I’m part of a local men’s group that varies in size from about six of us up to twenty or more, depending on the phase of the moon and various other mysterious factors that I haven’t yet figured out. Every other Thursday night we meet and share our experiences as fathers, husbands and men, and it’s reaffirming, often amusing, and always valuable.
While some of us are more on the geeky end of the continuum there are a number of artists and creative types too, and so it was with enthusiasm on my part that we had one of the members invite us to meet at his metalwork studio rather than our usual venue.
Last night I was therefore brought into the brotherhood of metalworkers, and it was a truly enjoyable experience.
If you’ve done metalwork of any sort, what I did last night would doubtless be the work of a neophyte, but since I’d never actually used an anvil, forge or metalwork hammer before, I was a neophyte.
The ability to superheat iron bars to bright orange (about 1800F, as I recall) and then change their shape and features as if they were made out of butter was amazing, a real chance to impose my will upon a substance that I usually consider immovable.
I started by heating up one end of an iron rod, a 1″ x 1″ rod maybe 24 inches long or so, then placing it on an anvil and using a hammer to taper the end to a point, then round the edges so that it was round, rather than square. Surprisingly difficult until you get the hang of hammering it “just so” with the right angles and, frankly, the right mix of hard, enthusiastic and easier so as not to have the metal curl from the effort.
Took a bit of time to get it right, but once I did, I then moved on to some more interesting work by again heating up the rod then tightening it in a vise and using a monkey wrench to twist the metal slowly, but surely. Definitely an amazing experience, as the orange metal bends and twists under no more than average effort, actually chipping off a layer of flakes and patina from the metal interacting with the oxygen in the air (a process similar to rust, but not quite the same as rust). It fell off and cooled to grey flakes that were just brushed onto the floor.
The metal gets so hot that it can be curled and bent by simply hammering it around a curled or rounded part of the anvil (I’m pretty sure it’s the “horn” of the anvil). With some practice, I created the curve of a crowbar, the curve of a walking stick handle, and even an elaborate double curve that will prove to be a perfect sign holder for our vegetable garden later in the year.
Of course, the metal gets truly hot and while iron doesn’t conduct heat that well, as I heated up the center of the iron to continue my twisted rod project, I did notice more than once that my gloves were smoking from the heat. Not good!
Even more empowering, after twisting the metal, I straightened the rod back to true by laying it on a piece of wood and hammering it with a leather, not metal, hammer. That way it didn’t change the shape of the twists, just the curl of the bar itself.
What was cool was that the wood burst into flame from the heat of the rod and I kept working anyway. If I let the rod cool too much I wouldn’t be able to straighten it, so I just made sure I was upwind, not downwind from the work.
Just amazingly, incredibly cool.
I also used a high-speed wirebrush device similar to what locksmiths use to burnish the metal and the twisted rod with the point polished up quite beautifully, looking almost like a piece of medieval armor. Indeed, the effort needed to do just this one thing really makes me respect the amount of work that went into producing a full suit of armor. That must have been thousands of hours of work.
Finally, I used an etching device of some sort that let me cut through sheet metal as if I were using an X-acto knife on a piece of paper. Bright sparks flying everywhere, and a bit hard to control, but damn it was really fun. I made a heart for Linda and a cheery smiley face for the kids, then sanded them down to get rid of the sharp edges and burnished them to be more attractive.
Just a splendid night’s effort, a great antidote to the completely cerebral work I do every day, and it left me ready and eager to sign up for a metalwork class or at least pop back into the studio every few weeks to play around a bit more.
I never realized blacksmith work could be so fun and rewarding.