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Buy or Make? That is the Question!
The old question of whether to spend the time to make a tool or to go down to the local hardware store and purchase a factory made one is not difficult for most people. But blacksmiths are different. They, among the many crafts, are most able to make most if not all of the tools that they might need. At one time we ran a tip which read, "it is cheaper to buy tools than spend time to make them for the professional smith."
Berkley Tack of Rainier, Oregon told us that this sounds like: "Advice straight from the tool factory!" He went on to say: "I make my living at smithing, and I believe that it was this sort of notion that led to the downfall of the blacksmith. If a smith buys factory made forge tools and avoids making his own, then he will be forced into doing production-type work to pay for his high overhead and will never have time to develop the real skills of blacksmithing. I have been there, and it is only in the last couple of years that I have discovered the joy of making and using my own tools. My dozen or so pairs of "custom" tongs work and feel so much better than the clumsy factory-made ones in the back of the rack!
"I teach classes in blacksmithing, and my students learn to make their own tongs, punches, hardies, etc. I know that if, in my first years of smithing, I had been taught the discipline of making tools rather than floundering around with fanciful forms, I would have progressed much faster and been able to do so much more.
"A blacksmith should serve the needs of the individual. If a smith can't make his own tools, how can he meet the needs of the people who come to him seeking that which the factories can't provide?"
Determining How Much Stock You Need
Normally, when forging a piece of iron to a different size than it's original size, i.e., forming 1/2 inch round rod to 3/8 inch square or octagon, one determines the volume of steel required for the new shape and then cuts that volume of material. In our example, let's say we will have a final piece of 3/8 inch square stock that is 12 inches long. The volume of this piece is 3/8 times 3/8 times 12 to obtain 1.68875 cubic inches of volume. If we divide this by the area of the cross section of the original stock, i.e., 1/2 inch round stock we obtain the length of 1/2 round stock required for the job (plus add a little for loss to scale in the heating). In our example, the area of the 1/2 inch round rod is 1/4 times 1/4 times 3.14159 or 0.1963493 square inches. Our length therefore is 1.68875 cubic inches divided by 0.1963493 square inches is 8.6 inches of 1/2 round rod. Not a real complex computation in this case, but what happens when you are going to make that piece of 1/2 round rod into a leaf or some other complex shape. The calculations can become very complex and tax most mathematicians to the limit.
R. G. Huber of Layton, New Jersey offered the following solution (originally printed in the July/August 1983 issue of Blacksmith's Gazette): You fellows execute some pretty marvelous mental maneuvers to measure metal for forging. We dull men use the Huber method of duplicating the part by hand, in modeling clay, either to scale or full size, then we squeeze it back into a rod, bar, plate or whatever shape will lend itself most readily to forging out the part and measure it. It's fast, cheap and accurate, and a nifty way of working out the best approach to a complicated job. With this "finger forging" method you come out right on the button, every time. It cleans your hands, too!
Putting a Brown Finish on Steel
Brown finishing on metal was very common on antique rifle barrels and is still used on modern made muzzle loading rifles that are made by custom makers. There are several ways to accomplish this from applying salt water and setting the item in a damp corner to applying commercially prepared "browning" solutions. The later is probably the simplest to do and get a fairly even finish. Try a muzzle loading supply store such as Dixie Gun Works in Union City, Tennessee. The main thing is that all of the oil must be removed from the metal and the metal must be bright and shiny before you start the project, even the oil from your fingertips is enough to create problems with the rusting process. Check out some books on making muzzle loading rifles from the library and get a lot of good data on doing this type of finishing of metal. In summary, browning is “controlled rusting that is stopped by the application of oil.”
A Good Source for Steel for Tools
The ends of oil well sucker rods make good tools. Heat and hammer collars to conform with the square shank. Punch hole for handle and shape the round part for the size punch needed. This also makes a good flat or square punch or a small hot or cold set by drilling in the round end to make a rivet set. It is good steel to make any class of hammers, including picks or chipping hammers for the welder. This steel also makes good bars. It requires little hardening. You can make nail pulling or pry bars of any size needed. You can also make any size of pry bar for mechanics and mill wrights. (Submitted by John Babcock)
This page last revised on November 21, 1997.