Monday, January 15, 2018

References for the Beginner Blacksmith

I'm starting to prepare classroom materials for my upcoming stint as one of the instructors for the Haliburton College Artist Blacksmith program.

Here are my recommendations for books that can help the beginner into the work of the artist blacksmith. (In order of my preference)

Note that the links provided are set for Canada's Chapters/Indigo where possible.

the Backyard Blacksmith : Loreli Sims
Crestline - 2006

I know Lorelei loosely. She is a brilliant teacher, with long experience. Unlike many others, this book has exceptionally clear images that were purposefully shot to illustrate each point. This book is specifically aimed at the beginner, and I feel the best single guide in print.

the Complete Modern Blacksmith : Alexander Weighers
Ten Speed Press - 1997

I refer to this as the 'popular mechanics / hobby tinker' version of blacksmithing. There is little 'art' here, but lots of basic practical information. All that stuff you wish you paid attention to in grade 10 shop class. Beautifully clear drawn illustrations, so good that you can just look at the pictures and read the captions and get almost everything - with text easily as good. A gold mine for anyone setting up their own backyard first workshop.

Decorative & Sculptural Ironwork : Donna Meilach
Schiffer Publishing - 1999 (original 1978)

I had purchased the original version of this volume when both it, and my interest in blacksmithing was new. Donna was a professional writer who got interested in the (then) new artist blacksmith movement that was developing in the 1970's in the USA. The book is a well laid out general survey work, with chapters on major object types. There are short photo essays, illustrating how one working smith (of those times) undertook a process, leading to a finished object. This is followed with a set of 'boy I wish I had made that' object images within that object type. Both a good starting point into various techniques, and very inspiring collection of work.

Contemporary Blacksmith (series) : Donna Meilach
Schiffer Publishing (2000 +)
About a half dozen titles - all recommended

When Donna started working on a revised second edition of 'Decorative & Sculptural', she made an open call for additional photographs of current work for the new colour section. She got a landslide of images. Enough to fill a good half dozen additional volumes (!). Most volumes focus on a specific type of work (Architectural, Sculptural, etc), gathering together images of work undertaken in many artistic styles, all examples of the best contemporary artistic blacksmithing.

(no image available from Amazon)

New Edge of the Anvil : Jack Andrews
Skipjack Press - 1994 (original 1977)

Jack Andrews taught sculpture, including blacksmithing, in the America SW in the 1970's. The original version of this book was based on that experience - and the time of publication was almost the only thing available. This is a book firmly rooted in the 'hippy' movement of those times. The images are 'art' - but often do not clearly illustrate the intended concepts. There are some chapters on basic metallurgy and formulas for smiths that are very valuable. I personally find the point of view dated (and suggest your money is better spent on something given above).

Dover Pictorial Archive (series)
Dover Publication
dozens of titles - search ‘metalwork’

The Dover series are inexpensive reprints of images no longer holding copyright. Drawings or photographs, in black and white, usually with no commentary. An absolute gold mine of designs and details. Many less than $20.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Layered Steel / Global Markets (2)

...continues from yesterday's commentary...

Competition from Offshore / 3rd World

"One-of-a-Kind 14" Custom Handmade Damascus Steel Bowie Hunting Knife"
Selling price $125 CDN
Coldlands Knives - via Amazon

I've had a web site since about 1994. It is a large site, so both because of longevity and content = external linkages, and a published e-mail address, I get a huge amount of even business related spam.

About two weeks ago, I got sent an (unrequested) e-mail along with a (huge x 39) pile of images, detailing products available from a company in India :
We would like to introduce ourselves as manufacturers and exporters of all kinds of handmade  Damascus Steel & Stainless Steel knives. ... We offer competitive prices and quickest worldwide delivery. We also invite you to visit our website and see our wide range of knives. We can also provide you any kind of knives in any materials you demand. You are also welcome to send us sketch or photo of your design for make. Quantity does not matter. ...
Salahuddin World Class Hunting & Sporting Knives Company.
Pak Town Wazirabad 52000 ,District Gujranwala Pakistan.

both images from - Salahuddin World Class Hunting & Sporting Knives Company.

So - Primarily as an exercise, I took the trouble to look over the company web site.
- Generally, I found the overall quality of the offerings quite good. Finishing certainly looks excellent.
- The layer counts seen are nicely balanced to yield dramatic patterns - 'medium' density / layer counts.
- They obviously have a bundle of standardized forging methods, but at the same time, there is evidence of individual production (pattern variation) on each. (Digging through the web site does show use of what looks like a fairly small mechanical hammer. Use of simple hand grinding.)
- They obviously have a set of standardized blade profiles. These are then expanded by applying a fairly wide range of hilting materials and details.

Now - We all need to be aware that there are families in India and Pakistan who have been making extremely high quality cutting edges of all kinds - in some cases for * centuries *. This has included an * unbroken * tradition of working with layered steels. (And do remember - where does Wootz come from originally!)
Quality has never been an issue here - those craftspeople can certainly produce good work.
Blade * shapes * certainly have been a problem in the past.
I had seen some of the first lots of 'India made' blade blanks, a table full offered at the SCA's Pennsic War event, some point about 1978 / 79. These were still a bit rough in technique, and out of about 100 samples, I only found three that I thought were close to actual European historic patterns.

But face it - People are People, folks in India are at core as smart as any place else. India as a nation has certainly jump started into the Information Age way, way faster than 'the West'. At least in terms of progression from ox carts to internet within a single generation.

So I was curious. Outside of that huge e-mail, Salahuddin had been polite and business like. I had a number of direct questions about the product and the ordering mechanics, so I wrote back:

1) Prices
2) Minimum Order amounts
3) Shipping Costs
4) Alloy content / layer counts
Yes we can also supply blank blades and blank billets as per your requirements ( sizes ,patterns ,) .

1 ) Regarding the prices ,may we ask is that possible to send us art number from our website of the knife or blank blade in which you are interested ? So we can quote you prices accordingly .It would be highly appreciated .Would you please ? You are also welcome to send us your own design for price and make .

2 ) You can order in any quantity ,there is no minimum quantity .

3) The shipping charges depend on the weight of your package ,because we pay by weight to DHL courier company and we always charge shipping charges after weight the package .Because our consistency not allow to charge extra shipping amount to our valuable client .We hope you can understand .However we would like to tell you that we have very low shipping charges for Canada especially on big order packages. (*)
A couple of days later, I got the promised description on 4) Alloys and Layers:
Our Damascus steel is forged out of the steel sheets of grade AISI 1075 and AISI 4340. AISI 1075 is a high carbon steel that contains around 0.75% carbon. It is widely used to produce various types of springs and cutting tools. AISI 4340 is a low carbon and high nickel steel alloy. It contains 1.65% – 2% Nickel, 0.7% - 0.9% Chromium and 0.3% to 0.4% Carbon. 
Number of Layers, Initially a stack of 11 sheets of AISI 1075 & AISI 4340 is formed. The stack is then heated and hammer forged. The heating and beating process is repeated 4 to 5 times to get over 176 layers of high quality Damascus steel. 
Heat Treatment, Each blade is carefully heated to 1560 degree Fahrenheit, where after; it is oil quenched and tempered to achieve hardness above 56 on rock well scale.
I did dig through the offerings on the web site, and reply with some specific items. I had asked about specific sizes and prices. In some cases I had asked if it would be possible to purchase just the blade blanks (not finished as illustrated).
The prices are obviously US funds (converted in brackets into CDN funds)
For reference, I have pulled the object images off their web site.
Following are the info & price of the bars you requested .
HK 330 ,

WIDTH    :  2   INCH
PATTERN : Feather
PRICE : $28.00 ($36 *)
HK 331 : 

WIDTH    :  1.5  INCH
PATTERN : Feather
PRICE : $21.00 ($27 *)
HK 332:

WIDTH    :  1.5  INCH
PRICE : $18.00 ($23 *)

You are welcome to send us your own required size for price and make.

Sword price and size are following ,
HK 269-2 :

PRICE : $90.00 ($113 *)
HK-143 :

PRICE : $40.00 ($51 *)

Leather Sheaths Included in prices .Yes we sell without hilts .Also we can supply you any bars,billets in any size you demand .

Blank blades sizes are following :

PRICE : $22.00 ($28 *)

Back up to yesterday's commentary:

First - Commercial Sales
Take a look at the offering from Coldlands Knives at $125 (plus tax, shipping)
Compare it to the (larger) blade HK-143 at $51 CDN *.
I did check to see if that blade is one of the standard offerings from Salahuddin:
Salahuddin HK-300
I remain almost certain Coldlands is either purchasing from Salahuddin, or a close competitor in India.

Second - Billets.
These could be considered roughly equivalent to at least the layer count on my circa 1990's work (Note that I normally use a more complex alloy assortment, and with pattern welding usually use three or more rods).
Takes me two days / against roughly $ 25 - 35 *.

Third - Blade Blanks.
Similar to my own one piece 'heavy kitchen knives', HK-244 shown as comparison. I As a finished one piece design, I would charge for 9 inches x $40. (Again, I normally include an extra step of complexity - welding in the carbon core).
Takes me roughly 5 days / against roughly $30.

So, here is the thing
(Those intending to become full time bladesmiths take special note.)
Go back and read part one.
Run the numbers.

This is not intended in any way a criticism of Salahuddin.
They are producing good quality objects, making use skilled workers. They have miserable safety standards, microscopic wages (compared to Canada) and no comparison in operational costs. They are brilliantly using the internet to massive advantage for both research and sales.

But we just can NOT compete with these folks - if PRICE is the only comparison being made by North American consumers.

* One important caution : Prices here are NOT including the shipping cost. Possible entry duties (??)
DHL uses an overly complex 'contact for estimate' system.
Canada Post (Ontario to India) used for reference, suggests adding roughly $20 for a single / double item sized package (slow air + tracking).

Friday, December 29, 2017

Layered Steel / Global Markets (1)

American bladesmith Bill Moran had pioneered techniques for creating layered steels, in the late 1960's. Working through trial and (much) error, Bill had recreated methods used historically to create dramatically patterned surfaces by stacking differing iron / steel alloys, welding to solid billets, then folding / twisting / distorting the stacks. During the early 1970's first his, then an number of other 'master' bladesmiths slowly introduced this work to the blacksmithing community. Those who had figured these techniques out, were most typically pretty vague about exactly how it was done.

I first picked up the hammer as a student at Ontario College of Art, about 1978. (Initially almost accidentally.) It was not until later in 1979 that I finally managed to learn how to successfully forge weld. In those days, one of the marks of 'knowing the craft' was to be able to reliably create layered steels. After a single year at Black Creek Pioneer Village (1979), my access to a forge was limited. It would not be until I returned to BCPV in the late 1980's and into the early 1990's that I would really start developing my own skills with the layered steel techniques.

Some early layered steel knives - about 1993.
Bottom is flat stack (Damascus), Far right is twisted stack (Pattern Weld).
Long blade is antique wrought iron.
I was always most interested in the distortions created in the stack lines caused by the effects of hand hammering. Initially all my work was done entirely by hand - and always working alone. In these early days of the Wareham Forge, (in my mid to late 30's), it would take me a single working session of 2 1/2 hours to prepare, weld, draw out a knife sized billet. I could physically manage three such work sessions over two days - having to rest up the final half day. Typically starting with a 9 - 11 layer stack, that would yield me a billet of roughly 250 layers - large enough to make the two smaller blades seen above for example.
I have forged a lot of blades over the years, 'one forge session' for two or three knife blade blanks (again depending on size and profile).
In the early days, I did not have much shop machinery. I was doing my shaping and polishing on a 6 x 48 'wood worker's' belt sander. It typically took me two days to polish, heat treat, finish for hilting.
I never had a lot of interest in decorative hilts (the 'male jewellery' aspect of high end custom knifemaking). For the simple kind of slab hilts seen above, add another hour or two.
So - taken altogether, the two knives seen the image above represent :
- Investment in a basic forge and shop tools
- Development of about five years (trial and error) experience
- Total of 7 days (specialized and often exhausting) work
- (support of workshop, 7 days + expended materials and sundries)
= Two roughly 5 inch long finished knives.

I was charging $40 per blade inch back then, so (assuming they sold) = $200 each / $ 400 total.
That's $ 57 (gross!) per day.*

Now, things have changed, both for me personally, and most certainly within the 'artist blacksmith' community over the last 20 years :

1) For bladesmiths, the use of power equipment has increased dramatically. Air hammers had been uncommon when I started. Either people had to rebuild (often cranky) antique mechanical hammers, or invest $40,000 for a German built air hammer.
- Small user built air hammers are common today, at a *tenth* of the cost above. (see David Robertson)
- First Turkish copies (@$10 - 15,000), now low end Chinese copies (below $10,000) of those self contained air hammers are available.
- High speed, long belt sanders (incorrectly called knife 'grinders') are widely available. Typically in the $1000 range. Plans for home builds easy to find.

2) Techniques, based on new equipment types, have both changed and become widespread. Primary is the use of hydraulic presses to replace the actual hammer.
- Because a press gives a perfectly even compression, it becomes simple to produce perfectly even, straight layers. This makes the creation of geometric patterns (classic Middle Eastern 'Damascus') much, much easier.
- Use of thin shim stock and metallic powder for the starting layers, coupled with the flat compression of a press, allows for extremely high layer counts to be created in a single heat / compress / weld step. (200 - 400 layers in one cycle!)
- One of the latest trends is the production of large die stamp plates for presses. This allows the creation of perfect geometric patterns into those same high layer blocks - in a single compression.

3) Within Industrial knifemaking?
Large hydraulic presses + large propane forges + 'sheet & powder' + die stamps = creation of huge 'bricks' of starting layered material. High layer plates are cut off like slices of bread from a loaf. Coupled with water jet cutting, hundreds of individual blade profile blanks, machine ground to blades, can be quickly produced by totally mechanized methods.

"One-of-a-Kind 14" Custom Handmade Damascus Steel Bowie Hunting Knife"
Selling price $125 CDN
Coldlands Knives - via Amazon

Now :
- I have invested in a small (50 lb) air hammer. One of David Robertson's very first builds. Plus the large sized air compressor to run it. This tool allows me to do the work that exhausted me as a younger man, working by hand, both much faster and with less effort. What took me a half day session in 1993 I can manage in about an hour today. (Balance that against 2 1/2 hours being about all I can manage in the actual forge for a 'productive' shop day)
- I have invested in an 'industrial build' high speed sander. I'm still learning to use this tool to its best advantage. Still, I can complete in about two hours the work that in 1993 took me two days to accomplish.

With better experience and equipment, working against slower (older!) working ability? I could make those same two 5 inch knives in about 5 days now (although I have never tracked it). So - again taken altogether, the two knives seen the image above represent :
- Investment in a basic forge and shop tools, specialized machine tools
- Over 30 years accumulated (and specialized) experience
- Total of 5 days (specialized and still exhausting) work
- (support of workshop, 5 days + expended materials and sundries)
= Two roughly 5 inch long finished knives.

I'm still quoting $40 per blade inch = $200 each / $ 400 total.
That's $ 80 (gross) per day.**

I don't make those kind of knives any more :
- My interest in simple commissions - 'making other people's stuff' has almost completely disappeared.
- I'm not at all interested in fighting with people who do not understand 'the Iron Triangle' (pick ONE of cheap / fast / good - and ONLY one!).
- I'm fed up with dealing with people who have 'Reality TV' and 'True Facts' as their understanding of the world.

'Ramsay Wedding Knife' - 2007 ***
Pattern welded with carbon core - bog oak handle.
One of my last commissions - the customer had realistic budget, generous design requirements
'Hector's Bane' - 2012 ***
Bloomery iron with carbon core
Extension of earlier work :
Highly decorative but functional cutting edges
One piece blade to full handle
use of bloomery iron

The upcoming increase to Ontario Minimum Wage was part of the incentive for this piece.

* Note that I'm just giving the 'in the forge' time here. More typically at that point, I was averaging 90 hours total business related work per 'week' (6 1/2 days work over each 7).
$400 / 90 = $4.45 per hour
In 1993 the Ontario minimum wage was $7.25
That 'shop wage' is also the GROSS - it does not take into account the actual cost of 'keeping the lights on' for the workshop. 

** Again - that is current 'in the forge' time here. I typically spend 10 hours 'work' per day (attempting to limit to 6 days work over each 7).
$400 / 60 = $8.00 per hour
On January 1, 2018 the Ontario minimum wage will be $14.25
The current 'shop cost' ('keep the lights on' - 2016 figures) works out to $4 per hour ($40 per day).

*** With work * I * want to make, pricing is a bit more 'realistic' (??)
- Ramsay Knife - took about 5 days to make. Made as single object. Bog oak specially ordered for this commission.
Total was $450
- Hector's - took about about 5 'days' to make. Uses half a bloom, which alone requires $300 raw materials, ideally assistant for one day. Made as one of pair (other had dramatic failure, never completed).
Asking Price = $1000

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Blast from the Past

... on several levels.

I  have slowly been working through scanning the better part of 20 years of colour slides into digital format. Most of these are reference - taken at museums, living history sites or workshop events.

Here are a few from a trip to Stirbridge Village, Mass. Should have been 1990.

Foot Powered Treadle Hammer

Overall View
Hammer & Die (diagonal bar seen is support when not in use)
Planks forming the 'spring'
This is a very simple construction, in use allowing the heavier leg muscles to provide the motion, and the inertia of the heavy head the striking force.

The major element is the heavy log (was hardwood about 16 x 16 inches) that provides the stable base for the hammer. It is also a fair size, I remember it as about 8 - 10 feet long.
The hammer head pivots on a simple bar driven between the pair of upright supports.
The hammer is held at rest by being attached, via a chain, to a set of thin planks. These need to be quarter split (dead straight grain). There were several of these, each about 1/2 inch thick, attached to the rear of the beam.
The hammer was attached to a foot lever, which extended down the right side of the beam, to a suitable position for the operator's right foot at the front. (not seen in these images unfortunately). The attachment I remember as having some combination of offset and split linkage (?) reducing the impact shock and spring effect from the hammer lifting.

How it works:
The operator balances back on the left foot.
Push down with the right, which pushes the hammer down against the spring of the planks.
On impact of the head on the metal being worked, the operator allows his driving foot to stop pushing.
The spring planks then lift the head back upwards.
Repeat as the spring pressure stops, driving the head back down for a second impact.
The operator and spring combination is actually just working to oscillate the head up and down - not force it. It is the inertia of the hammer head that creates the force.

I watched the blacksmith at Stirbridge work 1 x 1 stock on this - pretty much draw to a short point in one heat.

Circa 1830's design, if not earlier. Still effective...

This basic principle is the same that is used for the the original ABANA 'push / pull' small air hammer. I have an early version of this type in my own workshop:
50 lb air hammer (light blue) in the corner of the forge area
My air hammer was built by David Robertson, way back about 2000. It is rated for 1 1/2 x 1 1/2 stock - but has been used for as heavy as 1 1/2 x 4 (!). David's current versions (which he sells) are significantly better in design, operation, and stability. One limitation of the type is that it requires a large stand alone air compressor for working air.

February 15 - May 15, 2012 : Supported by a Crafts Projects - Creation and Development Grant

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