a flame three feet high is not the only thing that will burn your ass. The smaller the anvil, the quicker it will warm up.
21. Paw Paw
22. If you miss, and hit the anvil instead of the hot metal with the hammer, slow down. Hit it twice, stop for 20 minutes and rest. Hit it 3 times, just plain quit. See rule #21.
23. If you drop a piece of iron, get your feet out of the way and let it fall to the floor. Don't try to catch it.
24. Continually adjust your tongs to the piece you are working on. It prevents territorial disputes in the space time continuum. That is where your nose and a red-hot piece of steel attempt to occupy the same space at the same time.
25. If you don't know, ask. If you don't understand, ask for an explanation.
26. Practice complicated moves with cold iron until they can be done smoothly before you try it with hot iron.
27. Never use a chisel on the face of the anvil unless it is protected with a cutting plate.
28. Never use your good blacksmith hammer for a beater hammer.
29. Grind down all mushroom ends on all tools immediately.
30. If the punch, hot cut, chisel etc does not have a handle, hold it with a pair of tongs or pliers.
31. When cutting with a hot cut, chisel etc, be sure there is no one down range in case the piece separates prematurely and goes flying away.
32. Anything that will cut or grind metal will cut or grind flesh.
33. Drugs and or alcohol and work don't mix. If you do one, don't do the other.
34. You don't need a million dollars worth of tools to start out. (That will come later). All you need is a piece of iron, something to hold the iron with, something that will get your iron hot, something to hit the iron on, and something to hit the iron with.
35. Be wary of the dragon's breath. The almost invisible flames that come out of the mouse-holes of the gas forges.
36. If you are choking up on the hammer handle, you are trying to swing too much hammer.
37. Take a piece of paper, list on it all the things you can do with out, left ear, right eye, left pinky toe, etc and sign it. Now it is up to you to protect the rest.
38. Always have a 5-gallon bucket of fresh water beside the forge when you have a fire. A splash of water from the bucket keeps the big red trucks from showing up.
39. It is best to wear high-topped shoes or boots with the trouser legs over the boot. However, if you wear other types of shoes, the same 5-gallon bucket is big enough for the whole foot if you get a hot one inside the shoe.
40. If you get burned, it is a lot more refreshing to plunge the hand into fresh clean water, than into the slack tub. Remember after the cat eats breakfast, had the daily constitutional, cleans itself, it then used the slack tub to get a drink and brush its teeth. YUCK is spelled Y-U-C-K.
41. Besides the above, when is the last time you changed that water, and what is in there that killed all the algae and mosquitoes.
42. While you got your hand in the slack tub, you might as well clean it out. Only a couple inches of goo in the bottom this time, but that crunchy thing, dripping with slime that you just pulled out, looks a lot like a dead rat. That's ok, he didn't die from putting a burned hand or foot in mucky water, he drowned.
43. Keep a trashy hammer handy in case someone needs to borrow a hammer. Don't loan out your good smithing hammer(s).
44. Don't fault your tools. My high school shop teacher told me once as I complained about a saw that would not cut straight "A poor workman always finds fault with his tools".
45. Don't abuse your tools. they can't make a living for you if they are broken.
46. Weld a long piece of iron on to your work for a handle. It is easier to handle the work that way than with tongs.
47. It is better to try and fail than not to try. If it don't work out the first time, at least you learned something.
48. Forge welding is not as hard as some people make it out to be.
49. Forge welding is much harder than some people make it out to be.
50. Learn some simple blacksmith vocabulary so you will understand
what everyone is talking about.
51. Don't breathe coal smoke.
52. Don't wear nylon, or other man made fibers around hot stuff,
cotton or wool is best.
53. Learn a little about the different types of steel and what they are commonly used for.
54. Tempering is not hardening steel.
55. Intelligence is not a function of education. There are also very intelligent people with only a little formal education. There are well-educated idiots.
56. You are only limited by your imagination.
57. All coal is not the same. If you use coal, get the best you can get, low sulfur, high BTU value soft coal (Bituminous). In a pinch almost any coal will work, but once you work with good coal you will know the difference.
58. If it looks like it might be dangerous, it is. Take some time and consider an alternative. I can't say it often enough "SAFETY FIRST".
59. Just because something doesn't blow up and kill you on the spot don't mean it does not have the potential for harm. Exposure to certain chemicals and contaminants can cause problems years after the exposure. If you don't know what a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) is, find out and read them before using any chemical.
60. Welding rods are chemicals too. Welding can produce toxic fumes.
61. Always work where there is adequate ventilation
62. Dimly lit smithies are nostalgic, brightly lit shops are safer.
63. The wheel has already been invented, you don't have to do it again.
64. Be careful when moving hot metal, especially if there are other people in the area.
65. Keep the anvil close to the forge. Keep the space between them clear of obstructions.
66. Keep a fire extinguisher handy, besides the slack tub and bucket of clean water. Water is no good on an electrical fire or a flammable liquid fire.
67. Keep the area clear of flammable materials. That includes paper, wood and rags as well as flammable liquids. 68. Make sure all fires are out before you leave the shop. It is a
68. It’s a good idea to spend 20 or 30 minutes puttering around and cleaning up
after the fires have been put out. That way if there is anything smoldering, you will probably find it.
69. Never weld or forge galvanized steel unless you are wearing a respirator and have adequate ventilation. Heavy metal poisoning is not a pretty way to die.
70. The same applies double for lead, and what ever you do, don't mess with Mercury.
71. Breathing the fumes from welding on Cadmium coated steel or with Nickel/Cadmium welding rod can result in loss of consciousness for a short period of time. When you come to you feel fine until you drop dead 6 to 12 hours later.
72. Hearing loss is cumulative and irreversable. Use hearing protection when you should, even around 4" grinders. And know that vibration causes hearing loss as well as loud noise.
73. When welding, mig, stick or tig, wear long sleves and good body protection. The UV will burn the exposed skin.
74. Do NOT wear long sleves or loose clothing around moving things, or fire in the forge. The moving machinery, lathes, wire wheels, grinders, etc can grap onto loose clothing and pull you in. The fire in the forge can set the loose clothing on fire.
75. Long hair lights easily and burns very fast. It provides entertainment for everyone except you. If you must, then tie your hair securely in back and leave the flowing locks for rock and roll stars and barbarian wannabees.
76. Take care of you body while in your youth, you will need it to take care of you later on in life. Don't be afraid to push yourself, but rest when you are tired, stretch, take care of your feet and hands. (ie: If I knew I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.)