"Staring Into the Fire"

Histories Remembered, Techniques Explained,
Philosophical Musings  &  Legend Has It...

What is it about staring into a fire that causes us to wax philosophical? It’s been called “caveman TV”. It captivates and mesmerizes, partly because it has been so essential to man’s survival. With blacksmithing - it’s an occupational hazard.

Histories Remembered

Greek and Roman Periods of Blacksmithing

Today I want to touch briefly on a part of blacksmithing history that would fill several books if addressed properly; blacksmithing during the Greek and Roman periods.

For the major portion of Greek history, bronze was the main metal used to drive society forward. There is a long history of metalsmithing supported by archaeological evidence in the Aegean. These encompassed beautifully crafted items from weaponry and household goods to intricate mechanical devices such as the antikethera device which could calculate solar eclipses for millennia,

Iron became known and widely used toward the end of Greece’s prom-inence. But the successor of the Greek empire, Rome, used iron to control the world. The “Iron Heel” of Rome was a reference not only to the tendency of Rome to be overbearing and totalitarian, but also to the actual use of iron heel caps to make the Caligula (the Roman sandals) worn by the foot soldiers last longer.

The Romans were geniuses of organization and standardization. Every soldier in the Roman army, whether he was a native born Roman or a mercenary from occupied Gual, carried the same regulation weapons and armor. This allowed for standardized training so that the troops did not need to speak the same language as long as they knew the drill. This grim, quiet precision was quite unnerving to the less disciplined barbarian armies who fought with the ideal of individual prowess and glory. The Roman army, with their gladius’ and shield, moved like a machine to conquer everyone who opposed them.

Of course the unsung hero behind this behemoth was the blacksmith who had to forge the swords, lances, and helmets to specific dimensions. Apart from the large smithys in large cities that employed large forces of free craftsmen and slave labor, there were the smiths that had to travel with each army to affect repairs in the field as weapons and armor were damaged. Everything from the weapons of the common foot soldier to the huge machineries, catapults, and ballistas were the province of the smith to keep everything in working order.

As you look at any period in history, take a step back and look through a slightly different lens, and you will see the common working smith quietly plying his trade to make the accomplishments of heros and politicians possible.

To read our previous articles about the history of blacksmithing, please click on the links below:

Blacksmithing as a Foundation Craft

A discussion of how blacksmithing was required as the foundation for every other craftsman to create all other tools and implements.

The Origins of Carbon Steel

A discussion of the origins of carbon steel and the early history of blacksmithing.

How Old is the Craft of Blacksmithing?

A discussion of the origins of the craft and art of blacksmithing.

Techniques Explained

Punching and Drilling

As you progress in your learning of the craft of blacksmithing, eventually you are going to need to put a hole through a piece of steel, either to make a way to join two pieces with a rivet, or to make a mortise and tenon  joint, or a host of other possibilities. The obvious modern solution is to go to the trust motorized drill press and drill a hole. The older and oftentimes better way is to hot punch a hole in the iron.

Drilling a hole works by the sharpened edges of the drill bit cutting their way through the steel as pressure is applied, thus removing enough steel to create the desired diameter hole. By hot punching a small divot of metal the diameter of the hole is compressed and then punched out from the opposite side, thus less metal is removed and the sides of the hole are actually strengthened as the punch forces the metal around the hole to thicken a bit as it is driven through. The process of hot punching also takes less time and all the work is done at the anvil as opposed to walking to the drill press and drilling the hole. (If you don’t think those few steps matter, count them and ask yourself, “How many times will I do this in my work and to where could I be walking with this effort?”

In order to hot punch, you will need to tool up a bit. You will need to purchase or make some good tool steel flat ended punches in the diameters of the holes you will need. Since these will be used on extremely hot metal, you will need to either make a handle to hold the punch or plan on using a pair of vise grip pliers to hold it so your hand will not be directly over the hot iron.

The other tool you will need is a nail iron. This can be as simple as a piece of ½ inch thick steel with various sized holes drilled into it to correspond to your punch sizes. This allows you to punch the divot out without distorting the piece on which you are working.

The process of hot punching is simple but may seem awkward until you get the hang of it:

Heat your stock up to a good hot orange heat.

Place it flat on the anvil face.

Line up the punch where you want your hole and give it a good hard, solid blow with your hammer. Do this until you feel the punch hit solidly against the anvil.

Remove the punch and turn the piece over. You should see a round dark spot.

Place the nail iron on the anvil, and then place your piece on the nail iron, bottom side up. Even if the piece has cooled you should be able to see the round imprint created by the punch. Line the imprint up with the corresponding hole on the nail iron.

Place the punch directly onto the imprint and pop it with the hammer. (It is actually better if the piece has cooled a bit for this step as the disc from the imprint becomes a bit brittle and will punch out cleaner!)

Remove the punch and check the hole for size. If you are using a rivet or bolt and if you need to, reheat the piece and drive the tapered punch in until the desired size is realized.

This actually takes far less time to do than it takes to explain, and in time it will become so much second nature that you won’t even think about it as you reach for your nail iron and punch. Enjoy the journey!

God Bless and Happy Smithing!

To read our previous articles on blacksmithing techniques, please click on the links below:

Drawing Out

A discussion and explanation of the blacksmithing technique of "drawing out".


A discussion of the basic blacksmithing technique of "spreading".

Philosophical Musings

Freezer Cleanout!

       One of the biggest jobs on the farm is the care and feeding of the blacksmith. As David begins planting in earnest, I set myself to the task of cleaning out the freezer(s). This actually affects the entire farm since everything benefits from this chore.

       We have 3 freezers; a huge chest freezer (our first appliance purchase as a married couple!), an upright I inherited from my mother, and a small chest freezer we inherited from our daughter and son-in-law.

       In the big chest freezer, I have our “daily bread” items; food items in 2-person portions that we have ready to use to fix supper. This is also where we keep mre’s: meals ready to eat. I keep extra lunches in here for the blacksmith throughout the week as well.

       Invariably, there are some (quite numerous!) bags of frozen vegetables that never got canned, because of a hectic schedule or because there was a good sale. At this time, I start pulling out any bags that will make good soup. My can shelves are mostly empty so this fills them up and it takes only a minute to put ½ cup of each vegetable in wide mouth jars as I come to them in the freezer. The jars all sit on the table waiting as I empty a bag of green beans a portion at a time. Next some corn, then peas, then carrots. Finally I peel some potatoes and chop them and add a bit of chopped onion and garlic.

       Any frozen vegetable broth is quickly defrosted in the microwave and poured over the vegetables. I add a tsp. of salt to each quart, and place 7 quarts of vegetables into a pressure canner to begin processing. Then I start over. If I have a small portion of anything left, I put it into a divided plate to be filled for my beloved’s lunches. I still cook for 4, but now 1 portion is always a lunch for later in the week.

       Sometimes we have extra helpings of a vegetable at supper, but thanks to these little portions, I can still give him a rounded out meal for lunch.

       If I find something unidentifiable or totally repulsive in looks (it happens over time!), I throw it into a large water bath canner to thaw. These scraps go to chickens, pigs, or the compost heap.

       I keep a pen and paper handy to make note of what we need to put up this year. I also try to keep notes of what goes in, but there is always a day of grocery shopping that gets me home late and I don’t take the time to do this because I’m in a hurry.

       As I empty, I sort and reorganize what is left. The 2 baskets at the top hold meats (re-portioned and labeled from bulk shopping). Vegetables are under the baskets at the bottom. Extras like cheeses and breads between the fruits and vegetables. Prepared meals are stacked on top of these as well as the previously mentioned prepared lunches.

       The upright lives up at the smithy and holds our big cuts of meats, and whole chickens and turkeys. When the pigs are first slaughtered, most of it goes here. I freeze our meat in portions we would eat so eventually it gets brought down to the house freezer. We also keep all the nuts in here.

       Our little freezer holds portions of whatever I bought in bulk and re-packaged. Large bags of shredded cheeses, chicken breasts, meatballs, etc. all end up in shoeboxes in this little freezer. In this way, nothing is overwhelming the refrigerator freezer. Another plus is that should we lose power for any sufficient length of time, we will never lose all our food.

       Now that this chore is done, I can sit down and thaw my fingers while I plan this year’s canning. And finish canning the vegetable soup.


Life on the Anvil

            One of the dangers of spending long hours alone at the forge staring into the fire is the penchant to wax philosophical. For instance, the following is one of the life lessons God recently communicated to me. When we are going through really difficult times – when life closes in and it seems like we are in the midst of the fire – it easy to believe that God has forgotten us.

            However, as a smith, I know that when a piece of iron is in the fire, that is the time that I must be focused most keenly. If I leave the iron too long, it will burn up and be useless. If I don’t leave it in long enough, it will not be malleable enough to be shaped. It will be hard and resist my efforts to improve it.

When I shape a piece of metal on my anvil, I am breaking up the crystalline structure of the iron then repacking it closer together, which makes it denser even as it is thinned out. This is especially true in the making of a knife blade wherein the internal structure of the blade becomes denser closer to the edge, whereas with stock removal, the internal structure of the blade is the same throughout. It remains the same.

When we are “in the fire”, God is actually focused on us to bring us out at the right time to be shaped on the anvil of life. The hammer blows that follow the fire may be hard to endure, but God does not just remove from our being; he is repackaging our very self to have more structural integrity. When God, the Master Smith, finishes with us, we will be stronger, more useful, and more beautiful than before.

I know that these are tough times and many people feel the heat of the fire, but persevere. God isn’t finished shaping you yet. And we are all the work of His hands.

To read our previous articles on Philosophical Musings, please click on the links below:

Spring Fever

An article about life on the forge and farm.

"Legend Has It..."

The Blacksmith/John Smith and the Devil

Part 1

A Southern Appalachian Folk Tale

as told by Alan Longmire


Once upon a time there was a blacksmith named John. He was known as a stern fellow, since he didn't like to be bothered while he was working. He always shooed away the children who gathered at the door of the shop to watch the sparks fly, and woe to the person who dared touch his hammer! John wasn't really a mean man, he just wanted folks to leave him and especially his tools alone.

 Well, one day an old man came down the road and stopped at the shop. It was a really hot day, one of those where the heat waves off the road make it hard to see from one side to the other, when the road is dirt and only ten feet wide. Well, John took pity on the old man, and asked him to come into the shop and sit down, and even gave him a big frosty cold glass of lemonade. Since it wasn't a busy day in the shop, John even told a few stories and played a bit of fiddle while the old man recovered.

 The old man was extremely grateful, and when he had recovered from the heat he got up and said "John, I've got to tell you: everyone says you're a mean old so-and-so, but you've treated me as good as anyone possibly could. That's gonna stand you in good stead, because I'm not what I look like. I'm Saint Peter! And as a reward for how good you are to an old stranger, I'm gonna give you three wishes! Any old thing whatsoever you want, just tell me and it'll be so." Well, John looked at the old man (who now had a faint, but noticeable, halo, plus a bit of white shining through the seams of his old patched coat), and said "Anything I want?" Saint Peter said "Anything at all, I can make it happen."

Now, if you remember what I said earlier, you know that John was mighty particular about his tools and his shop in general, so it won't surprise you that John took a long look around his shop, squinting into the corners, hmm-ing and haw-ing, scratching his head, walking around (at least twice he glanced over at Saint Pete and said "Only three, right?"), picking things up, putting them down, and so on, before he looked St. Peter square in the eye and said: "All right. Wish number one. That rocking chair you're sitting in was made to fit me exactly. I don't mind you sitting in it, not for a second, but it gripes me to death when some lazy boot-scuffer comes in and kicks back in my chair when I'm tired and ready to sit a spell. I want you to make it so that anyone who sits in that chair besides me has to rock till I tell them they can get up."

Saint Peter's smile faded a bit, but he snapped his fingers and said "Okay, there you go. Now you've got two wishes left, choose 'em well!"

John smiled a bit with the corner of his mouth and said “It bugs the heck out of me when kids come in here and take my good hammer when I'm not looking. They bang on the anvil, they throw it on the ground, and one of the little cusses actually took it out in the road and hit rocks with it! I hereby wish that anyone who picks up that hammer besides me has to hit what I tell them to until I tell them they can quit!"

 Saint Peter pulled a sad face, and said "Now John, that's not nice, but I respect a man's tools. I don't like to, but (he blinked hard) there you go. It's done. Now what else do you want? Gold? A bottomless bag of rivets? I can do anything, and you've only got one wish left. Better make it a good one, 'cause I gotta tell you, I don't like the way you're going so far."

 This made John think a little harder, and pull his mouth in a bit, but finally he said "Pete, I don't have anything against anyone, I just want what I want, and I don't want anyone to run over me like I wasn't anyone. Did you see that big old rosebush beside the shop door when you came in?" Saint Peter relaxed a little bit, and said "Oh yes, it's a beauty. I bet you want me to make it bloom all year round, don't you? That'll be real nice, the Man upstairs won't mind that at all!" John replied "No, I don't want it to bloom all the time, that wouldn't look right. I've had it up to here with folks coming by and rippin' a branch of flowers off when they want to look fancy or when some young buck wants a flower for his girl. I want you to make it so that that rosebush will grab anyone who tries to pull a branch off it, pull 'em into the middle, and waller 'em in the stickers til I say they can go."

To be continued....

Solomon's MVP

Legend has it...that after Solomon’s temple was completed, he declared a banquet would be held to honor the greatest craftsman who worked on the building. Of course all the inhabitants were excited and there was much speculation as to who the greatest craftsman was.

On the night of the banquet, King Solomon arrived to a room full of artists waiting to be honored. The gold smith was sure he had offered the most beauty with all the finely wrought appointments for service. Likewise thought the silversmiths who had spent time and money in the making of their adornments. So thought the workers in ivory as well.

The woodworkers felt their carvings earned them the honor of greatest for all the fine appointments made in service to the King’s temple. The loggers bragged of the cedars they felled and transported to give the temple strength and beauty as well, not to mention the lovely fragrance they exuded.

The stone masons preened at the sheer magnitude their contribu-tions of strength and beauty in the stones they had cut, shaped and polished. These were the very foundation and walls of the temple; surely nothing could be greater!

At the back stood a massive man with an apron covered in soot. In fact his hands and face still bore the stains of the soot from his shop. The blacksmith, who had fashioned the braces for the cedar roofing, and made the chains that held the great oil lanterns that lit the temple. Tho’ he had scrubbed and scrubbed, he could not rid himself of the evidence of his labor. Because of this, he stood to the back trying not to call attention to himself. He was proud of his contribution and happy to come to the dinner and see the wise King, but he was also happy to remain in the background.

As the King ascended to his seat, he looked out over the assembly to choose the one who would be seated on his right in the seat of honor.

To the stone cutter, he asked “Where did you get the chisels and hammers you used to cut the stones?

The stone cutter replied, “The blacksmith made them for me.”

To the Head of the loggers he asked, “Who made the axes with which you felled the great cedars?”

The man replied, “The blacksmith made them.”

To the gold and silver smiths he asked, “Who made your chisels and hammers, and the small punches with which you wrought these beautiful pieces?”

They answered, “The blacksmith made our tools.”

And so it went; to every artist asked, the answer was the same: “the blacksmith made our tools.”

“What say you, Blacksmith?” asked King Solomon.

“Sire, you have heard from these men’s own mouths. When they speak of me they call me ‘blacksmith’. But when they honor me, they call me ‘Son of the Forge’. They don’t think of me as one of them, and they speak the truth. I am their superior, for without my labor first, theirs could not have labored. I offer my labors for the glory of Yahweh!”

Then King Solomon answered, “Son of the Forge, I honor you now, you worthy successor of Tubal-Cain. Take this seat to my right; it is your due.”

This is a retelling of an ancient Hebrew Legend.

To read our previous articles on Legends, please click on the links below:

Famous Blacksmiths:  Tubal Cain

A discussion about Tubal Cain, a blacksmith mentioned in Scripture.

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