The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

DIY blacksmithing and knife-making

Homemade hatchetFor a long time I was in search of knives that fit my hands, my use, and my budget.  Frankly there wasn't much out there that didn't cost an arm and a leg, so I looked into how to make my own knives.

I found a great video from Purgatory Ironworks on youtube that walks you through how to make a Brake Drum Forge.  By simply taking an old brake drum & some metal piping you can create a working forge.  I called around the local auto repair shops and was offered 3 drums in just 5 minutes, but selected the largest for ease of work.  After installing the simple black pipes to the bottom and attaching a hairdryer for air supply I was off and running.  On other youtube videos that Trent at Purgatory does, he also shows you how to make your own charcoal, a great thing for a beginning blacksmith to know how to do.

Homemade forge

Homemade charcoalSo once I got my forge built and my charcoal made, the next step was to make an anvil.  I visited our local scrapyard and bought not only a 24" piece of railroad track, but a 1" thick 6x15" piece of plate steel and a 2" square tubing piece to weld onto it.  By welding the plate steel and the tubing on the track, I was able to get a smooth flat surface with a hole to be used for driving holes through red hot metal.

Rusty railroad spikesWith my charcoal going, I simply turn my hair dryer on, get the fire and coals nice and hot, and put my metal in to begin.  The metals I usually use are old hand files that are now dull and have little value to most people, so they can be obtained pretty cheap from a flea market or garage sale.  I also use alot of old railroad steel found near local tracks by my parents.  Most of the time it's railroad spikes but every so often there are other random pieces of steel.  The railroad spikes are then divided into 2 piles, the regular spikes and the high carbon spikes (you can tell by the HC on the head of the spike).  The high carbons are used on tracks in places of stress or curves.

From the forge, the metal is extremely hot and usually an orange to red color.  I then take my tongs and put the piece on the anvil, then using my 3# Cross Peen or my 2# ball peen hammers, I start to shape, draw out, and work the metal to my desired product.  It does take many heatings and repeated sessions on the anvil, but in the end the product is then Homemade knivesquenched in used motor oil to cool it.  I then clean all of the oil off the item, polish it to the smoothness I want for that item (higher polish for knife blades, less for tomahawks, tools, and other items) and temper it in an oven for around an hour.

Once the metal is out of the oven, it's usually set in a handle, I make a leather sheath, and it's done.  The only thing I'm actually paying for now everytime I use my forge is the little electricity to run the dryer/blower, and if you're worried about that you can use a hand bellows just like in the 1800s.  I've made knives, tomahawks and hatchets, chisels, mountain man flint strikers, and other items out of the scrap steel found along the tracks or out of used files.  The next goal is to forge weld some cables into billets to make knives, and maybe even a sword out of.

Editor's Note: I asked David how much his startup costs were and he estimates it cost him $20 to make the forge, $13 for tools he didn't already have, and $38 to build the anvil; everything else was supplies he already had on hand.  I suspect the setup would have paid for itself nearly immediately if he charged the friends who have put in orders for specific items like a lightweight hatchet/tomahawk with a hammer head, Japanese style blades, and filet knives for processing game.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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What I would like to know is how much of the steel is lost in the forging process? I talked with a prehistoric blacksmith reenactor who once made his own iron using sediments (iron oxides) from a local river. That was a fairly involved process with a relatively low yield. Have you ever weighed a piece before and after forging?

WRT forging temperatures, I saw a demonstration by the aforementioned blacksmith, where he heated the material in a charcoal fire powered by bellows until it was almost white-hot and began to sparkle (at that which point the iron starts burning).

It's a good idea to use charcoal. Coal can contain impurities that can affect the steel negatively, epsecially sulphur and phosphorus.

Comment by Roland_Smith Mon Jun 20 13:52:12 2011
Not much of the steel is "lost" when your using the stuff I normally use. Alot of railroad spikes or other railroad steel pieces ive found, rebar and cables from the local scrapyard, or other random pieces of metal. Using the charcoal keeps the cost down since a local cabinet maker has lots of 1" thick end cuts of walnut, maple, and red oak that he throws away. I go salvage all I can from him, use the great looking grain patterns for knife handles and make the rest into charcoal. As was discussed in the article, once you get the start up cost there isnt much cost to it. You can use any wood to make charcoal. If your interested in any of this, google Purgatory Ironworks. Trent is a professional blacksmith who has lots of youtube videos (making your brake drum forge, making your own charcoal....basically everything needed to begin) and there are free on youtube.
Comment by David Z Mon Jun 20 14:17:50 2011
Great post, David, and thanks for keeping an eye on the comments to reply so fast. I was just about to drop you an email to let you know there was a question, and there was your reply. :-)
Comment by anna Mon Jun 20 18:44:50 2011
if you're not up to forging your own steel, you can do some neat stuff with lawn-mower & saw blades... all you need is a cutting wheel.
Comment by Phil Mon Jun 20 18:55:21 2011
In my opinion the most important skill for a tool user is not so much to make new ones, but to know how to care and maintain the ones that you have. We've still got some chisels in a toolchest that once belonged to my grandfather who died before I was born. They're probably a bit shorter than they were originally, but they will hold a keen edge and work just fine. I've therefore never felt the need to forge my own.
Comment by Roland_Smith Mon Jun 20 19:48:25 2011

Phil --- That's an idea that's more my speed. (Although I think that Mark is intrigued by the DIY forge. Maybe we'll try it in a decade or so when the garden is so well mulched it doesn't take over our lives in the summer. :-) )

Roland --- Care of tools is an excellent point, and one we need to pay more attention to. I've read about sharpening shovels, etc., and I never seem to get around to it, probably because I don't really know what I'm doing. I think that hand tool care would be right up there with learning to use a scythe if I had a local expert I could apprentice with.

Comment by anna Tue Jun 21 07:38:25 2011
In support of Mark's forging interest: skills of the past are best not forgotten. We never know when simple skills will come in handy.
Comment by Errol Tue Jun 21 10:18:43 2011

It is not that difficult. You can start with your kitchen knives. Since these are almost always stainless steel, they respond very well to a honing steel treatment. You can do that every day if you wish. Only if the knives are really blunt (say, once a year) you need to get a dual coarse/fine sharpening stone. An artificial stone (bonded abrasive) is the cheapest and works fine. A piece of wet factory glass (float glass) with a piece of fine waterproof sandpaper on it also works very well.

Grind the knife at an approximately 20 degree angle on both sides (lay it flat on the stone and tilt it up by 20 degrees), that should be fine for most kitchen knives. You can make knives sharper by using a smaller angle, but that makes the edge more vulnerable. If keeping a constant angle is difficult for you, use a sharpening jig.

Knives or tools that rust are carbon steel, which is harder and holds an edge better. Don't use a honing steel here, just a sharpening stone.

Personally I like to use water on the sharpening stone, to keep the metal cool and carry away the swarf.

Comment by Roland_Smith Tue Jun 21 12:25:08 2011

Phil, I completley agree with you on using sawblades or lawnmower blades for blade making. Frankly ive used old discarded cake spreaders, discarded butcher/kitchen knives, hand saw blades, skilsaw blades, and a variety of other discarded items to make blades and other items. While I 100% support taking care of your tools and items, most of the stuff I personally use to make new items are items that are discarded or sold because they no longer are needed for their original purpose (old files that have become dull, saw blades that are now dull...) and most people would rather throw away or scrap their items than resharpen or rework. Its the modern disposable way of thinking for most people, which while sad it does lend itself to those of us who reuse, recycle, or repurpose those items discarded and bring them not only to new life, but reduce what I actually "buy" from the stores.

Kind of a use the whole buffalo way of thinking with items, might as well find a use for items rather than throw them out or discard them.

Comment by David Z Tue Jun 21 12:36:45 2011

Daddy --- That's a topic I've pondered for a while. Is it worth holding onto old skills just because humanity might need them some day? Sure, I'm glad that we still have shovels even though big agriculture has pretty much made these hand tools obsolete, but that's because shovels fit a niche in my life. If the shovels had all disappeared, chances are I would have read about them in a book and found some way to make one after all. I'm not sure that a skill is worth learning just to turn the farm into a living history museum. But I'm still pondering....

Roland --- I do tend to sharpen our knives...well, the ones we use to kill chickens, right before we do the deed. :-) We have a cheapo knife sharpener that has the angle built in --- you just run the blade through it a few times on the coarse side, then on the fine side. Probably not good enough for great knives, but it works fine with our so-so knives.

I was wondering about the high carbon steel distinction David made in his post, and I'm glad you added that tidbit about it.

David --- The recycling element is what I love most about your hobby and post! (Although "hobby" makes it sound like less than it is.) Of course, we'd all love it if our culture stopped churning out disposables, but while we live in the current world, I think that it's a noble occupation to take those throwaways and turn them into useful tools.

Comment by anna Tue Jun 21 15:40:00 2011

A lot of steel (if not most of it) is recycled these days, mainly because it is much cheaper than refining ore. Steel does not lose its properties when recycled.

Comment by Roland_Smith Tue Jun 21 17:04:20 2011

BTW, if you ever have the opportunity to see impression die forging, go and have a look. It is very impressive, seeing white-hot steel being formed in only a couple of strokes.

There are some nice videos on youtube as well.

Comment by Roland_Smith Tue Jun 21 17:51:33 2011

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