Men have been heating and hammering metal for 10 000 years. We figured it was high time we, too, learned how.

If you want to work with metal, there’s one thing you have to confront: you need heat. With it, you can make the toughest metal submit to your will. Without it, you’ll never gain full mastery over this stubborn material.

Over the years, I have been frustrated by my inability to work hot steel. I’ve bolted metal together, welded it and soldered it. But I couldn’t shape it, and so large swathes of the mechanical realm were off-limits to me. But blacksmithing never felt alien. My father is a metallurgist, descended from generations of 19th-century blacksmiths and born in Germany to shipbuilders whose forges scattered sparks over the shores of the Elbe River and the North Sea. I grew up in rural Connecticut among Yankee mechanics who could forge anything, machine anything, build anything, fix anything – and I’ve been trying to live up to those old-timers’ standards all my life. It wasn’t hard to finally decide to take another step, and teach myself some blacksmithing skills.

What we used
Anvil
Ridgid Peddinghaus Model 12. Strike hot metal on this 125 kg anvil and it rings like a bell (ridgid.com). Also try: Topfast, Paarden Eiland, Cape Town, telephone (021) 511-4477.

Forge
A two-basin stainlesssteel sink serves as the centre of our blacksmithing setup. One basin is fillled with water, forming a quench tank. The other is lined with furnace cement, then covered with firebricks laid in place without mortar. A cast-iron floordrain cover laid over the sink’s drain forms the tuyère, the port where a blast of air (supplied by a workshop vacuum) enters the coal bed from below.

Refractory cement, brick
Refactory cement is trowelled into the sink to protect it. Firebrick is sold at masonry centres. More information: Cape Refractory Industries, Epping, Cape Town, telephone (021) 534-1136.

Forge fuel
Coal and charcoal are available from suppliers in most big centres.

Hood and vent
Twenty-gauge sheet-metal and a 125 mm galvanised stovepipe formed the forge’s hood and vent. The materials are commonly available at home centres and hardware outlets.

Striking tools
A standard builder’s four-pound hammer may look like the right thing, but it’s not recommended because it’s too wide and too hard, and is prone to nicking the anvil. The same caution about hardness applies to a ball-peen hammer. A specialised blacksmith’s hammer (seen here) or engineer’s hammer is hard to find locally; you may have to import. See coopertools.com.

Tongs
Wolf-jaw tongs are a generalpurpose tool, and the best choice for beginning smiths.

Twisting

Secure a heated bar in a vise and turn one end with a wrench. If you’re twisting stock with a rectangular cross section, place a short piece of pipe over the stock to prevent distortion as you twist.

Upsetting

Heat the end of a bar and place its hot end down on the anvil’s face or on the upsetting block that projects from the base, if your anvil has one. Drive the bar into the anvil by striking the cold end. This thickens the hot end, transforming it into a bulbous shape.

Flattening

Lay the bar across the anvil’s width to flatten its end. To straighten and flatten a bent bar, lay it across the anvil at an angle.

Choosing steel

Low-carbon steel is fine for most projects, but highcarbon, S7 tool steel (bottom) is better for shaping implements that need to hold an edge. Information: Bohler Steel Africa, Isando, Gauteng (011) 974 2781.

Building the forge
Maybe it’s because our smokestack industries are in decline that a rising number of Americans feel the need to get their metalworking fi x in home workshops. The Artist-Blacksmith’s Association of North America counts a membership of 4 000 hobbyists and professionals. Some people estimate there are more blacksmiths in this country today than there were during the 1800s. And you don’t have to poke around long to find dozens of Web sites offering friendly – even passionate – advice from artisans, along with equipment ranging from anvils and tongs to air-driven power hammers.

First, I needed a forge. I considered buying a gas-powered model, but the fact was that I wanted to build my own. So I settled on a design that can be executed in an afternoon using parts purchased at a home centre, a masonry supply yard and a car spares store. The forge would burn coal, rather than gas, to make things simpler. And the design had another virtue, at least as far as I was concerned. It was based on plans published in Popular Mechanics in July 1941. I enlisted the help of Mike Allen, our senior auto editor and a crack metalworker. He glanced at the old plans and said, “Sure, we can build this.” Within days, Mike’s house and the shop behind it swirled with activity as the courier company delivered in rapid succession a 125 kg anvil, tools, materials and four boxes of blacksmith’s coal.

(Top South Africa artist blacksmith Conrad Hicks says that anvils can be bought locally at suppliers such as Topfast in Paarden Eiland, Cape Town, and at agricultural co-ops. However, Hicks warns against cheaper low-quality units from the Far East. He also prefers to minimise the use of coal and makes his own charcoal – see “Theatre of dreams”.) Once the supplies were in, we set to work building the forge, beginning with its stand. I cut steel parts and handed them off to Mike, who laid them out on the shop floor, clamped them together and temporarily tack-welded them with small globs of steel.

With the stand tacked, he flipped up his mask and handed me the welding gun: “You take it from here.” I slid on a mask and picked up where he’d left off. As I worked, Mike crouched over my shoulder and f red off bits of advice. “Get more weld metal on the vertical surfaces,” he said. “You’re getting too much spatter; reduce your travel speed and your electrode stick-out.” When I found it difficult to see through the welding glare and smoke, he said, “Deal with it. Look at the weld puddle, not the arc.” I learned more about welding in that half hour than I had in years of fooling around on my own. After we had completed the stand, we riveted sheetmetal into a hood and fashioned a chimney from a 1,5 m piece of stovepipe. Then, we trowelled refractory cement (the kind used in furnaces and kilns) into the sink. We ran steel and PVC pipe from the drain to the output port on a workshop vacuum. The same line would supply air both to the sink (to feed the fire) and, through a Y joint, to another pipe leading into the chimney (to help pull the smoke up and away). We installed a valve to let us direct the air where we wanted it. We also cut pressure-treated timber beams to make a block for the anvil, then hoisted the anvil on to the block using a tow strap hooked to a ceiling-mounted electric winch. Finally, we hammered 3 mm steel fl at stock into straps to attach the anvil to its block. Believe me, 15 minutes spent pounding cold steel can convince anybody of the need for a forge. Now we just had to let the furnace cement cure overnight.

Firing the coal
I arrived at Mike’s workshop early next morning to find him puttering around, a cup of coffee in hand and another, recently poured, waiting for me on the workbench. “Ready for fire?” he asked.

We carried the forge outside and in a light autumn wind used a propane torch to ignite crumbled shipping paper and kindling split from the pallet the anvil had been shipped on. When the fire was bright and hot, we coaxed some coal onto it, and watched anxiously as it gave off a faint, yellow-green, sulphurous smoke. We added more fuel. The fire smouldered stubbornly, but when we turned on our high-powered vacuum, the blast of air knocked our little coal pile out of position. We pushed the smouldering pieces back with a steel bar and tried again, without success.

Mike grabbed an air hose and nozzle from his workshop compressor and applied a gentle draught. Now the coal started to glow. We added more fuel, and the smoke nearly disappeared. We turned on the vacuum again. With that, an impressive rushing sound came up from the forge, and the centre of the coal mound reddened like a stoplight. A few moments later, a bright yellow flame jumped from the fuel, and then a ghostly blue glow took shape above it. As it hovered, the blue light looked like a living thing.

Once the coal was burning well on its own, I took a piece of scrap metal from the shop floor and wiggled the steel into the volcanic fuel bed. A couple of minutes later, we slid the metal out to fi nd that it had merely turned a light shade of blue – still not enough heat. Mike rotated the valve to make the vacuum’s entire air output rush into the fire, feeding the flames.

(This iswhere the old blacksmithing term “full blast” comes from.) We watched in awe as a yellow-white glow took shape in the centre of the coal, and the steel was lost in the glare. The light was too intense to look at without shaded eye protection.

Working the steel
A couple of minutes later, I picked up my tongs and withdrew the steel. The end was now glowing bright yellow and spitting sparks – the temperature must have been up around 1 300 degrees. I laid the metal over the anvil’s edge and picked up our 3-pound (1 300 g) blacksmith hammer. A few whacks were all it took to put a neat bend in the bar. After decades spent struggling with hacksaws and rivet guns, I can’t tell you how gratifying it was to put a hammer to glowing steel and bend it like putty. Mechanical justice was done.

A long day followed as Mike and I practiced the basics of the blacksmith’s age-old craft: bending, flattening, twisting, tapering and upsetting – striking a bar to thicken and enlarge its hot end. We used angle iron to form the best coalhandling tool I’ve seen – a curved fi re poker worthy of a shipyard’s smithing shop. And we felt suffi – ciently emboldened to try our hand at forging a demolition chisel from a 20 mm dia. bar of tool steel, a high-carbon material far tougher than the stuff found at hardware stores. We had to let the steel soak in the forge fi re three times and swing the hammer for several minutes before it began to yield.

At sundown, we called it quits and let the fuel bed cool into ash. We swept the shop floor and put away our tools for the night, already planning future projects. Teaching ourselves forge construction and basic blacksmithing in two days was a good piece of work. But Mike had plans for a serpentine iron rack to store motorcycle helmets, while I wanted another go at shaping my own tools, designed uniquely for my needs. That’s how I imagine the Iron Age had been launched in prehistory, in a forge like the ones archaeologists have found scattered throughout Africa and the Middle East. Some guy needed a better tool, and figured out a way to make one.

It was dark by the time I dropped into the seat of my car and headed home. As I merged onto the highway and into a traffic jam, I saw the taillights of the cars ahead in a new way. Just for tonight, they didn’t represent a hassle. They looked like a gigantic bed of glowing coals, waiting for its steel.

Theatre of dreams
In the art deco shell of an old cinema in Observatory, Cape Town, blacksmith Conrad Hicks forges a vast range of metalwork that melds art and functionality.

A decade ago, Hicks bought the wreck of the Bijou, gutted by fire. In it he created The Blacksmith Forge. The cavernous interior, once lit by the projector’s flickering light, now echoes to the sound of hammer blows ringing in the forge’s glow, against the aural backdrop of soaring music.

Artist-trained Hicks designs and makes pieces as robust as gates and balustrades, and as delicate as jewellery. On the day we visit, he f shes out of his pocket something that gleams brightly in the gloom. It’s a wedding ring whose polished finish contains a filigree pattern created by the metal having been worked repeatedly.

Although over the years he’s taken on students and assistants, and is still passionate about passing on what he’s learnt, Hicks runs a oneman show. Lately he has become encouraged by the growing interest in the field. “Quite a few people have started to get involved,” he says.

“There’s a strong hobbyist movement.” Although he’s pleased about the upsurge of interest (“I get phone calls all the time”), he laments the loss of skills that vanished with the elimination of rural blacksmiths whose main work, admittedly, entailed fashioning spears.

One of the pleasing and at the same time challenging things about blacksmithing is that you make your own tools. “And you have to keep re-making them… you have to understand the properties of heat-treating. It is almost pointless buying tools.”

In the same vein, although blacksmithing has the potential to be extremely eco-unfriendly, Hicks has shown it can have a social conscience. He’s cut down on coal use because he felt uneasy about its impact on the environment. “Now I mix coal and charcoal – I make the charcoal myself.” Clearing rooikrans off his smallholding not only provides a steady supply of raw material for charcoal; it also eliminates an alien pest.