Monday, May 06, 2019

Introduction to Blacksmithing : May 10 - 12


A beginner's program, intended to introduce you to the forge and basic techniques as you make a number of simple objects. Includes discussion of correct hammer use, fast look at materials, history and contemporary work.

Instructor is Darrell Markewitz of the Wareham Forge (over 30 years worshop teaching experience).

Mention membership in OABA for a $25 discount!
Mention membership in SCA for a $25 discount!
Book with a friend and both get a $25 discount!

Details and Register online (Paypal) :

Other workshop courses available :

Monday, April 08, 2019

Metalworking in Cuba

Gates and Grills in Cuba

On short notice in February, I was offered free shared lodgings at a private owned B & B in Boca de Camarioca, Cuba. (1) I jumped at this, the first real vacation I have undertaken (outside of work related travel) in 30 years.  Boca is just down the northern coast road from the major tourist destination of Varadero, about two hours drive east of Havana. Varadero was originally a purpose built town for foreign tourists , at one time Cubans were not really allowed access. Boca still is where many of the actual Cuban workers in Varadero live. In recent years it has also become a place where ‘middle class’ Cubans have built retirement homes as well. So it is safe to say Boca still does not represent ‘average’ Cuba, but at least is a bit closer than the artificial image presented in Varadero.

Location of Boca de Camarioca, Cuba
It is safe to say that almost all Cubans have a much, much lower material standard of living than almost anyone in Canada. Under the extremely socialist system, everyone is provided with the most basics of food, housing, education and medical. But the quality of those things is definitely the minimal level. Wages against prices is almost alarming, from a Canadian standpoint. (2) Despite this, I found the people generally appeared happy, and certainly friendly enough. (Especially once they found I was Canadian - people seemed to well remember Pierre Trudeau’s support in the 1970’s.)

My idea for a vacation is a semi-active one. I normally like to keep my eyes open, observing as un-intrusively as possible. I spent hours each day, just wondering around, attempting to take photographs. This combination tends to mean not so many images of people, but more of landscape and buildings, with a fair amount of detail, is what I end up recording.

I kept my eyes open for any kind of workshops, but only saw the simplest, honestly very minimal, tools or equipment in use. An old washing machine motor, rope tied to a broken chair, used as a grinder, for example. The only time I saw an ox-fuel set, it was obviously being used for car repairs. However, it is instantly clear that Cubans are geniuses at ‘repair and recycle’. At least a third of the cars on the road were lovingly rebuilt and restored old Chevys and Fords - from the 1950’s and 60’s. Almost all doing daily duty as taxis.
Seen often - a lovingly restored old Chevy
Buildings were constructed of simple (narrow!) concrete blocks, on poured concrete floors, with flat slab concrete upper floors and roofs. Usually set close together on very small lots, with small courtyards at front and rear. (3) Cubans are clearly extremely ‘house proud’, even the simplest home was kept need and clean. ‘Guarantied Employment’ did mean that there were people tasked with street cleaning, but honestly I saw little garbage outside of clearly designated collection points.

One consistent feature was grill work over windows, and metal gates as the entrance through the low wall along the sidewalk at almost all homes. This was the entrance to Lourdes & Leo for example:
Street side entrance to the front courtyard
The use of grills included almost all the windows, certainly ground level, but also on upper floors. (The alternative was windows fitted with wooden slat ’storm shutters’.) Actual glass windows were very uncommon. The typical ‘gap’ in the grill patterns was closer to 6 - 8 inches, suggesting to me they ere intended not to prevent ‘reach and grab’ theft, but to stop physical entry through the openings. As an example, this was the *second* floor covering, on the house next to my lodgings:
The other grills on this house matched the design (this roughly 3 x 6 feet)
Those houses equipped with vehicle drives would also have full height grill-work gates. Most were designed to swing open in two leaves, but some were set to slide sideways. Many of the car gates were backed with simple galvanised steel sheet metal behind the grill work, primarily what looked like a retrofit :
Note the light construction of this two panel car gate
This sample, made of simple embossed sheet attached to the front of some framing, was an exception.
This home (right next to the beach) was certainly upscale compared to others!
One thing that is instantly obvious is : there is no actual forge work here.

- Almost all the grills are made of smaller sized flat stock, primarily 3/4 or 1 inch wide by either 1/8 or 3/16 thick. The white grill seen above is unusual in that it was made from 3/16 round rod, a material I only saw used a couple of times.
- Most all the grills were joined by welding cut bars, or simple cold bent scroll elements, together.
- One standard method is to twist the flat bars at 90 degrees at an intersection, then twist back to ‘edge on’. (Allowing for secure and simple welding)
- All the gates were painted, but in brighter primary colours. Green being the most common seen. Curiously, I saw hardly any use of black paint.
- Terminals were most commonly simple bevel cuts, or just left as square ends
Detail, note terminals, reason for the paint!
All of this taken together, suggested to me that the range of metal stocks available was extremely limited, stick welders in use, with only simple hand tools employed.

But within these extreme limitations, and what obviously are great cost constraints, there is clearly a good sense of design from these metalworkers.

This is an overall view of the detail above, which illustrates exceptional design inside the limits imposed.
At entrance to a small apartment building
Shows flow of lines, and balanced mirroring of shapes, from the upper to the lower sections. A balanced symmetry down the centre.
Elements from one section carried to the next - but not simple repetition of design.
Now I freely admit that my sample was confined to a very small area, and limited time. During my week long stay, I only saw one building from the ’Spanish Colonial’ period, and it in very rough condition. (Cuba’s ‘European Settlement’ goes back to roughly 1500 - but ‘Pre-Revolution’ elements are not well represented today.)

Still, I think the work I did see, even if in a relatively affluent area by Cuban standards, certainly represented the creativity of the Cuban metalworkers, despite serious restrictions on starting materials and limited tools.

1) Highly Recommended !
Hostal Lourdes & Leo /
This trip, the cost was roughly $28 CDN per night, for living room, one bedroom with two queen beds, small kitchen and tiny bathroom. Nice beach 5 minutes walk, 100 m from the main road. Wonderful hosts!

2) One example : Although school teachers are notoriously badly paid - even by Cuban standards, the cost of a simple pair of foam ‘flip flops’ was equal to roughly  * one week’s * wages for a high school teacher (paid roughly 25 CU / month).

3) I did see a reasonable amount of ongoing construction, mainly additional floors being added to existing homes at what seemed a snails pace. I found out that that same teacher’s monthly wage would only pay for 4 bags of concrete. The building blocks where commonly 4 inches wide, by roughly 18 inches (or more) long, with some only 3 inches wide. I rarely saw any metal re-enforcing in place in wall construction. Given occasional hurricane force winds, most certainly the slab roofs would lift, walls collapse - to the destruction of those living inside. This is in fact what happens on a regular basis in Cuba.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Materials Test - Lyndhurst at CAMELOT

Although the Bloomery Iron Smelt undertook last Fall at the CAMELOT conference was primarily a public demonstration of the physical process, the concepts of Experimental Archaeology were also illustrated.

Additional Descriptions:
Ore Analog addition - main sequence
There was also a small experimental materials test integrated into the two day demonstration.

Regular readers may remember that I took part as a 'digger' volunteer at the ongoing excavations at Lyndhurst, Ontario, late August 2018. (1)
This illustration does not quite match the actual ground contours!

The original Lansdowne Iron Works is the first full scale commercial iron processing in what was then known as Upper Canada, dated to 1802- 1811. The complex included a blast furnace (producing cast iron) on the east bank, and a bloomery iron furnace on the west bank.

One of the main reasons for establishing a major iron processing facility has always been the local availability of the main raw materials : suitable iron ore and abundant wood for charcoal. A third element is the type and quality of the materials needed to construct the furnace itself. (2)

Of course limestone, which dominates the geography of the lower end of Southern Ontario, is not really suitable for construction of iron smelting furnaces. (3)
Lyndhurst however, is in the region of Ontario where the granites of the Northern Shield transition into the limestone covering Southern Ontario and New York state.

There was a thick deposit of clay also underlaying the modern backfill layer which has been placed over the ground level were the 1800 bloomery furnace was built. Clays, often modified with the additions of sand or organic materials has proved a very effective building material for furnace construction.

So - as part of my time at Lyndhurst, I gathered some of the clay from the furnace level, and some small fist sized stones from local rock cuts.

The raw clay was a medium grey colour, with what appeared a fairly high sand / silica content. Manipulating it, it felt more solid than 'slimy' (if that makes any sense to you). 
Lyndhurst stone sample
I had gathered two similar sized pieces of stone. The one used for the CAMELOT test was roughly 6 cm thick, 7 cm wide, on its highest point 8 cm tall. The thickness was consistent overall. (4)

Normally, the hottest part of our normal furnace build and operations is a rough oval that circles the tuyere. This extends roughly 10 cm to either side, 10 cm below and 15 cm above the centre of the tuyere. A ceramic tube tuyere was used for this smelt. (5)
Outside, Tuyere in place. Stone L / Clay R
Interior view (before tuyere installed). Clay (upper) is more obvious here.
You can see here that this test may not be quite as conclusive as it might be, as the two samples are placed just outside, and below, the 'hot spot' described above.
The surrounding wall material was the standard mix of high temperature clay / course sand / shredded horse manure. 

View of the interior of the furnace - cleared after the full smelt.
- In the image above, you can see how the tuyere has eroded back towards the furnace wall. 
- The stone sample shows less reduction than the regular furnace wall material that surrounded it originally.
- There is a bit more erosion to the sample clay than the regular wall material. 

The addition of sand and organics to the standard wall material mix is done specifically to reduce erosion and the effects of high temperatures. This does suggest that the Lyndhurst clay would prove effective for furnace construction.
During dismantling - The slag attached to the stone, and heat effects clearly seen.
The stone itself showed almost no damage at all - at least on a single smelt sequence. Again this suggests that the locally available stone would prove resistance to damage and effective for at least bloomery furnace construction.


At least as 'proof of concept' both the clay and rock samples gathered have endured a full bloomery iron smelt, at least within the dynamics of limited size and specific position. 
Ideally this limited test should be followed up with full builds, clay cylinder and stone block. 

1) The report on my observations of the dig - and my interpretation of the ground at Lyndhurst is still pending!
The excavations (test pits really) I helped with were on the west bank - bloomery iron furnace side.
One of the problems with close inspection of the original furnace construction is that the site of the bloomery furnace has been reused for two large scale commercial operations since. First was a flour mill, which involved the building of a more massive stone walled structure, which appears to have been constructed on top of the remains of the iron furnace. (This itself subjected by a major fire in 1811, which destroyed the entire complex.) Later there was a lumber mill constructed over the remains of the abandoned grist mill. This lumber mill was in operation into at least the 1950's, when another major fire destroyed that operation. Considerable earth fill has been added over each of these sequences in an effort to level the ground. The test pit that appeared to extend down to the level of the bloomery furnace was a good 2 metres deep below modern ground level.

2) This is apparent when you consider the wide variation of furnace builds seen throughout the Norse world. Although the slag tapping, 'short shaft' design is fairly constant, the builds range from clay (Denmark), stone slab / block (Norway), to grass sod (Iceland). See the extensive experimental series.

3) The working temperatures inside an bloomery furnace are in the 1150 - 1250 C range (or higher in a cast iron producing blast furnace). Limestones will decompose into lime (CaO + CO2) at about 900 C. You * might * be able to work around this by either using massive thickness and allowing for aggressive erosion, or using a sacrificial clay liner. (Note that is is very offhand - I have no direct experience here!)

4) I freely admit that my knowledge of stone types is limited at best!
The stones gathered appeared to be some metamorphic type.
(DARC does include a professional geologist, and I need to get him to examine the rock used.)

5) This with a fairly durable ceramic or the very fixed copper tuyeres in standard use. Tuyere set 5 cm proud of the inner surface, roughly 20 degrees down. Important is that this is also with a high volume air blast.
Past experiments has proven changing these settings can dramatically change the amount of erosion to wall materials.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Telling People What they WANT - 'Making a (kitchen) Knife

I am wondering if you would run a session or private session on how to make a kitchen knife for 1-2 people.  I would like to make a knife that I could use daily.
I am getting requests like this a couple of times a week. So I freely admit that I have developed 'a bit of an attitude' about this...

'Forged in Fire' is completely fake, or at minimum extremely inaccurate and grossly misleading. (1)

Attempting to make something that vaguely looks like a knife is not at all the same as making a truly functional knife.

Forging a blade requires considerable hammer control. Control is only possible to achieve through practice.
Working with actual blade effective alloys requires good control of temperatures. Again equals experience (practice).
This means basically the results for a first time effort are likely to be poor.

After forging, shaping and polishing both takes considerable time - and considerable equipment. (2)
Two large blades, forged and ready for grinding & polishing.
You can switch one for the other (very expensive long belt sander instead of hours with a hand file).
I am not equipped with multiple polishing work stations. (3)

Remember there are three (or four) individual, separate skill sets and equipment requirements to actually make a finished knife :

'Gut Ripper' - 1979 (one of my first knives). All hand polished = 50 + hours
Kitchen knives, especially, are more complex shapes, and the demands of use require far better levels of skill. Often the use of more difficult to control specialised metal alloys.

I do not just 'market' courses.
Others do not share this opinion, and so are willing to merely give people 'what they want' - NOT 'what is true'.
(See a recent commentary here about 'axe making courses'.)

My concern is for actual learning.
To that end I offer a selection of programs that I know I can instruct effectively, have invested considerable to equip correctly, and outline what any individual should be able to achieve inside the time limit. 

I bring over 35 years teaching experience in a workshop setting to these assessments.

Consider how the 'Build a Zombie Killer' program is described...
- This program intentionally described as for 'fun' / not a 'technical' instruction
Against the description for 'Basic Bladesmithing'...
- A blade forging program, with 'basic forge skills' as a minimum requirement

In actual fact I would consider 'Making a Kitchen Knife' a third level program.
I will strongly advise you to only have limited expectations on the results you should expect. This will vary considerably depending on what hand skills you bring. 

I know Jeff Helms offers a one week long program via Haliburton College 'make a knife', offered over the summer.
Jeff is an excellent artisan, and a very good teacher. Expect considerable hand polishing work (the College is well equipped with forges, but has virtually no polishing equipment).

I know that David Robertson will sometimes undertake a two day 'make a blade' program for untrained students. You would have to contact him for details and availability. 

I do recommend David as an excellent teacher. (I have worked with David for about 35 years, and have taught programs together in the past.)

1) I have made several commentaries about 'Forged in Fire'. It has become the bane of all ethical metalworking instructors, as there is little Truth in 'Reality Television'.

'Forged in Fire ?' : October 2015
'Forged in Fire'- not this professional! : March 2017

2) I have made a few knives, but I don't consider myself a full time bladesmith
- For me to forge out the basic shape for a knife size will take me roughly 30 - 60 minutes, depending on profile and size.
- The annealing step takes overnight.
- Surface grinding, profiling, polishing typically takes me 2 - 4 hours. (see below)
- Hardening, surface polish, Tempering, final polishing, typically adds another hour.
- Hilting is extremely variable, depending on what fittings are added, the materials selected, what shapes and size is involved. Expect multiple hours at minimum.
- Scabbard? (I personally am not much of a leather worker, and typically do not provide scabbards - just simple leather 'keepers'.)

Note that I differentiate between :
Bladesmiths : those who forge bars into the blade blanks first. This allows for considerable freedom of design.
Knifemakers : those who grind out blade blanks from simple rectangular bars. Often don't undertake their own heat treating. This results in simple (often standardised) shapes.
(Watch 'Forged in Fire' - you can always tell the difference.)

3) What they are using for grinding and polishing on 'Forged In Fire' ??
This is a currently available 'knife grinder' - actually a long belt, high speed sander:
- 2 HP motor
- electronic variable speed control
- 2 x 72 inch belts
- front vertical plate
- large contact wheel (note the FiF units have a larger rubber wheel, additional cost)
Rough cost = $ 2000+ US

3) As I do not normally offer any 'knifemaking' programs (ie - bar to finished knife), I only have my own personal equipment:
- angle grinders with grinding disk (possible use of flap sanding disk)
- one bench grinder, 1/2 HP (I have a second 1/3 HP I could set up)
- one 6 x 48 sander, retrofitted with a 2 x speed 3/4 HP motor
- one 2 x 72 sander, 2 HP motor (which I do not provide to students)


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

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