Saturday, January 06, 2007

Blacksmith Equipment 1775 - 1812

Robert wrote:

> Have a quick question for you to ponder. What is available as regards to
> Blacksmithing history? The time I am interested is around the American
> Revolutionary War Period say between 1775 and 1812. My wife and I have
> joined the Kings Royal Regiment of New York and they have need of some
> blacksmith work and this has led to the question above. My interest
> would be in the tools used and what the smith had available to him as
> regards a forge etc.

The answer to exactly what equipment would have been used by a given blacksmith in a specific period of history often depends on WHERE as much as WHEN. This is particularly true of the Settlement Era here in North America. (The principle applies to other eras as well.) Although you may not realize it, your specific reference (english / military / New York / 1775 - 1812) has a LOT of variables attached to it. These can drastically effect the equipment used by an individual blacksmith.

The majority of Settlers into 'the Colonies' would have been from the British Isles, and generally you should look to patterns used by blacksmiths there during the 1700's. Looking at what was common:
• Coal was the primary fuel.
• Air was directed into the * bottom * of the fire box. The fire box itself was set with some type of ash / clinker breaker at the bottom, with a T shaped fitting to pass this air while directing ash away past the flow.
• Bellows were of the 'Great Bellows' type. This is two large chambers set one on top of each other, hinged at one end. The lower bag was attached to the lever, with air from the lower bag being pushed into the second upper bag. This second bag would in turn be attached to the forge inlet tuyere.
• The normal set up for an English bellows is for the bellows to be set on the floor with the outlet pipe to be short and straight into the tuyere. The operating lever is set high, attached by a length of chain to the lower bellows plate. It hangs around head high, so as to be moved with the left hand.
• The standard blacksmith's shop was as a large, permanent facility. Typically the frame of the forge was made of brick or stone, with a similarly constructed chimney.
• Anvils of this time period are * just starting * to assume the shape that we consider the traditional form.
In 1750 an anvil is most likely to be a rectangular block, either with no horn at all or at best a very small one. This horn is sometimes mounted to the front side of the anvil, rather than the left end as came to be standard latter. Without a horn, curves were created by using a second forming surface, a large T shaped 'stake anvil'.
By 1810 - 20, the introduction of steam power is resulting in a drastic change in the mechanics of forming anvils. The much heavier steam hammers allowed ever larger masses of metal to be formed. Anvils will first adopt the pattern we are familiar with today - a horn and tail drawn (or welded to) a rectangular body. With passing years and ever heavier powered hammers, the horn especially will come to be more slender. ( This in fact is a rough guide for judging the age of an anvil - the chunkier the body the earlier it is likely to be.)

So the first variable from this initial description will be the influence of LOCATION.

Coal is widely available in all of the United Kingdom. Not only just coal, but the wide range of both grades and qualities of coal suited for specific applications. Ideal blacksmithing coal is softer bituminous coal, hopefully with as low a sulphur content as possible. Hard anthracite coal is great for steam engines or home heating, but not really useful in the forge.
The situation in North America is quite different. By the mid 1750's, coal had been discovered in both the 13 Colonies and the Canadas, transportation was extremely difficult. So much so that coal used in forges here was more likely to be transported from England via ship than dug on this side of the Atlantic. This of course means that only areas with easy water transport are likely to have any access to blacksmithing coal.
Fortunately for the growing colonies, there was a more ancient fuel available in abundance, charcoal. Charcoal can be made 'easily' (at the expense of labour) any place there were trees. A supply of wood was hardly a problem, especially into the interior (and farther away from the transportation network). It should be realized however, that the English trained blacksmith had been using coal as the primary fuel since about the 1400's. A charcoal forge works quite differently than a coal one, in terms of how it heats and how it effects the metal. One large difference is that a charcoal forge is most commonly set up with a SIDE blast of air. Typically the tuyere is positioned 2 - 4" above the bottom of the fire pot, to prevent the accumulation of ash from blocking the air flow.

(As a side note here, you can often see the mark of the charcoal forge on Settlement Era forge work. A typical charcoal forge heats only 4" of metal length, where in coal a heat of 6" or more is standard. Often twisted bars will show this distinctive short heat zone.)

Now the next variable to influence our hypothetical historic blacksmith is the description as being involved with the MILITARY, and the English Army specifically.

A blacksmith directly attached to the Royal Army would have access to imported coal. Supplies of proper smiting coal would have been shipped in with all the rest of the support materials for the unit.
Most importantly, a military blacksmith, especially one working 'on campaign' during a war, would be utilizing a MOBILE forge set up. During the War of 1812 (for which I have seen better references) there was a normal piece of equipment used by these traveling military blacksmiths. An old to wheeled ammunition cart was converted into a purpose built forge. The bellows was slung under the frame (more to the tongue end). Back between the wheels, either a metal basket or a frame to hold some bricks supported the actual fire pot itself. The small anvil and stub would be set on the wagon frame to transport, otherwise set on the ground close at hand to the forge in use. A good reproduction of such a rig, researched and build by Lloyd Johnson, is at Historic Fort York in downtown Toronto.

I have seen another interpretation of a mobile forge, this one built by a Virginian blacksmith/re-enactor ( Military Through the Ages at Jamestown Historic Settlement in Virginia). The fellow described the forge as being based on early American Colonial types. There the whole unit was roughly cube shaped, with two removable light cart wheels and pair of pushing handles. The bellows was an accordion style that fit under the lower part of the frame. The fire box sat directly above this, a fairly simple box of fire brick inside the wooden frame. The forge was more suitable for light work or repair - but this is the type of work most common to the military blacksmith on campaign anyway. The smith told me he was able to use either charcoal or coal with the setup.

One thing I should mention to those concerned with historical accuracy:
The small bowl furnaces with attached rotary blowers are definitely NOT CORRECT for anything before the American Civil War. The first of these units was introduced into the 1870's. If you can find one with the lever and ratchet mechanism, these are the oldest type. (Although I will tell you this is my * least * favorite system - of any historic type!). A bowl forge with a straight rotary hand cranked blower is closer to the 1880's or latter. The heavy rectangular table forges with large rotary blower even later still.

What you have here first a problem with survival of the historical samples. The type of traveling forges used by military blacksmiths' during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 were of necessity of wooden construction. The pairing of wood frames and forge temperatures is a bad mix for durability! As well these were deliberately 'temporary' pieces of equipment, never intended for long term use. They were easily cast aside, and the intervening two centuries has meant few have survived.

Any re-enactor concerned with strict authenticity is facing a serious undertaking if they wish to research and construct the correct replica equipment that would have been actually used by a late 1700's military blacksmith.


Anonymous said...

At the 7 year's war rendevous at Fort La Presentation this last summer, the blacksmith used traditional "great" bellows, but a bit smaller than usual for ease of traveling. The forge was a wooden box, lined with clay. He burned coal, not charcoal.

This is the simplest forge I have seen for making the long, narrow, knifemaking heat.

Anonymous said...

This is designed specifically for charcoal, and varies in many respects from a normal forge. For one thing, there is a huge area below the air source. I would be interested in the physics of why this would be better than air from below.

Kris Kersch said...

Tried this before with no response. My Great Grandmother Alice Gibson Hornby with the permission of George Gibson donated an anvil, 3 hammers, leather bellows, and some relics to Rev. Burke at Valley Forge around 1923. Trying to get a photo of the Valley Forge blacksmith shop and items donated. After extensive searching Valley Forge, Museum of the Revolutionary War, and the Lifeguards of Valley Forge couldn't find these items. Revolutionary War Soldier, Samuel Gibson, of New Marlborough help capture the items and used them at Valley Forge. He was married to Jane Allen. So where would one go to get photo and/or prove he was a blacksmith. Got the muster and roll but no indication of any position except Private!


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