Playing with Fire: Blacksmithing a Hot Topic
FORGE in cooperation with Carnegie Mellon University
Almost weekly, we run across another interesting blacksmithing story about someone who seems an unlikely blacksmith or who is making wonderful creations from lumps of metal or common items. The story of a Carnegie Mellon graduate student will be highlighted, but we will also talk more about the phenomenon.
Many of today’s blacksmiths work with tools and techniques that have been utilized for many centuries. The first evidence of smithing by hammering iron into shape is a dagger found in Egypt dating to 1350 B.C. Although in Egypt, it was likely the product of a Hittite tradesman. The Hittites probably invented forging and tempering, and they kept their ironworking techniques secret. When the Hittites were scattered, their ironworking skills spread to Greece and the Balkans. This early Iron Age occurred about 800-500 B.C. The smith can also be found in the classical mythology of the Romans, Greeks, Phoenicians and Aztecs.
Early smiths likely heated iron in wood fires. They found that wood converted to charcoal produced a better fire – the intensity of which could be increased with an air blast. The smith began to specialize in the Middle Ages, especially with the onset of the Industrial Revolution. The whitesmith was someone who worked with lead, and the blacksmith was the ironworker. The farrier was a specialist in the making and fitting of horseshoes, while the chainsmiths and nailsmiths had their specialties. The number of folks with the last name of “Smith” demonstrates the prevalence of the vocation.
In the 16th century, cast iron came into greater use. A Frenchman named Jean Tijou introduced the art of decorative blacksmithing in the late 17th century. The flair seen in this art is, at least in part, due to the early work of this smith. Most of today’s blacksmiths are drawn to the art of the trade versus its utility. The uniqueness of the goods produced by today’s blacksmiths is what attracts buyers.
Many contemporary blacksmiths have more sophisticated equipment, but some have chosen to do it the old-fashioned way. In either case, the forge is heated to temperatures of 2000-3000˚F using coke and a blower or bellows to concentrate the air. The steel is usually heated to around 2000˚F. The key tools of a smith are still the anvil, tongs and a hammer.
Should you think that smithing is a skill-less trade, the road to becoming a journeyman smith in the American Blade Association requires a rigorous knife-making test. The knife must be able to slice apart a 1-inch rope, cut through a 2x4 and retain enough sharpness to shave hair from the maker’s arm. In the final test, the knife must withstand being bent in a vice more than 90 degrees without breaking.
In the News
We wanted to present a sampling of blacksmithing stories showing up in our news. We believe blacksmithing appeals to our desire to create as well as to “strong-arm” something as immovable as steel. Lest we not forget, The History Channel is in the fifth season of a popular reality show titled “Forged in Fire.”
Not unlike Lord of the Rings, a blacksmith in the Pittsburgh, Pa., area is forging rings and teaching people to forge their own wedding rings, which is a romantic concept. Check out Barefoot Forge if your creative juices are stirred or if you would like to purchase a forged ring.
In addition to the classes offered by Barefoot Forge, many other educational opportunities abound. A new blacksmith and metal arts school is now open in Johnstown, Pa., in the site of the defunct Cambria Iron Works blacksmith shop. The school relocated from New York.
In just a few months, numerous blacksmithing stories caught our eye. These include a metal sculptor in Texas, an Australian knifemaker who demonstrated how to turn a ubiquitous ball-peen hammer into a beautiful tomahawk axe, an innovative knifemaker in Montana, and a family that is forging homestead tools in the Ozarks.
Something of particular interest was a portable blacksmithing forge that is small enough to store in a 5-gallon bucket. After a Kickstarter campaign, this innovative little forge is currently available at www.reptiletool.works/forge-kit.
In the lab, David Sapiro studies the properties of corrosion in austenitic stainless steels. But in his garage, you’ll often find him leaning over a blacksmith’s anvil, hammering hot steel bars into new shapes, and crafting tools and blades from red-hot metals.
When one thinks of science, one rarely thinks of fire or hammering, but Sapiro, who is pursuing his doctorate at Carnegie Mellon University in materials science and engineering, blacksmiths in his spare time. Blacksmithing, or the creation of objects made from heated wrought iron or steel, is a trade not often associated with academia, but when designing and crafting many of his own tools – tongs, power hammers, chisels and the like – Sapiro improves his creations by applying the science behind the metals to his hands-on hobby.
“In undergrad, I studied pure chemistry and also did blacksmithing on the side, so now I’m combining them with corrosion and metallurgy,” Sapiro said. “Corrosion is very much electrochemistry and studying individual atoms and molecules – very upper-level science. But then the metal breaks, and I have to look at the fracture surface and say, ‘Was this a ductile fracture or a brittle fracture, and why did it break like that?’ That’s stuff I can do in my garage.”
Austenitic stainless steels, the most corrosion-resistant types of steel, are used in silverware, tubing and other common household objects. Though they are resistant to corrosion, austenitic stainless steels still have an Achilles’ heel: saltwater.
“Austenitic stainless steels don’t just rust like normal steel. They corrode in saltwater, and they can actually crack. So I’m working on trying to figure out when they do that, why they do that and questions like that,” Sapiro said.
How a metal corrodes and breaks is all tied into blacksmithing, Sapiro explained. To see if a particular steel would be good to use when forging a knife, for example, you take it, heat it up, quench it, see if it’s hardenable and then hit it with a hammer. Then, depending on how it breaks, it’s either good or bad for that use.
“And that’s why I like the research I’m doing and metallurgy in general,” Sapiro said. “Because you can get really nitty-gritty on the science, but you can also just go to your garage and use that science, hands-on.”
Sapiro doesn’t only make tools. He makes swords using authentic blacksmithing techniques. Sapiro has forged several different types of swords in his garage: a pata (an Indian sword fashioned with a gauntlet around the fist, traditionally shaped like an animal’s head), a falchion (a broad, single-edged sword) and a khopesh (an Egyptian sickle-shaped sword that evolved from the battle-ax).
What do swords have to do with academia? It turns out that TMS, one of the largest materials-science conferences in the world, recently incorporated an alternating bladesmithing competition and symposium into its annual proceedings. Sapiro entered the inaugural competition in 2015 with his creations –
individually and in teams – and presented his findings at the symposium in 2016. He even published an article on the casting of his khopesh, “Fabrication of a Bronze Age sword using ancient techniques,” in TMS’s scientific journal, JOM. And last year, he competed in TMS 2017’s bladesmithing competition again, this time with his brand-new flamberge (a wave-bladed sword).
So, whatever your interest may be, there is most certainly a science that can deepen your knowledge and augment your pastime. A perfect blend of technical and tangible, Sapiro is living the dream – working with his hands and pursuing a career studying the science behind his passion.
Watch Sapiro talk more about swordsmithing, metal corrosion and the intersection between research and hobbies: https://www.industrialheating.com/videos?bctid=5393000286001