Teaching, Learning and Being a Blacksmith on the Internet

     I am a big fan of learning from the internet, just today I watched a few videos on how to fix my washing machine, and it went pretty well.  There is a ton of info about everything you might want to know, no matter how weird.  I love it! 

     It also happens to be a good place to help you learn about blacksmithing.  I have been a lurker and sometimes poster on several metal working, blacksmithing and knife making forums on the internet, and it has really been a boon to my knowledge base and skill level. 

IT WILL NEVER REPLACE LEARNING FROM A REAL LIFE AND EXPERIENCED SMITH.

But I will say you can learn quite a bit.  As I learn and grow with experience I find I have things of my own to share and to teach as well.   The thing is I often see folks posting incorrect information.  I also see folks who should be teaching instead inadvertently(so I hope) discouraging people from getting started by answering simple questions with non-constructive criticisms and unhelpful advice.

So I thought I would share my ideas on this subject, maybe it will help some folks more easily navigate learning and teaching blacksmithing on the internet.  Maybe someone will drop a power hammer on my porch in the morning.  I mean come on it could happen right?

 When I was first getting started I knew next to nothing.  I was asking the classic questions "What kind of steel should I use?"  "If I want to make a sword what size stock should I start with?"

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"Can I make a knife out of this?"

 

 

 

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"How about this?"

 

 

 

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"Can I make a knife out of this?"

 

 

New folks ask stupid questions, and it becomes very hard to answer the same stupid question over and over again.  When its coming in from a forum, or facebook, these questions on an emotional level feel like they are coming from the same person over and over again.  So as a teacher it gets frustrating to answer the same dumb questions over and over again.  Remind yourself that these are all new and disparate people of wildly different experience and back rounds.  Cut the new folk a break it's not their fault they don't know anything

As someone who has taken it upon yourself to teach and offer advice, it's really important to make sure the advice you offer is actually helpful.  Often when someone asks what stock size they need to forge a sword,  the answer I have seen from the unhelpful side of things is "If you need to ask you are not ready to forge a sword."  I am not at all saying that this statement is incorrect, it very likely is correct, the problem with it is that it doesn't answer the question asked.  It's really just a bit of unasked for advice.  If the person isn't ready to make a sword, they will learn that soon enough on their own. 

As a beginner going through the forums and asking questions, often times not even knowing the right questions to ask, I would very often get hit with a big ol' wall of negativity.  No you cant do that, no that wont work, if you have to ask then you wont be able to do it.  I hate that last one the most. 

I aint afraid of not having power tools!

I aint afraid of not having power tools!

After awhile I started to feel like I would never get into this game.  I would ask how to do a certain task, and was told I needed a powerhammer or a thermonuclear quenching vat if I wanted to really do it right.  I think it's important to remember that there are many different ways to preform a task. 

There is more than one method to heat treat a knife for example.  If I tell you I am a backyard smith, give me an answer that will suit a backyard smith.  Don't tell me I need to drop $1000 on some fancy bit of machinery if I really wanted to do it right.

When I post an answer I always ask my self three questions.

"Did my reply answer the question?"  "Was the answer I offered helpful" "Am I sure I am not talking out of my ass?"

If you don't have anything helpful to add, just dont post.  Its actually easier to post nothing than it is to work out a snarky unhelpful reply.

I think that's enough on the teaching end.  On the whole the people who voluntarily take time and effort to teach, very often for free, on various forums on the Internet are excellent at it and we should all be grateful for their help and advice.

Trying to learn through the internet can be pretty tough.  Here is the best way I have found. 

Google search blacksmithing club (your state here).

Find out when the next meeting is, and go to it.

Never touch your computer again.

LEARNING FROM AN EXPERIENCED SMITH IN REAL LIFE IS ALWAYS THE BEST CHOICE!

However, sometimes it's one in the morning and you cant very well go wake up another blacksmith and get them to show you something, you want to go on the internet and learn there.  Good, go do it.

My first bit of advice is to stop asking questions, and just read.  Likely your questions have all been asked already at least a thousand times.  Browse around that forum and read every post.  Get some books, read them.  This isn't high school, no one is making you do this, but if you really care about learning this Trade/Art/Craft you should naturally be curious about it and want to learn all you can.  If you dont have that kind of urge to learn then you may want to take a second look at why you are trying to do all this in the first place.

I can't tell you how many hours I have spent looking at what I call "knife porn".  Hours of scrolling through posts looking at other peoples works.  Reading the advice and forming my own opinions.  Good, Bad, Ugly, all of it gets fed into your brain and stored there.  Its like a good scrap pile,  you'll be able to dig around in there and pull some useful info out when you really need it.

So how do you know you are getting good information?  This is a tough one, and its why I suggest you do alot of reading, especially real actual books.  Publishers wont waste their money on an author writing a blacksmithing book, if that author doesn't know jack about the trade.  It's not good business.  So in general if you are getting conflicting info go with whats in a book over what someone says on the internet.  There are of course exceptions to this, but you are a blacksmith, so I am sure you are smart enough to figure them out.

Pay attention to the moderators, very often they are the most knowledgeable people you are going to get.  Its part of their role to make posts and correct wrong information, so in general if the moderator tells you something believe it.   After that it can be a crap shoot.  Anyone can say they have made a hundred gates for 50 years, anyone can sound like they know what they are talking about, not all of them do.

A little trick I have come up with which works especially well on Facebook, is I check out an individuals other posts.  If they have alot of pictures of their iron work you can get a very quick sense of their skill level and experience.  I cant tell you how many times I've seen someone act like they know what they are talking about only to go to their FB page and find a hundred photos of Silly Cats and just one photo of a knife like this.

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Just take the time to check on your sources, remember that you care about this stuff, so make sure you get it right.

Last bit of advice is this.  Don't be afraid to learn that what you have been doing is wrong.  This is advice for all of us, teachers and students alike.  We are here to learn our craft, to make cool, beautiful, and useful items.  It does no one any good, especially yourself, to be stubborn and close minded.  Keep your brain open, keep it willing to change as new skills and information become available.

Last off I wanted to suggest some reading and a couple forums that I like to go to, that I feel are pretty good at handling beginners and really seem to have a good helpful communtiy.

Blacksmithing for Beginners on Facebook is an excellent resource

Bladeforums http://www.bladeforums.com/  These guys are really top notch when it comes to knives and blades.  Stacy A Pelt is the moderator for the knifemakers section and really knows his stuff.

Books

The Complete Bladesmith by Jim Hrisoulas

New Edge of the Anvil by jack Andrews

This is where i got started.  So good luck, keep hammering, stay safe.

 

 

 

Hammer Time

Alright well, I've got something more to talk about, so for those of you who care to read, come on in! 

I want to talk about my process a little, and also about what makes a Bladesmith different from a knife maker. When I first got in to this whole MAKE HAMMER SMASH business I had no real understanding of what was involved at all.  I had read many a novel of Swords and Sorcery, played many a game of Dungeons and Dragons, but hadn't been the least bit interested in Building Character and Sheds with my Dad.

Don't get me wrong I played a heck of a lot of football, and had a job since I was 16.  I wasn't lazy, nor was I uncoordinated,  I just preferred to spend my time in more intellectual pursuits.   Building things, makings things (other than love and music) did not appeal to me, for some reason it always felt like a chore.  As a young man I really hated doing chores.  Mowing the lawn, cleaning my room, fixing the shed door, I always said to myself"It's just going to get dirty again tomorrow, so why bother cleaning it today."  Kinda dumb really, but I fought such things tooth and nail at the time.  I still hate mowing. 

The hand of a Blacksmith and a Gamer!

The hand of a Blacksmith and a Gamer!

Anyway building or making or anything like that just felt like kind of a chore.  When I finally decided to get into blacksmithing, I came at it from a direction that a good deal of smiths hate hearing.  I WANTED TO MAKE SWORD BECAUSE VIDEO GAMES!  This is a real thing that certain smiths get mad at.  I can see their point to a degree.  They've spent a good deal of effort and blood and sweat to achieve a skill that is not only physically demanding, but requires a fair amount of finesse, as well as some science. Here comes some punk kid with tattoos and a raccoon tail thinking he can learn how to make a "Buster Sword" whatever the heck that is.  It takes long hours and real skill, and having been one of those former punk kids(never with a raccoon tail) I can tell you I had NO idea what all was involved.

See, I know what that is!

See, I know what that is!

 

There was one thing I did know about the process however, and that was hitting something glowing red with a hammer, on top of an anvil.  The image of a man in a dimly lit room with a fire to his left and a black iron anvil to his right;  sparks fly and the anvil sings as he forges out an elegant blade or fearsome axe;  quenching the steel in a hiss of steam and flames, the smith tests the edge by cutting clean through an ironwood tree trunk.  This was what I wanted to do, what I wanted to be.

Hammering at the anvil is the fun part.  Its the part that gives us our name.  Blacksmith.  We aren't Ferrousgrinders, or MetalBenders.  When I tell people I make knives they sometimes don't even know the words for it, but they will say "Do you...?" and make little hammering motions with their hands.  When that happens I really want to be able to say YES I DO! So with any smithing task I take on, I try to do as much hammering as possible.  It's a challenge for me in a way.  Get as much of your steel to its final shape as possible using only the hammer and anvil.  Its a fun way to build better skills and hammer control.  It's amazing what you can do with just a hammer and a flat surface.

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Of course this isn't to say I don't have a super sweet 1hp belt grinder at my beck and call.  I just try to use it sparingly.  It's part of the reason a lot of my knives have that textured finish.  That is what the steel looks like fresh out of the forge.  I feel like it helps me to differentiate my work as a bladesmith, from someone that only grinds away metal using machines, aka knifemaker.  It doesn't inherently make for a lower quality blade using these other methods, but I do feel like I have a lot more control as I create.  I get to live out this childs fantasy while at the same time making a living, making art, and making a useful high quality tool.  I don't get that feeling grinding away in front of a machine.  It's just not my style.

So finally I want to just share some things about the knives I make that also help to set them apart, and show that a real blacksmith made them.

I forge a distal taper.  That means the blade is thicker at the base, and gradually gets thinner towards the point.  This is not an easy thing to do well unless you are a smith.  Most knife Grinders don't bother to do it.

I do all my own heat treating.  This is where the real heart of a blade is born.  I do it all myself at my own shop with my own two hands.  Some knifemakers send their knives out to a third party to be heat treated.  There are ways of tempering and quenching that lend added strength and flexibility to a knife that you just don't get when it's been done at a factory.

 

Seem what you want to be.  Be what you seem.  Thanks for reading.

The First Riddle: Fire is Hot

So, lesson one as a blacksmith is this:

Fire is hot. 

This is both a warning and a lure.  Who hasn't started throwing things in a fire just to see what happens?  Fire is hot.........but how hot?  Can it burn this plastic army guy?  Caaaan it burn a tin can?  A recliner?

Now imagine it's the Stone Age, and all you have for entertainment is a story about what happened at the last hunt, or you can play the throw-things-in-the-fire-and-see-what-happens game.  It's the best thing going.  Mind you, there is no fire marshal to stop you from making a fire as big as you wanted.  Of course if it gets too big it may get out of control, but that's how we learn.  So humans are learning a few things here, how to control fire, how to make it burn hotter, and what happens to stuff that gets thrown in.  Over the course of human history LOTS of things got thrown in.

Some things that probably shouldn't have. 

One thing that was thrown in, but initially didn't seem like alot of fun, was rocks.  Except some rocks melted, that was kinda cool.  This is the first step on the road to blacksmithing.  The guys that like melting rocks. 

Okay I am really over simplifying things here.  I know the march of human progress was a lot more involved than all that, but look at how many of our most basic crafts involve transforming substances through the use of fire.  Cooking, Pottery, Glass Blowing, Metal Working.

Now when learning the art of blacksmithing tending the forge fire is the most important skill.  The word for Forge is used to refer to the workshop as a whole.

Here's a picture of the Crooked Path Forge.

 

Or it can mean the actual hearth in which the heating of metal occurs.

 

This is my forge.  There are many like it, but this one is mine.  My forge is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life.

Yaw and the Dreamers Gate I helped him build.

Yaw and the Dreamers Gate I helped him build.

I was apprentice to this dude in Hawthorne named Yaw Owusu Shangofemi.  The guy was a great teacher.   He came straight from the old school of Charleston SC smithing.  He himself was an apprentice to Phillip Simmons, a real master.  Anyway, learning from him was pretty intense, real wax on wax off stuff, you know work.  The thing he made me learn first and best was how to tend the fire.  Here is a sampling of the tidbits I learned:

Fire-is-hot Sub-Riddle

A :  Metal can burn!

B:  Just because it isn't glowing any more doesn't mean it won't turn your hand into crispy bacon!

C:  Don't stare into the fire, it will hurt your eyes

D:  Don't stare into the fire, you'll blink and come to an hour later

E:  Don't stare into the fire, it will suck you in.

I stared at the fire a little too much.

Makers Mark


This is my makers mark. It stands for the Crooked Path Forge. If I made it it'll have this mark on it somewhere. It's not a stamp, I cut each line with a chisel. Like a signature, you can always tell it was done by my hand, but each one is just a little different. The mark is made from 4 runes from the Anglo-Saxon futhorc. The first 6 runes of the Anglo Saxon Alphabet spell out futhorc, hence the name.

 

There's the full alphabet.

Each rune has a sound just like in our alphabet, but each symbol by itself also has a meaning.

I made whats called a bind rune, which combines two or more runes into one, to kind of blend the meanings of each symbol to roughly translate into the words "Crooked Path"

So I combined   Year, and Ride, and, Tyr and Ash(as in the tree, but also fun because a smith makes ash in the forge).    Here's where I start to use my own inspiration to interpret the runes(i.e. I'm just making it up)

The firsttwo runes I used meaning Year and Ride, I kinda figured could work for Crooked.  Part of the Point of the Crooked Path, is that nothing has a straight line, and as your life takes you through the year, it's always full of ups and downs.

Path was a little tricky.  I mean I could have used the Riding rune again, but I didn't want to.  So I figured I wanted to hint at the destination of the path a little and so the Tyr rune worked pretty well for me. 

There's a poem that is used to help remember all the meaning of the runes, it's kind of like the alphabet song, only for Vikings.  In the poem Tyr's stanza is:

"Tyr is a guiding star;

well does it keep faith with princes;

it is ever on its course over the mists of night and never fails."

We may get a little mystical here, so deal with it.  That spoke to me pretty strongly.  Guiding Star, always keeping faith, coursing through the night and never failing.  That all felt a lot like what I was trying to do when smithing, and also how I wanted others to feel about my finished work.  Never failing.

Then comes the Ash rune.  Well, ashes and blacksmithing is a no brainer, but the rune really points to the Ash Tree, otherwise known as the World Tree.  It winds it's way through all the possible worlds tying them together with root and branch and stem.  I couldn't think of a more crookeder path than that.

So there you go.  That's what the runes mean.