Interested in blacksmithing and wondering how to start a blacksmith forge? Questions that used to pop up when asking how to start forging are: What do you need to start blacksmithing at home? What size anvil for a beginner blacksmith? Best beginner blacksmith forge? Blacksmith hammer types and uses? etc. The questions are many. In this article I have listed the 5 things you need to build your home forge and things to think of when you start blacksmithing. I hope this will bring you more insights when it comes to a blacksmith setup and give some tips on what a beginner blacksmith needs.
I will also have a personal reflection and story on each subject. You can see more of my work here and read more about me and my forge here.
The forgeWhen looking for forging equipment for beginners you might want to start with the forge, the heart of the shop. But what is the best forge? Gas forge vs coal forge? Which one is best for a beginner blacksmith and for your home forge?
Well, there are different types of forges that use different types of fuels. We got solid fuel forges (coal forge), gas and oil forges and electric forges. Even if electric forges are becoming more and more popular they are still quite expensive and usually not the first choice for the beginner. So if we trim it down to solid fuel vs gas forges we can take a look which one might suit you best.
Pros with a gas forge
A gas forge is relatively clean and easy to operate. Easy to get started and don't take a lot of training to use. It's easier to get a long and even heat on your material, something that can be good when forging long blades for instance. They don't require constant maintenance while running - useful in serial production. Gas forges are more neighbor-friendly, no smoke so you don't need a chimney but they DO need ventilation!
Cons with a gas forge
Compared to a solid fuel forge they bring a lot more noise and heat to the working environment. Another downside is that they are pretty small. Quite often, they’re built out of long-narrow cylinder which limits you to work with long-narrow objects. This is fine for most projects but it might not suit everyone’s needs.
Pros and cons with a coal forge
With a solid fuel forge the only limit is your workshop’s walls and roof. You can achieve a hotter and a more concentrated heat which is useful for some moments when forging. Even though it is a bit more messier and trickier to use I personally prefer a solid fuel forge due to its range of possibilities and that it is more traditional which is a big part of why I am doing this as a profession. To keep the old techniques and skills alive.
Thought I would tell you about my first forge and how I got started: So I found my great grandfather's anvil in a barn with some hammers and tongs, then I just needed a forge to get started.
A part of why I even got interested in forging was to get a feeling of freedom and independence. I wanted to make my own stuff and forge what I needed, tools or household items etc. So the obvious option was to build the forge myself.
I knew I wanted to forge with solid fuel so I looked around me and searched for something that could work as a forge. And I found: A lawn mower, frying pan, hair dryer and some rebar.
I removed the motor on the lawn mower and turned it upside down, attached the rebars to it and I got my table. The frying pan served as a fire pot and the hair dryer was my air source. My forge was ready and good to go!
This beautiful creation is not around anymore unfortunately. It was not ideal but it worked and served me for a couple of years. a real DIY forge.
When you have decided whether to go with a gas forge or coal forge, build your own DIY forge you will need some fuel.
For a gas forge, natural gas or propane is common to use. There won't be any smoke when burning gas so no chimney is needed. However, a gas forge can produce carbon monoxide so good ventilation is important!
For a solid fuel forge you got 3 options: Coal, coke or charcoal.
Coal is the dirtiest then coke and charcoal is the purest. Depending on the quality the carbon content might vary.
- Coal that is sold ment for forging usually has a carbon content of 90 %
- Coke is destructive distillated coal so its carbon content is also depending on its quality but usually around 95%
The impurities in coal and coke can cause trouble when forge welding for instance. But once you get used to the fuel you are using it will be fine. Personally I am using coal and do forge welding without problems.
You can use all 3 fuels in a bottom blast forge but as charcoal is much lighter than coal and coke, it can start “flying” so a side blast forge is preferable but this can be compensated with a deeper firepot if you have a bottom blast forge.
What are the pros and cons with these fuels?
Charcoal is traditional, and an excellent fuel. It would be my first choice but due to economical reasons I go with coal. But even if coal might have the lowest price, gas might be more affordable in the long run if you do serial production. So depending on your forging style and local prices it will vary which fuel is the most affordable.
One more thing about coke. A coke fire goes out pretty fast when the air source is turned off so if you have a hand cranked or foot powered forge and having problems, coal or charcoal might be a better option.
As I wrote in the personal reflection on forges, a part of why I wanted to start forging was to be more independent so when I started I wanted to make my own fuel.
Back then I was working in the forest. We sold the larger timber to a saw mill and the smaller trees we brought home to make fire wood. And part of it I turned into charcoal and used it as fuel.
When forging with charcoal it takes quite a large volume of the fuel. I could have made a large charcoal pile that would have produced a lot of charcoal but I felt that would be too big a project doing it alone. So I researched and found a way to make smaller batches in a barrel. If you are interested in this you can find different ways on how to do it on youtube or contact me and I will help.
One question that usually pops up when you are getting your first blacksmith's anvil is how heavy of an anvil do I need? What size anvil does a beginner blacksmith need?
A rule of thumb is that it should be at least 50 times heavier than your hammer. So if you’re using a 1kg hammer to forge, the anvil should be at least 50 kg. With this being said, the heavier the anvil, the better.
But don’t worry if you can’t find a heavy anvil. You can make it heavier by attaching it to a heavy base, a tree stump or a block made out of timber for instance. You can bury the base a bit into the ground or bolt it to the floor to make it more solid. In an old forge I visited they had the anvil attached to a large rock. So if the anvil attached properly you will come away with a lighter anvil.
What type of anvils should I get?
Well, it doesn’t need to be an anvil! The anvil is just your second hammer so as long as it's quite heavy and has a hardened surface it will do. The shape doesn't really matter.
Another question that usually pops up is how do you pick a good anvil and if a used beat up anvil will do? Well, in most cases I would say it will. As long as it has a good rebound and is relatively flat. If the edges are beat up you can grind them to a different radius which is useful. If you want sharp edges you can weld and make them sharper or make a little anvil that you place in your hardie holde. But the sharp edge doesn’t have to be longer than the face of the hammer. A part that is flat is useful but dips are also useful. So even if it is a dip in the anvil it's usually not a problem.
Don’t worry too much about the anvil. As long as it is solid you will come up with solutions if you run into any problems. So get yourself an ASO ("Anvil Shaped Object") and start forging!
Personal reflection on anvils
My first anvil was a heritage from my great grandfather Alfred. If he bought it new it´s from the beginning of the 20th century. The two most common anvils are either with one or two horns. My first anvil had two horns and that is what I am used to. I couldn’t imagine a life without the second horn. I use it all the time. This is of course depending on what is being forged and what we are used to.
I still use the anvil, my first one. It has a hollow which is perfect for some projects. The edges are well rounded that I use when making scrolls for instance. But I remember when I started to forge mjölners, then I needed a sharper edge. So I welded a few centimeters and made a new edge.
When I moved to Sweden I brought my two Finnish anvils. The unknown from my great grandfather and my Lokomo.
I have now bought some Swedish anvils that are waiting to be put into use. But it takes time to get used to a new anvil and I have a hard time separating myself from my two Finns.
When it comes to blacksmith equipment the hammer and the different types of blacksmith hammers will vary depending on your forging style. It's a good idea to have a few different types of hammers in your blacksmith setup so you are ready for any project.
How heavy the hammer needs to be depends on how thick the material is. The shape of the hammer face depends on what shall be accomplished. In my forge I got hammers from 100 grams up to 8 kilos. However, 95% of the time I am using a hammer that is between 700 g - 1,3 kg. If you are using a hammer that is too light the forging will be inefficient. The energy in the hammer blow wont go through the piece. A sign of this is when you are forging on the end of the piece on the tip of a knife blade for instance and the end turns into a “fish mouth”.
A heavy hammer will slow you down. Speed is underrated, when I have experimented with different hammers I usually get more done with a lighter hammer due to the speed. So a too heavy hammer can also be inefficient not to mention the wear and tear on the body.
One way to determine the length of the handle is to grab the head of the hammer and point the handle to your biceps. The end of the handle should be at the crook of your elbow. But on the lighter hammers you might want a shorter handle. The handle length is personal preference after all. But the thickness is important. If you have the wrong grip it can hurt your wrist.
These three hammers is a good start:
- A 500g with ball peen as this will mostly be used for decorative work
- A 1 kilo cross peen hammer, the peen on this can be quite narrow
- And a 1.5 kilo with a thicker cross peen.
You will have to dress the hammer face. You can make it a bit rounded to avoid rough forging marks and the edges can be well rounded for the same reason.
Personal reflection on hammers
When I choose what hammer to use I try to go with as light as possible to minimize the wear and tear on my body and to keep up the speed. The energy from the hammer blow doesn’t only move material it also generates heat to the working piece. By generating more heat into the piece each heat will last longer and you get more done. For hand forging I usually use a hammer that is around 1 kg.
But as I wrote earlier, it depends on the working piece and what shall be done. The cross peen is my favorite Something that I miss though in my hammer collection is hammers with different directions on the peen. When I find the time I will forge some diagonal and straight peens.
I have recently experienced how important a good grip is. On one of the hammers I used a lot the handle was too thin for my hand and with a bad grip my wrist started to hurt. Then one day the handle broke. I was too lazy to make a new one so instead I just grabbed a new hammer and with that handle I had a better grip. In just a few days the pain in my wrist what's gone. I have learned my lesson, I hope it will stay away now.
What is the easiest metal to forge?
As a blacksmith you are mainly working with iron, or steel would be the correct word. When you buy “iron” from the store it contains carbon which makes it steel.
When you are forging anything but tools you usually want to have a material with as low carbon content as possible. The common mild steel you buy from the store and that you can use in the forge has a carbon content on around 0.2% which is fine for most projects.
The higher the carbon content it is the stronger and harder the material will be. You can make the steel having different properties depending on the alloy. The different alloys becomes more interesting when you are forging tools. You can make it tougher, harder, more springy etc. There are many different alloys out there and I can’t list all here, but I will show one example:
There is a high-carbon steel named 80CrV2. We can see some of the alloys in the name. The steel contains Chromium (Cr), Vanadium (v), Manganese (Mn) and carbon (C).The carbon makes the steel hard when quenching. The Chromium improves hardenability. The Vanadium increases strength while maintaining ductility and promotes fine grain structure. The Manganese prevents brittleness. Here and here you can read more about alloys.
What is the easiest steel to work with?
A rule of thumb is that the simpler alloys are usually easier to work with and a steel that has a carbon content of 0.4%-1% can be used for tools. There are tools steels with higher carbon content but those steels make higher demands.
A higher carbon content makes the steel harder but also more brittle. So depending on what tool you are making you have to choose the material carefully.
Back in the days steel was made with different methods than today’s and this made the steel having a different texture than modern steel. On some pieces it kind of looks like wood with its fibers. This is usually referred to as wrought iron and is very smooth to forge due to its low carbon content and is very beautiful with its texture. It is unfortunately difficult to get hands on since the production of wrought iron ended long time ago.
To a blacksmith there are no such things as scrap metal so go to the scrapyard, find some material and start forging!
Personal reflection on material
A thread in this where I share a personal reflection on each subject and also a reason why I like forging so much is that it gives me a feeling of freedom and independence.
I have built the forge and made the tools myself. And the fuel I am using but one piece that is missing is to make the material itself, to make iron. It would be so interesting to make it from scratch, collecting the ore and then forge something out of it.
It's simple to do in theory but I know it is very difficult to get good quality. There are a few people who have the skills to make iron the old way and I hope that one day I can learn or at least try it out.
It's a long process and therefore iron was very expensive back in the days and steel even more expensive. This explains why iron was used a bit restrictive and only where it needed to be. To me iron is very valuable. It is so useful when making different alloys and the expression of it is so beautiful. And the fact that you can tame it and turn it into a shape for a while but in the end it will turn into its original form.
As you have read there is no right answers. What the best solution is depends on you and you needs, forging style and what you are forging and a lot more. If you have any questions you can reach out to me anytime and I will do what I can to guide you. Email me a Philip@lufolk.com. Good luck!