Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Weekend with Matt Jenkins

Organized by Lloyd Johnston, at Upper Canada Village, Morrisburg, over April 26-28.

I have to admit here that I signed up largely to support this ongoing series of experienced blacksmith demonstration events that have been orchestrated by Lloyd, who I have known since my earliest days at the forge (the late 1970's). The featured artisan blacksmiths have been drawn from a wide regional circle, individuals that Lloyd knows and felt would have something to offer. Fellow participants come from not only Ontario, but due to the location at the far east, also from Quebec and into New York. 

Matt Jenkins is generally known from his '366 Hooks', a project he undertook which was then formalized into a traveling exhibit by his business partner (and wife) Karen Rudolph. He had traveled from his own Cloverdale Forge located 'north of Winnipeg', Manitoba, part of a larger round of demonstrations through into the western USA then back home again from what he mentioned. 

Matt proved to be both a good technical demonstrator, but also an engaging one. His past as an artisan interpreter at the Fort Gary historic site certainly shows in his delivery method. Places where some would have gaps (heating a bar for example) were easily filled with stories, both entertaining and insightful. Matt also has the skill of being able to talk while he works, providing additional description to the processes. He has a very 'folksy' manner, which covers over a keen mind, his background training (in engineering) and considerable working experience. 

Overall I was pleasantly surprised.

Given how long I have been at the forge myself, I was more expecting perhaps a different approach to things I already knew. One clear difference worth watching (for me) is that Matt works consistently with mass (where I tend to favor line). My friend David Robertson says that if he gets one new insight or working method in a demonstration, he feels it worth the time spent. The observations from the engineering side often provided just that. Matt certainly gave me a few new things to take home and consider adding to my own work. 

Some of the decorative elements Matt demonstrated that caught my eye:

'Basket Weave' element, square punches linked with butcher tool lines.

'Leaf' element, using 'Deer Hoof' punch.
Unnamed element ('Thumbprint'??), using a dished end punch.

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Beginning Blacksmith - Book now published!


Beginning Blacksmithing: 


'I wish someone had told ME that!'

Paperback – March 17, 2024

Have you wondered exactly how to get started as a hobby blacksmith?
This book offers valuable advice on how to get started the RIGHT way, and may both keep you working safely - and save you money on those first tool purchases!

Topics include :
• Getting the right HAMMER
• Firing the FORGE
• Picking an ANVIL
• Working SAFE
• Tools and workshop
• Motion Dynamics
• Picking a Course

This book is based on over 45 years personal experience working at the forge, since 1992 as a professional artisan blacksmith at the Wareham Forge in Ontario, Canada.
Darrell Markewitz has guided hundreds of first time blacksmiths through an ‘Introduction to Blacksmithing’.

6 x 9" format

160 pages

black & white

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Mounting Fire Base Activities

 Mounting Fire Based Activities

Considering Ground Surface Impact


A physical demonstration of many crafts activities requires the use of high temperatures as a transformational method. Those involved with living history presentations have a secondary problem, as modern generated heat sources (torches) or containments (metal ‘fire bowls’) are obviously not historic methods.

Land owners may have established a ‘no ground fires’ rule. There are several underlaying (logical?) reasons :

- Not wanting surface lawns to be damaged.

- Not wanting to have pits dug into the ground

- Concern about transportation of fire wood, or gleaning activities

- Concern about potential dangerous spread of a poorly managed fire

- Concern about the liability aspects of burn injuries

Generally these concerns are expressed by three commonly stated rules :

       - Only fires on raised metal fire bowls

- Only fires in specific pre-determined and equipped locations.

- No open fires of any kind

Event organizers need to be fully informed of the technical requirements related to individual craft methods. The physical size or working dynamic of a specific activity may itself impose limitations on how to properly and safely layout a fire based heat source. This is especially the case for historic demonstrations which will require the use of wood or charcoal fuel. A good example would be glass bead making, where modern practice is to use bottled gas torches the historic method is using a small enclosed clay furnace, charcoal fueled.

Often the response when contacting event Organizers, who may be constrained by simple rules dictated by land owners, is something like ‘You can work at the edge of the single shared camp fire.’ This is not a workable solution, as craft working requires considerable control of fire sources, if not specialized builds entirely. The desire for a companionable ‘fire circle’, or need for group cooking are just not compatible for the technical requirements for metals casting as one clear example.

There are a number of possible solutions that can be utilized by conscientious and experienced crafts workers that should fulfill at least the requirement for general safety and prevention of ground surface damage. Artisans need to explain these solutions in clear detail, Organizers need to understand physical requirements.

Contained Fires

Many historical craft techniques utilize fires inside specifically fire proof containers. Examples would be small glass bead making and metal casting furnaces. Larger and longer duration fires for ore smelting, pottery firing, even bake ovens, again all require durable containments. In all cases the purpose of these builds is specifically to hold the fire inside, concentrate and control these fires for correct function over time. Because of this technical requirement for fine control of heat, constant management of a very specific sized fire is necessary. In all these cases, the fires are normally contained inside clay or brick walled structures, and can not be in any way considered ‘open’.

Even the most extreme of all the potential fire based historic methods, bloomery iron smelting, requires a structure intentionally designed to withstand internal temperatures in excess of 1350 °C, over a day long operation.

Experiment / Demonstration of ‘Celtic’ bronze casting by Rey Cogswell during their Master’s studies at University College Dublin in 2018. Clay walled melting furnace to rear, stone walled crucible warming fire in front, both mounted above ground surface.

It is understood here that without general permission to use ground fires, any structures using pit or banked construction can not be used. Given the large disruption to ground surface that is required for larger dug in kilns or furnaces, Artisans should always ensure specific permission before undertaking these builds.

Surface Protection

For Organizers, recognizing the added value provided by fire based demonstrations, the simplest solution is to position those activities on ground which can not be damaged. An area already of plain dirt or gravel, like the edge of a parking surface. This also prevents any possible accidental spread of fire effects beyond the working area.

Often land owner rules will state ‘raised fire, just because this is the easiest description. It is expected that Organizers will be logical when considering the following long proven options for safety and limiting surface damage. The question needs to be considered : ‘How high does ‘raised’ actually mean?

The easiest way for Artisans to avoid any potential damage to surfaces is to first lay some type of completely fire proof covering down and build the furnace or fire on top of this. The cheapest, fastest and most protective method is to lay down a group of standard concrete paving slabs. These slabs are typically 45 mm thick. Using four pieces at 60 x 60 cm yields a completely fire proof barrier big enough for the largest furnaces. Although a bit bulky to transport, these slabs are durable and available at any building supply, at a 2024 cost of roughly $12 each.

Iron Smelting Furnace built on concrete pavers preserving a grass lawn. At Western Michigan University, International Congress in Medieval Studies, 2013.

Smaller furnaces can be built on special purpose refractory plates, such as pottery kiln shelves, or even on slabs of thin stone.

Demonstration of the high temperature Aristotle iron re-melting furnace. This furnace is about 20 cm at the base, and safely sits on a refractory plate. At a Society for Creative Anachronism event.

If absolutely conserving lawn grass is a consideration, lay down a standard wooden shipping pallet, then place the same concrete slabs on top. This method was first devised in 2005, when a full iron smelting demonstration was mounted on archaeologically sensitive ground (Canadian National Blacksmith’s Conference at Annapolis Royal NS). It has been used repeatedly to also conserve concrete flooring and decorative lawns, and proven to have virtually no impact after being removed. Positioning several lengths of 4 x 4 lumber will also leave a protective air space below the concrete plates.

For smaller furnaces, the same effect can be achieved by laying down a couple of cut to fit pieces of standard 2 x 4 lumber. In either case, and potential heat transmitted downwards through the fire proof plate is vented by the air space created underneath


Faced with the problem of not damaging archaeological ground in Britain, but still wanting to create a historic looking solution, the long standing living history group Regia Angolorum (back about 1990?) developed a protective design suggested by a panel from the Bayeux Tapestry. 


In it’s simplest form this is a set of clay bricks, placed loosely on the ground, contained in a wooden framed box. These can be covered with a thin layer of sand, which both hides the more modern bricks and also will fill any gaps between bricks. The basic design can be improved by laying a piece of light sheet metal down first. More elaborate equipment is also constructed along the same principle, with use of short legs to lift the entire surface clear of the ground. This form is more commonly seen in European re-enacting, where the problem of not marring archaeologically significant ground is always present.

No details of who / where. The fire surface appears to be a 10 cm deep bed of sand seen to the left end. – uncredited internet source

These fire boxes, on the ground or raised, were introduced as a response to a specific problem inside a specific region, they are also being applied for cooking purposes only. A slightly smaller version may be suitable for supporting smaller furnaces (metal / glass bead work). These activities require quite specific heights for safe and efficient working. Again, physical transport needs to be considered, with table frames, crates of bricks and pails of sand.

It is worth remembering that the most common solution suggested, a completely modern stamped steel dish, is not suitable physically for containing a craft working furnace or kiln. What is required for any of this equipment is a flat supporting surface, not a depressed bowl.

Value of Experience

Organizers need remain aware of the value of the accumulated experience of individual Artisans. This may be considerable, and certainly any long working artisan will be fully aware of the operating dynamics of their heat sources and safety measures involved. Rather than applying a simple blanket rule, individual cases need full consideration. Organizers should never forget the considerable effort undertaken by Artisans, and the overall value any physical demonstration brings to their event.

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Wednesday, April 03, 2024

the 'French Nail' : Field Expedience

I was recently contacted by a long ago army buddy, who was looking to have some replicas made of an early World War One object. 
Image from the Imperial War Museum

'French Nail' fighting knife ['Clous Fran├žais']

The reference he provided was from the Imperial War Museumhttps://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30003377

These were not 'regular issue' weapons, but were made at the front by blacksmiths working primarily as farriers, who's primary role was shoeing all the horses and mules used for the bulk of transport in that conflict. 

The basic raw material was supplied by converting 'screw pickets', steel posts used for holding strands of barbed wire in entanglements.

Photograph by Lt. J.W. Brooke : 1917-10-23 (IMW)

 The IWM description provides the following dimensions (of the sample pictured above) :

Depth 11 mm

Height 318 mm

Width 54 mm 

Weight 0.314 kg

As is my normal practice, I took the reference image and converted it to life size, and printed off a copy. 

My first surprise is the diameter of the round bar used. I would have expected French metric sizes at 10 mm / 3/8 inch. That 11mm is just a strange size, converting to imperial to 7/16. These knives were also made and used by both British and American troops, where I would expect 1/2 (12.5 mm) stock. Given the few clear reference images I could find of British (hence also Canadian) troops with screw pickets, I decided to use 1/2 round mild steel stock.

In use, the hand would grip inside the ring, around the blade side. The blade would point upwards from the thumb. This allows for a 'low line' stab to the gut. The heavy loop of bar thus runs over the fingers, creating a 'knuckle duster' effect for punches. The knife is primarily a stabbing tool, so the long point is more important than the cutting edges. Simple, brutal, efficient.

From the life size image, I pulled the following additional measurements :

Blade : 20 mm / 3/4 inch wide x 15 cm / 6 inches long

Handle Interior : 80 mm / 3 1/8 long x 30 mm / 1 1/8 wide

The handle interior space was a bit puzzling, being a bit on the small size. I have fairly small hands and would have found the historic sample a tight fit.

The two replicas, upper as diamond / lower as triangle (on 1/4 " grid)

As a primary thrusting weapon, the blade cross section could have been either diamond or triangle - either would produce two cutting edges. The most likely would have been a more standard diamond, but the triangle results in a thicker, and thus more rigid, central spine. None of the images or descriptions I could easily find via the internet specified which. As a forging test, I decide to make one of each cross section. The one closest to the reference sample (smaller hand grip) as diamond. The second replica was made with an intentionally larger interior grip size to fit a more modern physical build, and I used a triangle cross section. I was a bit surprised to find the forging steps required for either turned out to be pretty much the same. The diamond needed forging on four sides, but the triangle I found needed more control with the hammer blows (although admittedly not a shape I make that often).

I also made some trials working 1/2 round into a triangle bottom die. The die I had on hand was more of an equilateral triangle, so not ideal for the wider final shape required. With the proper shaped die made up, the time to forge the triangle cross section would be greatly reduced, and the forging would produce both a significant central spine as well as thinner cutting edges. This most certainly would speed the work if a smith had a large number of requests for this knife. (Worth noting that the sample does not show the more exaggerated cross section suggested by the test pieces I made.) 


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

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