Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Steel Stocks (+ Tariffs?)

At the time of this commentary, Canada has decided to stand up to the USA imposed tariffs of 25% on imported steels into the USA, applied on June 1. Announced were import duties to be applied to American made steel coming into Canada, to come into effect July 1.
Both tariffs apply to the full range of iron alloys, from mild steel, alloy steels and cast iron, both as raw industrial bars and worked objects.

How will this effect the small scale Artisan Blacksmith?

Not much

First : What is the source of our raw bar material?

image from Kreuger Steel
In most cases, this can be difficult (if not outright impossible) to tell.
Industrial sourced mild steel comes typically as 20 foot lengths (1) . Where you might be in the 'supply chain' really (dramatically) impacts the 'cost per foot'.
As a full time professional shop, I normally purchase in anything from 2 or 3 full lengths, up to 200 - 400 worth of individual stocks (shapes and sizes). In the case of the Wareham Forge, this includes the usual square, round and flat mild steel bars, as well as pipe, tube (square), angle and channel structural steels.
For all this I use an 'intermediate' level supplier (2)

At the amounts any of us purchase, typically the creation source of the material is unknown. 
• One clear exception to this are the various structural shapes I get - which are clearly marked (made in) 'Canada'. I have to report that the quality of these materials is uniformly excellent.
• The other exception is 1/4 inch square bar. This material has been coming in from 'offshore' / not North American sources for about the last 20 + years. (see more on this below).

3/8 square - 1/4 square - 1/8 x 3/4 flat
Second : Are we really getting what we want?

The ideal material for most Artistic Blacksmithing work, reguardless of shape or size, would be hot rolled mild steel bar. (as seen on far left, above)
• The metal has a somewhat protective, dark grey 'fire scale' surface :
   - This slows the development of low temperature oxide / red rust.
   - This is roughly the same surface that is created when forging.
• Although the bar has slighly rounded corners and does not have precise measurements, it will be hammer forged anyway.
This is the cheapest way to produce the metal stock.

Increasingly however, many of the smaller stock sizes are not available as either North American produced - or as hot rolled materials:

SMALL FLATS - Almost all 1/8 thick materials, and increasingly some 3/16 thick, now come as 'sheared'. Here what is basically a giant cutter is used to sever off narrow strips from large plates of steel.
• The metal does NOT have protective (or uniform!) fire scale coatings. It rusts quickly in the shop environment. Parts of the bar not being forged now must be heated and hammer worked to create uniform appearance.
• The shearing process actually deforms the metal into a slightly cupped cross section.
• If the cutter blades are worn, there can be sharp edges to the lower edges. Sometimes sharp enough to act like knife blades (!)
(You can see both effects on the edges of the bar on right side of the image above.)
• Depending on source, sometimes the bars are twisted and distorted.

1/4 SQUARE - Starting in about 1995, this basic small stock was being supplied from various (unknown) 'off shore' sources. The material now comes as 'semi cold rolled. (seen at centre, above)
• The price drastically increased - about 4 - 6 times more expensive (see discussion below)
• The metal is supplied too hard - it literally shatters when attempting to cut. The required annealling step has been skipped (likely replaced by water cooling). This causes razor sharp edges on cutting - that need to be ground clean.
• The material is often of substandard quality, randomly. (Supplied in 12 foot bars, I have seen a crack running down an entire length.)
• The material is finished without the protective fire scale surface.
• To protect during ocean shipping, unknown, and sometimes toxic coatings will be applied to the bar surfaces.

SMALL ROUNDS - Occasionally, material is produced by 'extrusion', rather than 'rolling' (imagine squirting out tooth paste!).  I have seen this for both 1/4 and 3/8 sizes.
• 1/4 round is almost always 'semi cold rolled', at least in terms of lacking the fire scale coating. The metal still comes correctly annealed. This does increase rust formation and causes extra work to create a uniform surface colour and texture.
• 3/8 round is sometimes found to have surface flaw 'gouges', which can run down the entire length of the stock bar. (Not a common failure, this caused by debris caught in the extrusion die.)

Third : Pricing and possible increases?

Right now the price for new steel bars is roughly somewhere between $0.65 and $0.75 per pound.
Of course, typically at our purchase amounts, price per foot is of more interest.

I took delivery of several of my commonly used sizes / profiles on May 30 (ordered about May 20).
1/4 square = $0.75 per foot (ordered 200 feet) (3)
3/8 square = $0.60 per foot (ordered 200 feet)
1/8 x 3/4 flat = $0.54 per foot (ordered 60 feet)

Now I strongly suspect that the 1/4 is produced outside North America (so will not be effected by the increased tariffs).
I strongly suspect that at least the 3/8 is produced in Canada (so again will not be effected).

So - for sake of the commentary, run the increased tariff possibilities:
1/4 square = $0.94 per foot / + $0.19
3/8 square = $0.75 per foot / + $0.15
1/8 x 3/4 flat = $0.68 per foot / + $0.14

Now - use some very basic 'beginner blacksmith' type objects made with those same stocks, each uses about 2 feet of material:

1/4 square : Loom Light Candle Holder @ $15 / + $0.38
3/8 square : Fire Place Poker @ $20 /  + $0.30
1/8 x 3/4 flat : Towel Rail @ $20 / + $0.28

The key here - and a warning to Consumers :

For Artisan Blacksmith work, the primary cost component is SKILL and TIME.

Not materials.

(1) Imperial Units - used throughout.
Imperial is still the primary system used in measuring steel dimensions. 
Some Metric dimensional stock is starting to be available.
SUGGESTION : Use all Imperial OR all Metric / NOT some of both!
Metric uses different 'size breaks' between stocks. (You will find 12 mm or 14 mm, but not the 12.5 mm - which would be actual 1/ 2 inch in Imperial, for example.)

(2) - Actually Krueger Steel in Owen Sound.
I pay a little bit more here, instead of moving up one level up in the supply chain:
• I get exceptional service from the gang at Kueger.
• I am rarely in a hurry ('some time next week?'), So I get *free* delivery, when they make their normal weekly run down to Toronto.
• They are always willing to take my 'old time' measurements (imperial gauge sizes!) and convert to modern units.
• I have at this point an almost 30 year customer / supplier relationship with them!

(3) You may notice something there.
The 1/4 square is in effect over double the 'price per pound' as the 3/8 (with twice the actual volume per foot).

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

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