Independence and self-reliance are the cornerstones of survival. The foundation you choose to build will depend on your personal philosophy. You may anticipate social collapse and a breakdown of the system, or you already find the system distasteful and have chosen an alternative lifestyle.
You may be planning or building a retreat or bolt hole in case of a long or short-term crisis, or you might have already made a move. Perhaps you’re planning to or already have become part of a self-reliant community.
Regardless of philosophy, anyone wishing to achieve a degree of non-dependence should acquire at least some capability at blacksmithing.
To make my point, I’d like to direct the reader to take a look back in history to pre-industrial America. In fact, any survivalist can do well to learn how a lot of things were done before we became dependent on electronics and oil.
Not only did every town or settlement have at least one smithy (the smithy is the place where blacksmithing work is done, the person who does the work is a blacksmith), but just about every ranch or farm had a forge and anvil and a few tools in the corner of the barn.
A big spread often had a fair-sized setup and employed a full-time smith to run it. What’s more, he was usually one of the best-paid men in the place and blacksmithing was a high-value job . Talk about the good old days.
Why all this emphasis on a skill such as blacksmithing that seems so irrelevant today? After all, how many people today ever require the services of a blacksmith? Most people, especially city folks, under 40 have never even seen a blacksmith at work.
So why does a survival group or community need a blacksmith?
It’s simple, really. The ability to work metal is basic to maintaining civilization. Before the old smiths developed the machinery, which eventually made them an endangered species, just about every tool or implement made of iron or steel was the result of blacksmithing.
Every other craftsman and laborer came to the blacksmith for their tools. Everything from picks and shovels, axes, chisels, crowbars, hammers, nails, nuts and bolts, shears, awls, knives, actually, just about every tool you can think of as well as most household and kitchen implements of the day were made by the smiths.
The blacksmith also made most of his own tools. A competent blacksmith need never lack for tools or weapons. Fortunately for the survivalist blacksmithing is a fairly low-tech proposition. The same things that worked 100 or more years ago still apply. It’s up to the individual not to get dependent on gadgets.
I’ve often said that one could walk into a smithy from any point in history and set to working. Recently I’ve had a chance to put my money where my mouth was. A couple of days a week, I run the blacksmith shop at a local museum. The shop and everything in it are over 100 years old. I’ve forged tools ranging from punches and chisels to butcher knives to sabers in that old shop.
I haven’t found the lack of electricity or power equipment at all limiting for blacksmithing. True, some things take longer, but the finished items are as functional as any made in a more modern shop. I’ve even set up my own shop with non-electric powered backup for every function.
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Basic setup for blacksmithing
So let’s discuss what you’ll need for a basic setup. The first thing is a suitable workplace. The requirements are pretty simple. You need shade over the forge area as direct sunlight makes it impossible to judge the color (thus the temperature) of the metal. Keeping the rain off you and the equipment is an added plus.
The roof must be of nonflammable material. Corrugated sheet metal has become pretty much the standard (chestnut trees have gotten real scarce of late). A dirt floor is ideal, but a concrete slab will do. Nothing here that will burn because occasionally hot metal will fall to the floor.
Walls are strictly optional. Just remember, if you do make it an enclosure, a forge produces a hell of a lot of carbon monoxide. You may want to read this article about the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning.
An extra-wide door will provide proper ventilation for the smoke and dust to clear out, which is a real convenience and will make working a lot more enjoyable.
Now that you’ve got a place to put it, you can start assembling the equipment you’ll need. The one item which you’ll unquestionably be better off buying than attempting to make or improvise yourself is an anvil.
The best ones come from England, Sweden, or Germany. There are various online, but you may be able to save a little money by finding a used one. Make sure the working surface is in good shape avoiding any that are badly chipped. You want one with a tempered face. It should give a good lively bounce to your hammer, working on a “dead” anvil is drudgery.
The anvil will require a stand on which it can be mounted solidly at a convenient working height. You can either make or buy one. The traditional log butt works fine if you can find one, or you can make a substitute from heavy planks. A metal barrel filled with concrete and with some lead poured on top also works well.
You’ll need a forge. Commercially made ones are available, but they’ve always seemed outrageously expensive to me. You may be able to find an old one in working condition at a reasonable price, or you can make your own. I have four in my shop, my main working forge.
Two portables which I use for demonstrations at fairs and such (which mostly sit around taking up space). And a specialized unit for heat-treating long pieces such as sword blades, crossbow prods, long springs, or large pry-bars. One of them, a portable, is an old one which I bought and restored, the other three are of my own construction.
I built one from an old brake drum, some pipe fittings, and scrap metal and is adequate for most jobs. It took less than a day to construct and cost very little. You can get more elaborate if you wish, but the principle is the same. The forge achieves its intense heat from air being forced through the fire. You need some form of blower. Electric blowers are available that run on both 12 and 110 volts.
Hand-cranked units can still be found, and I often look for the ones made by Buffalo Forge or by Centaur. I have hard time finding blowers made by Champion since their blowers seem to last forever, so if you are able to find an old one, don’t hesitate to purchase it. These are my favorite brands for blacksmithing.
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I’ve also seen instructions for building blowers and bellows in several books, but I’ve never tried it. If you decide to, let me know how it works.
Besides the forge, anvil, and blower, you’ll require a slake tub. This is nothing more than a large washtub or a half barrel that can be filled with water for cooling work in progress and wetting down the coal to control the fire. Either wood or metal will do fine but avoid plastic since it will melt.
Also, you’ll want an oil barrel for quenching when you’re tempering tool steel and a coal barrel. Old oil drums cut in half work fine for these purposes.
A good sturdy workbench is a must. You should be able to build this yourself and can probably even scrounge the materials for nothing if you’re resourceful. Some sort of vise to hold the work will save a lot of frustration during some operations. A machinist’s bench vise will do, but a blacksmith’s post vise is better.
Other Tools for blacksmithing
You’ll need a few other tools to get started. After you’ve purchased the first few, you can make almost all the others you need. Making your own tools is a pretty good way to learn blacksmithing.
Let’s discuss what you’ll need by category.
Tongs are used to hold the hot metal while you’re working it. They come in an infinite number of sizes and shapes for different work. Most of the books advise that you can’t have too many, and I know a few smiths who have racks of a hundred or more. I have about a dozen, and it seems like I use three or four with any frequency. They’re fairly simple to make. Buy one or two pairs to get started and make the rest as you find the need for them.
In this department, I think Vise-Grip type locking pliers are the best thing to come down the pike in a long time. These would be tricky to make, so go out and get several pairs.
Hammers are what you actually shape and form the hot metal with. Most blacksmiths have at least a half dozen they’ll tell you they can’t get along without. I’ve probably got three dozen in my shop, and I use every one. They range in size from two ounces to eight pounds with a wide variety of shapes and faces, including a few that I had to make because they’re not available commercially.
The most useful hammers for general forging are in the range of one-and-a-half to four pounds. Get a cross pein, a double face, a ball pein if you want it, and a straight pein if you can find one. These will get you started. You can decide if you need more as your technique develops.
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If you’ll have a helper in your shop, who can strike for you, get at least one full-sized sledge of eight or 12 pounds. If you have a real bruiser who can handle it, a 16 pounder can be really nice for large projects. You’ll need to have some means of cutting metal. A hack saw and supply of blades are handy, and no shop should be without one, but, as you progress in your blacksmithing ability you’ll find ways to avoid this form of drudgery.
Cutting iron or steel is most easily done when it’s hot. The simplest way of handling cutoff chores on rod or bar stock is with a hardy. This is a chisel-like tool that fits in the square hole in your anvil, which, incidentally, is called the hardy hole. The red hot metal is cut by placing it on top of the hardy and striking it with the hammer. They’re fairly simple to make, or you can buy a pretty good one for about $30.
In addition, you may wish to obtain an assortment of hot cutter chisels, cold chisels, and maybe even a shear of some sort as you expand your operation.
You need some way to make holes. If your shop has a source of power (electric, gas or steam engine, water wheel, or mule), a good drill press will come in handy. I don’t believe anyone is still manufacturing hand-cranked ones (if you know of anyone who is I’d sure like to know about it). They’re getting hard to come by these days, but you might be fortunate enough to find one.
Twist drills are tricky to make until you’ve had a lot of practice, buy several sets. If your shop doesn’t have a drill press, that’s OK too. You can put holes in metal by healing and punching. If you need a precise size hole you may have to punch it undersized and ream it, but you can make all the punches and reamers you need without too much trouble.
You can do all your wood drilling with a bit and brace if you have to. If your budget’s a little tight or you feel ambitious, you can make these. The brace isn’t too difficult, and wood-boring bits are much simpler than steel cutting twist drills.
Taps and dies for cutting threads come in real handy when you’re assembling things. Making these is beyond the skills of most beginning blacksmiths, consider buying a few to get started.
You’ll need files for fitting, finishing, final shaping, sharpening, and a million other things. It would be possible to write a book just on types of files and their uses. I don’t believe it’s possible for a shop to have too many of them. They’re difficult, tedious, and time-consuming to make by hand. As long as they’re commercially available, consider it money well spent and buy a bunch.
A grinder, like a drill press, is really handy to have but not absolutely necessary. If your shop has power, you’ve got a wide selection to choose from. If not, there are still possibilities. Gear-driven, hand-cranked grinders are still made, at least I’ve seen them around.
Also available new are hand-cranked wet wheels which use aluminum oxide grinding wheels. These do a reasonably good job arid would be fairly simple to convert to treadle operation for one-person use. At one time just about every smithy, even small barnyard operations, had one of the old treadle powered sandstone grinding wheels, which ran either in a water tray or with a drip funnel.
If you can find one of these today, consider yourself fortunate. If the stone itself is in good shape and the price is reasonable, grab it. You can rebuild the rest of the mechanism yourself.
Well, that pretty much covers the basics. Of course, there are still a couple of hundred odds and ends (fullers, flatters, swedges, mandrels, etc.) that you’ll want later. The list can fill pages. What we’ve discussed here should be more than adequate to get started, and you’re probably better off waiting to acquire the rest until you’ve had a little experience.
Hammer some hot metal, read a few books, look over the equipment catalogs, then hammer some more. Then you’ll be able to make informed decisions as to what else you need.
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