Blacksmiths and Blacksmithing

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Blacksmiths and blacksmithing come up pretty often in fantasy writing, probably because everybody knows blacksmiths make swords, and swords are cool. However, because very few people nowadays actually know a blacksmith to talk to, it can be quite difficult to get the details right.

So here we go.

Blacksmithing and farriery are two different jobs, although they may overlap. Nowadays in the UK, you have to be a registered farrier in order to shoe a horse, and in order to be a registered farrier you have to have done the training course. It now takes four years and two months to train to become a farrier; it used to be seven years . You can learn more about learning to be a farrier in the UK on the National Farriery Training website.

Blacksmithing is not a protected trade in the same way; anybody can call themselves a blacksmith. It basically means you heat metal up (usually iron or steel) and hit it to bend it into interesting shapes.

If you are writing a blacksmith, you need to decide, therefore, what his primary job role is. If you are writing urban fantasy, your blacksmith will have to earn some money somehow, and this may not necessarily be as a blacksmith. Is he a farrier, a trading blacksmith, or a hobbyist?

What equipment is he using? Nowadays, most people in the trade use gas-powered forges. They’re clean, easy to use, and quick to heat up. For farriers, or anyone working on the road, they’re also easy to transport. If your man (it doesn’t have to be a man, obviously, but it usually is and so for convenience I’m going to say ‘man’) isn’t using a gas-powered forge, why not?

If not using a gas-powered forge, what is it? One of my friends did some very basic forging with a ‘forge’ he made out of a barbecue and a vacuum-cleaner set to ‘blow’. This demonstrates that what you really need is something that will get metal hot; it doesn’t have to be fancy, elegant, or expensive. Carbon steel melts at around 1500 degrees Celcius, so you need equipment that is going to get you up there.

The forging I’ve done has been on coke, with hand-powered bellows. You can work this with one person, but it’s far better with two. That way your heat doesn’t go down while you’re hammering (because person 2 carries on pumping the bellows. It’s a very important job. Trust me, the blacksmith I work with says so, and it consoles me no end when I feel like my arm is going to fall off). The coke we use is in little bits; if the bits are too big, you can’t get it hot enough on such a small fire.

Charcoal is the most common traditional material, but it’s very difficult to get good charcoal nowadays. It is made by burning wood in an oxygen-poor environment, so you end up with pretty much pure carbon. Traditionally done, this takes about a week. Nowadays, most charcoal is produced quickly in big ovens, and often isn’t done thoroughly. So modern charcoal is great for cooking burgers but crap for making knives; the reason for this is that the moisture left in it makes the charcoal explode. If you try to get really high forging temperatures, not only do you get more sparks than Bonfire Night (or the 4th of July if you’re American) but getting hit by burning, exploding charcoal is not fun. The good thing about charcoal, though, is that it carries on burning even when you stop pumping the bellows; coke doesn’t – it goes out. (So when we’re forging on coke and we want to stop for a dinner break, we put a bit of charcoal in the fire to keep it going until we get back. We also use charcoal to get the fire started in the morning.)

Coal can also be used, but it smells; also, as you move it from the edges of your forge (where it’s cold) towards the centre where the fire is, it will probably turn into coke anyway.

The shape of your fire is also important. If you have a little circular fire, this is good for making little things. If you want to make big things, you need a big fire. If you want to make long, thin things (like swords) you probably want a long, thin fire. This will need a different bellows set up – instead of one nozzle for the bellows, you will have several in a row. This set-up will mean that you will be able to heat the whole length of your sword blade at once without wasting heat.

Your blacksmith’s anvil shape will also vary depending on what he does. The ‘traditional’ anvil shape (the London anvil) – that we all know as ‘anvil-shaped’ – is a multi-purpose item, and every bit on it is the way it is for a reason. I am not going into what you use each bit for; the important thing is that an anvil is an expensive bit of kit and it’s got to be right for your blacksmith’s job. Anvils developed through history, so if you’re doing traditional epic fantasy, have a look at pictures of historical anvils. For fantasy authors, an important consideration is plate armour.

Good plate armour, if you look at it, has lots of compound curves – metal bent in both directions so you get bowl-type shapes. This is quite hard to do, and given the number of different curves in armour, armourers figured out ways to do them with the minimum amount of work and trouble. This involves extra equipment; your armourer will probably not only have an anvil-shaped anvil, he will also have a variety of ‘stakes’ – a metal stalk with a useful shape on the end – to help him do the curves. One I saw, the stake was actually a sort of swan-neck with a ball on the end, for getting into difficult corners.

Therefore, if your chap is going to be making plate armour, give him the right equipment to do it, or he’s going to take a long time and spend a lot of time swearing.

Tools are also important. A blacksmith can make his own tools, and can modify existing ones to perform a particular job, if necessary. Your man will want several different types of tongs for holding different shaped metal, and several hammers of different weights. For example, you need a big sledge-hammer for smashing carbon steel bar flat (e.g. for knife blades), and a little hammer for doing small, fiddly work. And some in-between hammers.

Another essential item of equipment is your bucket of water. Not only can you use this in case you accidentally set anything unfortunate on fire, you use this for quenching (i.e., very quickly cooling down) stuff. This is pretty impressive to watch; you dump something in the bucket and you get an angry hiss and a cloud of steam.

Quenching stuff is done for different reasons.

The most common reason for sticking something in your bucket of water is because it’s getting too hot to hold. If, for example, you’re working on a length of steel bar, you can be holding one end in your bare hand while the other end is glowing yellow. At first, this is a bizarre experience, but you get used to it. The thing is, the heat does travel down the length of the bar so eventually your end will be too hot to hold. So you quench it – it just takes a second or two; dip it (only your holding-end! You still want the working end to be hot) in the water and give it a swish around if you want. Then you’re good to go again. If you are using tongs, they will also eventually get too hot to hold comfortably, so you’ll need to cool them down in the same way.

Another reason to quench something is because you want to bend it in a certain way, but you don’t want the bend to travel. A classic example is when doing barley-sugar twists: when you twist, the twist will carry on down the bar for as long as the metal is hot enough. If you want to confine the twist to a certain area, you have to quench the rest so that it won’t twist. It always amazes me that metal can go from hot to cold in such a short distance. But it works.

Quenching (which can also be done in oil or forced air) also forms part of the tempering process. When you quench metal, this hardens it. However, hard metal has the tendency to shatter if put under too much pressure, so if you want to make it springy, you have to take some of the hardness off. This is tempering. Basically, you cool your item fast (by quenching), then heat it up to a lower heat (e.g. 200-300 degrees Celcius, depending on what sort of tempering you want) and let it cool down slowly. Tempering depends on the temperatures used and how quickly the metal is cooled.

So, in conclusion, the things you basically need to get right are:

  • Is your man a blacksmith or farrier by trade, or is he a hobbyist?
  • What type of stuff does he make?
  • What equipment does he have?

I might write a bit on different metals later, if anyone’s interested.

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