A blacksmith is a person who creates objects from iron or steel by forging the metal; i.e., by using tools to hammer, bend, cut, and otherwise shape it in its non-liquid form. Usually the metal is heated until it glows red or orange as part of the forging process. Blacksmiths produce things like wrought iron gates, grills, railings, light fixtures, furniture, sculpture, tools, agricultural implements, decorative and religious items, cooking utensils, and weapons.
Blacksmiths work by heating pieces of wrought iron or steel until the metal becomes soft enough to be shaped with hand tools, such as a hammer, anvil and chisel. Heating is accomplished by the use of a forge fueled by propane, natural gas, coal, charcoal, or coke.
Modern blacksmiths may also employ an oxyacetylene or similar blowtorch for more localized heating. Color is important for indicating the temperature and workability of the metal: As iron is heated to increasing temperatures, it first glows red, then orange, yellow, and finally white; then it melts. The ideal heat for most forging is the bright yellow-orange color appropriately known as a "forging heat." Because they must be able to see the glowing color of the metal, many blacksmiths work in dim, low-light conditions.
The techniques of blacksmithing may be roughly divided into forging (sometimes called "sculpting"), welding, heat treating, and finishing.
These operations generally employ hammer and anvil at a minimum, but smiths will also make use of other tools and techniques to accommodate odd-sized or repetitive jobs.
As an example of drawing, a smith making a wood chisel might flatten a square bar of steel, lengthening the metal, reducing its depth but keeping its width consistent.
Drawing does not have to be uniform. A taper can result as in making a wedge or the woodworking chisel blade. If tapered in two dimensions a point results.
Drawing can be accomplished with a variety of tools and methods. Two typical methods using only hammer and anvil would be: hammering on the anvil horn, and hammering on the anvil face using the cross peen of a hammer.
Another method for drawing is to use a tool called a fuller, or the peen of the hammer to hasten the drawing out of a thick piece of metal. The technique is called fullering from the tool. Fullering consists of hammering a series of indentations (with corresponding ridges) perpendicular to the long section of the piece being drawn. The resulting effect will be to look somewhat like waves along the top of the piece. Then the hammer is turned over to use the flat face and the tops of the ridges are hammered down level with the bottoms of the indentations. This forces the metal to grow in length (and width if left unchecked) much faster than just hammering with the flat face of the hammer.
Shrinking, while similar to upsetting, is essentially the opposite process as drawing. As the edge of a flat piece is curved,—as in the making of a bowl shape—the edge will become wavy as the material bunches up in a shorter radius. At this point the wavy portion is heated and the waves are gently pounded flat to conform to the desired shape. If you were to compare the edge of the new shape to the original piece, you would discover that the material is thicker than before. This change in thickness is due to the excess material that formed the waves being pushed into a uniform edge that has a smaller radius than before.
In the example of making a chisel, as it lengthened by drawing it would also tend to spread in width, so a smith would frequently turn the chisel-to-be on its side and hammer it back down -- upsetting it -- to check the spread and keep the metal at the correct width for the project.
As another example, if a smith needed to put a 90-degree bend in a bar and wanted a sharp corner on the outside of the bend, the smith would begin by hammering an unsupported end to make the curved bend. Then, to "fatten up" the outside radius of the bend, one or both arms of the bend would need to be pushed back into the bend to fill the outer radius of the curve. So the smith would hammer the ends of the stock down into the bend, 'upsetting' it at the point of the bend. The smith would then dress the bend by drawing the sides of the bend to keep it the correct thickness. The hammering would continue—upsetting and then drawing—until the curve had been properly shaped. In the primary operation was the bend, but the drawing and upsetting are done to refine the shape.
A modern blacksmith has a range of options and tools to accomplish this. The basic types of welding commonly employed in a modern shop include traditional forge welding as well as modern methods, including oxyacetylene and arc welding.
In forge welding the pieces to be welded are heated to what is generally referred to as "welding heat". For mild steel most smiths judge this temperature by color: the metal will glow an intense yellow or white. At this temperature the steel is near molten .
Any foreign material in the weld, such as the oxides or "scale" that typically form in the fire, can weaken it and potentially cause it to fail. Thus the mating surfaces to be joined must be kept clean. To this end a smith will make sure the fire is a reducing fire: a fire where at the heart there is a great deal of heat and very little oxygen. The smith will also carefully shape the mating faces so that as they are brought together foreign material is squeezed out as the metal is joined. To clean the faces, protect them from oxidation, and provide a medium to carry foreign material out of the weld the smith will use flux -- typically powdered borax, silica sand, or both.
The smith will first clean the parts to be joined with a wire brush, then put them in the fire to heat. With a mix of drawing and upsetting the faces will be shaped so that when finally brought together the center of the weld will connect first and the connection spread outward under the hammer blows, pushing the flux and foreign material out.
The dressed metal goes back in the fire, is brought near to welding heat, removed from the fire, brushed, flux is applied, and it is returned to the fire. The smith now watches carefully to avoid overheating the metal. There is some challenge to this, because in order to see the color of the metal it must be removed from the fire, and this exposes the metal to air, which can cause it to oxidize rapidly. So the smith might probe into the fire with a bit of steel wire, prodding lightly at the mating faces. When the end of the wire sticks the metal is at the right temperature (a small weld has formed where the wire touches the mating face so it sticks).
Now the smith moves with rapid purpose. The metal is taken from the fire and quickly brought to the anvil, the mating faces are brought together, the hammer lightly applying a few taps to bring the mating faces into complete contact and squeeze out the flux, and finally returned to the fire again.
The weld was begun with the taps, but often the joint is weak and incomplete, so the smith will again heat the joint to welding temperature and work the weld with light blows to "set" the weld and finally to dress it to the shape.
Over the centuries blacksmiths have taken no little pride in the fact that theirs is one of the few crafts that allows them to make the tools that are used for their craft. Time and tradition have provided some fairly standard basic tools which vary only in detail around the world.
"All a smith needs is something to heat the metal, [something to hold the hot metal with,] something to hit the metal on, and something to hit the metal with."
The forge is the fireplace of a blacksmith's shop. It provides the means to keep the fire contained and controlled.
Tongs are used to hold the hot metal. They come in a range of shapes and sizes. Intriguingly, while tongs are needed for a great deal of blacksmithing, much work can be done by merely holding the cold end with one's bare hand: steel is a fairly poor conductor of heat, and orange-hot steel at one end would be cold to the touch a foot away or so. Trivia: vice-grips were invented by a smith who wanted a better sort of locking tongs.
The anvil at its simplest is a large block of iron or steel. Over time this has been refined to provide a rounded horn to facilitate drawing and bending, a face for drawing and upsetting and bending, and one or more holes to hold special tools (swages or hardies) and facilitate punching. Often the flat surface of an anvil will be hardened steel, and the body made from tougher iron.
Blacksmiths' hammers tend to have one face and a peen. The peen is typically either a ball or a blunt wedge (cross or straight peen depending on the orientation of the wedge to the handle) and is used when drawing.
While a great deal of work is done with those four basic tools, blacksmiths tend to augment their tools with some of the following (depending on the kinds of work they do):
Swages (hardies) and fullers are shaping tools. Swages are either stand alone tools or fit the "hardie hole" on the face of the anvil. The metal is shaped by being driven into the form of the swage. Opposite to the swage in some respects is the fuller which may take a number of shapes and is driven into the metal with a hammer. Swages and fullers are often paired to bring a piece of metal to shape in a single operation, essentially a set of dies. A fuller and swage pair might be spoon shaped, for example, the swage dished to form the bowl and the fuller the convex mirror of the swage. Together they will quickly stamp a spoon shape on the end of a bar.
There are many other tools used by smiths, so many that even a brief description of the types is beyond the scope of this article and the task is complicated by a variety of names for the same type of tool. Further complicating the task is that making tools is inherently part of the smith's craft and many custom tools are made by individual smiths to suit particular tasks and the smith's inclination. In the late 1930s Alexander G. Weygers (a sculptor, painter, and smith} published The Complete Modern Blacksmith, in which he provided instructions for creating many useful tools for a blacksmith, which was followed in 1979 by The Making of Tools.
With that caveat one category of tools should be mentioned: jigs. A jig is generally a custom built tool, usually made by the smith, to perform a particular operation for a particular task or project. For example, a smith making decorative scrolls for an iron fence will make a bending jig, or scroll iron, to apply a particular shape to the stock, ensuring that each scroll has the same bend. (To estimate the length of stock required to form a scroll of any given size and number of turns the Clackson scroll formula is used.)
Hephaestus (Latin: Vulcan) was the blacksmith of the gods in Greek and Roman mythology. A supremely skilled artisan whose forge was a volcano, he constructed most of the weapons of the gods, and was himself the god of fire and metalworking.
The Anglo-Saxon Wayland Smith, known in Old Norse as Völundr, is a heroic blacksmith in Germanic mythology. The Poetic Edda states that he forged beautiful gold rings with wonderful gems. He was captured by king Níðuðr, who cruelly hamstringed him and imprisoned him on an island. Völundr eventually had his revenge by killing Níðuðr's sons and forging objects to the king from their skulls, teeth and eyes. He then seduced the king's daughter and escaped laughing on wings he himself had forged.
Definition of terms:
Steel with below 0.6% Carbon content cannot be hardened enough to make useful hardened-steel tools. Hence, in what follows, wrought-iron, low-carbon-steel, and other soft unhardenable iron varieties will be referred to indiscriminately as just iron.
During the Chalcolithic era and the Bronze Age, humans in the Mideast learned how to smelt, melt, cast, rivet, and (to a limited extent) forge Copper and Bronze. Bronze is an alloy of Copper and approximately 10% to 20% Tin. Bronze is superior to just copper, by being harder, being more resistant to corrosion, and by having a lower melting point (thereby requiring less fuel to melt and cast). Much of the copper used by the Mediterranean World came from the island of Cyprus. Most of the Tin came from the Cornwall region of the island of Great Britain, transported by sea-born Phoenician and Greek traders.
Copper and Bronze cannot be hardened by heat-treatment, they can only be hardened by work-hardening. To accomplish this, a piece of bronze is lightly hammered ad nauseam. The localized stress-cycling causes the necessary crystalline changes. The hardened bronze can then be ground to sharpen it to make edged tools.
Clocksmiths as recently as the 1800s used work-hardening techniques to harden the teeth of brass gears and ratchets. Tapping on just the teeth produced harder teeth, with superior wear-resistance. By contrast, the rest of the gear was left in a softer and tougher state, more capable of resisting cracking.
Bronze is sufficiently corrosion resistant, that artifacts of bronze may last thousands of years, relatively unscathed. Because of this, there are frequently more examples of Bronze Age metal work in museums, than there are from the much younger Iron Age. Buried iron artifacts may completely rust away in less than 100 years. Examples of ancient iron work still extant are very much the exception to the norm.
Still during the mists of prehistory, humans became aware of the metal iron, in the form of meteoric iron. Iron artifacts may be shown to be of meteoric origin by their chemical composition: containing up to 40% Nickel. As this source of this iron is extremely rare and fortuitous, little development of smithing skills peculiar to iron can be assumed to have occurred. That we still possess any such artifacts of meteoric iron may be ascribed to the vagaries of climate, and the increased corrosion-resistance conferred on iron by the presence of nickel.
During the (north) Polar Exploration of the early 1900s (AD), Inuit of northern Greenland were found to be making iron knives from two particularly large nickel-iron meteors. One of these meteors was taken to Washington, D.C., where it was remitted to the custody of the Smithsonian Institution.
The Hittites of Anatolia first discovered or developed the smelting of iron ores around 1500 BC. They seem to have maintained a near monopoly on the knowledge of iron production for several hundred years, but when their empire collapsed during the Eastern Mediterranean upheavals around 1200 BC, the knowledge seems to have escaped in all directions.
In the Iliad of Homer (describing the Trojan War and Bronze Age Greek and Trojan warriors), most of the armor and weapons (swords and spears) are stated to have been of bronze. Iron is not unknown, however, as arrow heads are described as iron, and a "ball of iron" is listed as a prize awarded for winning a competition. The events described probably occurred around 1200 BC, but Homer is thought to have composed this epic poem around 700 BC; so exactitude must remain suspect.
When historical records resume after the 1200 BC upheavals and the ensuing Greek Dark Age, iron work (and presumably blacksmiths) seem to have sprung like Athena, fully-grown from the head of Zeus. Very few artifacts remain, due to loss from corrosion, and re-use of iron as a valuable commodity. What information exists indicates that all of the basic operations of blacksmithing were in use as soon as the Iron Age reached a particular locality. The scarcity of records and artifacts, and the rapidity of the switch from Bronze Age to Iron Age, is a reason to use evidence of bronze smithing to infer about the early development of blacksmithing.
Despite being subject to rust, iron replaced bronze as soon as iron-wielding hordes could invade Bronze Age societies and literally slice through their obsolete bronze defenses. Iron is a stronger and tougher metal than bronze, and iron ores are found nearly everywhere. Copper and Tin deposits, by contrast, are scattered and few, and expensive to exploit.
Iron is different from most other materials (including bronze), in that it does not immediately go from a solid to a liquid at its melting point. H2O is a solid (ice) at -1 C (31 F), and a liquid (water) at +1 C (33 F). Iron, by contrast, is definitely a solid at , but over the next it becomes increasingly plastic and more "taffy-like" as its temperature increases. This extreme temperature range of variable solidity is the fundamental material property upon which blacksmithing practice depends.
Another major difference between bronze and iron fabrication techniques is that bronze can be melted. The melting point of iron is much higher than that of bronze. In the western (Europe & the Mideast) tradition, the technology to make fires hot enough to melt iron did not arise until the 1500s, when smelting operations grew large enough to require overly large bellows. These produced blast-furnace temperatures high enough to melt partially refined ores, resulting in Cast Iron. Thus cast iron frying pans and cookware did not become possible in Europe until 3000 years after the introduction of iron smelting.
China, in a separate developmental tradition, was producing cast iron at least 1000 years before this.
Although iron is quite abundant, good quality steel remained rare and expensive until the industrial developments of Bessemer et al. in the 1850s. Close examination of blacksmith-made antique tools clearly shows where small pieces of steel were forge-welded into iron to provide the hardened steel cutting edges of tools (notably in axes, adzes, chisels, etc.). The re-use of quality steel is another reason for the lack of artifacts.
The Romans (who ensured that their own weapons were made with good steel) noted (in the 300s BC) that the Celts of the Po River Valley had iron, but not good steel. The Romans record that during battle, their Celtic opponents could only swing their swords two or three times before having to step on their swords to straighten them.
During the 1700s, agents for the Sheffield cutlery industry scoured the country-side of Britain, offering new carriage springs for old. Springs must be made of hardened steel. At this time, the processes by which steel was produced resulted in an extremely variable product: quality was in no way ensured at the initial point of sale. Those springs which had survived cracking through hard use over the rough roads of the time, were proven to be of a better quality steel. Much of the fame of Sheffield cutlery (knives, shears, etc.) was due to these extreme lengths that the companies went to, in order to ensure that high-grade steel was used in their manufactures.
The original fuel for forge fires was charcoal. Coal did not begin to replace charcoal until the forests of first Britain (during the 1600s), and then the eastern United States of America (during the 1800s) were largely depleted. Coal can be an inferior fuel for blacksmithing, because much of the world's coal is contaminated with Sulfur. Sulfur contamination of iron and steel make them "red short", so that at red heat they become "crumbly" instead of "plastic". Coal sold and purchased for blacksmithing should be largely free of sulfur.
During the 1900s various gases (natural gas, acetylene, etc.) have also come to be used as fuels for blacksmithing. While these are fine for blacksmithing iron, special care must be taken when using them to blacksmith steel. Each time a piece of steel is heated, there is a tendency for the carbon content to leave the steel (decarburization). This can leave a piece of steel with an effective layer of unhardenable iron on its surface. In a traditional charcoal or coal forge, the fuel is really just carbon. In a properly regulated charcoal/coal fire, the air in and immediately around the fire should be a reducing atmosphere. In this case, and at elevated temperatures, there is a tendency for vaporized carbon to soak into steel and iron, counteracting or negating the decarburizing tendency. This is similar to the process by which a case of steel is developed on a piece of iron in preparation for case hardening.
(European) blacksmiths before and through the mediaeval era spent a great deal of time heating and hammering iron before forging it into finished articles. Although they were unaware of the chemical basis, they were aware that the quality of the iron was thus improved. From a scientific point of view, the reducing atmosphere of the forge was both removing oxygen (rust), and soaking more carbon into the iron, thereby developing increasingly higher grades of steel as the process was continued.
During the first half of the 1800s, the U.S. government included in their treaties with many Native American tribes, that the U.S. would employ blacksmiths and strikers at Army forts, with the expressed purpose of providing Native Americans with iron tools and repair services.
Lathes, patterned largely on their wood-turning counterparts, had been used by some blacksmiths since the middle-ages. During the 1790s Henry Maudslay created the first screw-cutting lathe, a watershed event that signalled the start of blacksmiths being replaced by machinists in factories for the hardware needs of the populace.
Samuel Colt neither invented nor perfected interchangeable parts, but his insistence (and other industrialists at this time) that his firearms be manufactured with this property, was another step towards the obsolescence of metal-working artisans and blacksmiths. (See also Eli Whitney).
As demand for their products declined, many more blacksmiths augmented their incomes by taking in work shoeing horses. A shoer-of-horses was historically known as a farrier in English. With the introduction of automobiles, the number of blacksmiths continued to decrease, many former blacksmiths becoming the initial generation of automobile mechanics. The nadir of blacksmithing in the United States was reached during the 1960s, when most of the former blacksmiths had left the trade, and few if any new people were entering the trade. By this time, most of the working blacksmiths were those performing farrier work, so the term blacksmith was effectively co-opted by the farrier trade.
Starting in the 1970s, trends in "do-it-yourself" and "self-sufficiency" led to a renewed interest in traditional blacksmithing. Books and organizations to help beginning blacksmiths abound, including many re-enactment smiths demonstrating the art at historical sites. New Hampshire Blacksmith Joe Tucker worked as a Blacksmith for more than 75 years, and helped to popularize the craft among young metalworkers. Many of the more successful modern blacksmiths produce custom metalwork, and are referred to a Artist-Blacksmiths. Artist-Blacksmiths is not merely a modern phenomenon, however: see Samuel Yellin.
While developed nations saw a decline and re-awakening of interest in blacksmithing, in many developing nations blacksmiths continued doing what blacksmiths have been doing for 3500 years: making and repairing iron and steel tools and hardware for people in their local area.