The second class I attended this year was a combination: kajioshi and habaki making for Japanese style blades. This one was held out on Oregon at the Bells' Tomboyama Nihonto Tanren Dojo, or Dragonfly Mountain Japanese Sword School for those of us not proficient in Japanese. Since I had the chance to do a week-long workshop with a Japanese swordsmith I thought it would be interesting to learn how to mount and finish it myself.
I'll talk more about the class with Fusataro in a later entry, because I was fortunate enough to have the chance to repeat the course in what would be his final time teaching in North America. Still VASTLY more convenient and affordable than going out to Japan and doing it.
Counting the combination class as its two separate entries, I've had the privilege of taking four classes over the combined time of a month. I'm going to restrict my pictures and my review to the first one to keep a semblance of a chronological order to this series.
I've made long trips in a car previously, but until this class, my longest solo drive was approximately 10 hours. So, unlike the relatively short drive to Albuquerque for the Mokume class, OR is about 21 hours drive from home. I decided to break the drive up into three days since I still had to take the class after the long trip. The drive consisted of starting in northern Arizona, passing through Nevada into northern California, and crossing into Oregon itself.
Nevada isn't a terrible place to drive through, and I intentionally didn't stay the night there or allocate any time to get into a casino. While I may not be a great poker player I do enjoy it, and time can vanish quite rapidly if I'm not careful. I do have family that spends some time at a house in Vegas, so I tried to meet up with them each time I went out to the Bells' for a class; managed to miss each other every time.
Northern California was quite beautiful and I enjoyed the scenic drive through it much more than I had thought I would. There's something refreshing about trees and lakes and limited human contact. Now, Oregon was absolutely gorgeous. I fell in love on my drive through and my time up there to a degree I would have moved out there in an instant if things had worked out differently.
After getting confused and turned around in the wrong driveway, I was able to locate the proper turn and get up to the house and shop fairly well; it's a rough uphill road and I was very glad to have brought the truck out for the class.
It was the encouragement and a "gentle nudge" from Allen Rozon that finally set me on the path to Oregon. We talked multiples times about his stay with Michael Bell and his respect for the man as both a craftsman and a person. Obviously, this lent me a positive bias towards Michael and his son Gabe; I was not disappointed in the slightest.
I met the Bell men first thing in the morning the first day of class, and they were immediately welcoming and friendly towards me. We sat on the couch while they finished the last bit of breakfast and some morning coffee, just socializing like old friends. A short time later I got to meet the family matriarch, Mike's wife Anna. It was lunch the first day before I met Gabe's wife Mia, but both of the Bell women were just as affable (if not more so) than their husbands.
Gabe and I had a little bit of an instant bond, as we were both former Forged in Fire contestants and able to jabber on about our thoughts and experiences from the show. He, like me, was the first man eliminated on his episode; but unlike me, he had a "redemption" episode and went on to take the prize there.
Part of the offering for their classes include homemade lunch, and it differed day to day. One day was curry, one was sandwiches, another pasta; but every meal was delicious. More importantly, every meal was like a family gathering with jokes, pleasant conversation, and good company. Since I was the only student in this class, this relaxed atmosphere continued on into the workshop as well but didn't interfere with accomplishing the tasks at hand.
There is a great deal of nuance and detail relevant to the water stone polishing process, but most of it had to be learned on a trial and error basis. One thing that I feel important to note is that my tanto had to be reshaped a little, having a hefty belly more akin to a skinner. At first, Mike was very gentle about suggesting that the blade should be reshaped "a little."
I told him that I was there to learn and he didn't need to spare my feelings, and then he was more comfortable in saying it needed some significant work. As suggested, we used a belt grinder and reshaped the cutting edge profile and then ground the new-found thickness down.
This was when I was introduced to the concept of the circle diagram: taken from an older book called Sword and Same that shows said diagram. It explains that the parts and angles of Japanese blades line up to the circumference of a circle (though not all of the same diameter.)
What followed was a tedious but relaxing couple of days adjusting the final outline and thickness, as polishing to bring out the hada (folding and welding lines forming a pattern) and the hamon (differential phases of steel due to clay heat treat.) Routinely Mike would check on my blade to see if I was using correct technique, merely from the pattern of scratches made by the stone. As needed he would redemonstrate or correct where I was making mistakes.
I only reached a level of a "satin finish" I would do normally on a western knife during this process. During the habaki making there were a few more scratches obtained from my incautious handling and I had to start the polish over in my free moments.
Before moving on to the habaki-making phase, I did put the file texturing into the nakago. I didn't, however, sign the blade because I don't have a "swordsmith name" in kanji to go that traditional.
The habaki is a very important component of a traditional Japanese blade; it allows the friction fit of the blade into the saya and keeps it centered to prevent the blade from scratching on drawing and sheathing. Plus, it can be very ornamental as well, though mine was made from a simple piece of copper.
Making a habaki is a fairly simple and straightforward process, but missing a step can be disastrous. Just like the lesson of using a file instead of a belt grinder to shape metal; take your time and pay attention and it will come out well.
The first step is to make a paper template including a notch for the munemachi (notch between blade and tang on the spine) and fit that to the blade. When the shape looks accurate for the size of blade you're working with, then you have your template.
With the template, you'll go to the material you're using for the habaki and start to shape it. There are numerous ways to do this depending on the tools you have, your experience, and patience. In the case of this class, I used a block of copper that was hammered into the roughly rectangular shape of the template. A jeweler's saw and files did the stock removal to bring it into final (rough) shape to begin fitting.
What's really handy for that is a wooden v block and a chisel, so you can center the habaki-to-be and start forming it to fit over the nakago (tang). From the vblock, your u shaped piece gets fitted to the nakago by cycles of gentle hammering and fitting. While it's quickly described, it takes a good deal of time to do it correctly.
Once you have something that looks more like a habaki and is folded over the nakago, there's another piece you have to fabricate called a machigane. Basically, it's a small triangular piece of your base metal that gets soldered into place and acts as a stop for the hamachi (shoulder on the blade side) so the whole thing will sit even and not wiggle.
Habaki and machigane are fitted, fluxed, and wired together. Then you solder it into place carefully and cleanly which can be a pain depending on the solder you're using. How much of a pain, you ask? Until we switched to "better" solder I had to make three separate habaki because the first two would split during the final fitting. Good practice though!
Final fitting involves a lot of the same as before; gently tapping it with a hammer to get the metal to conform to your nakago and slide all the way to the machi. Once it's fitted into place in the proper location, and snug enough not to rattle, you begin to file it down more. This will clean up all the oxidation from soldering, as well as any loose flux floating around. But it also refines the final shape of the habaki itself, taking it down from your bulky (comparatively) staring thickness.
I enjoyed the class and feel like I got an excellent foundation of skills to continue mounting and finishing of Japanese blades in my own shop. The later post about the koshirae and tsukamaki classes will cover the saya making and handle wrapping respectively, and I'll be lacquering at home with a substitute for the traditional urushi (I like not being a miserable ball of itchy suffering so I stay away from the original).
Gabe and Mike were excellent to work around and spend time with while I have to admit there might have been a pleasant bit of mothering from Mia and Anna. If anything in their curriculum interests you, and you have the time and money to do it, I would suggest doing so. Afterall, I made the trip out their twice.
The first class in my 2017 in Review series isn't actually the first class for the year; scheduled or completed. But I doubt there's much interest in reading about me doing online metallurgy, welding, and heat treating classes while listening to Netflix in the background. I posted my completion certificates from them and took pride in completing each class with nearly perfect scores.
My first scheduled class was one I was forced to miss by a circumstance of weather. It was the Sword Reflections with Peter Johnsson over at Zack Jonas' shop in New Hampshire, and I was really looking forward to it. I got into smithing in the first place because I wanted to make swords and armor, so I was extremely excited and nervous about this class. Sadly, it snowed the night before I had to drive down to the valley to catch a flight out of town, and my truck spun out. I still have the Type XV blank sitting at the house waiting for me to finish it on my own time.
Zack was extremely nice, considering I gave him a no-show notice the day before class started, and let me roll my tuition deposit forward. I was able to attend Sword Reflections (twice in a row!) later in the year, so I'll save storytelling about that until later.
The first class I did attend, the subject of this post, was Mokume Gane with the Masters, April 3-7 out at Rio Grande Supply in Albuquerque, NM. Said masters were Chris Ploof and Jim Binnion, and they were extremely friendly and approachable while still keeping the class on track working and learning.
I learned about the class because of a Facebook post by Michele von Bergen, who was excited at the chance to attend as well. 'Chele is an admin of several blacksmithing and bladesmithing pages, as well as an FB friend, so I didn't immediately dismiss the share when I saw it.
Delving a bit deeper, which didn't take long, I saw I was most definitely interested in going to this class. My experience with mokume previously was similar to many, using quarters in a stack.
After all the usual introductory dialogue and discussion, we got right into the class. I'm sure I could write a textbook just from the pictures and notes I took, so I'm going to restrain myself to an overview and shared images.
The first thing we did was to clean the copper and brass rectangles for our billets. This was done using water and Simple Green with the very fine scotchbrite pads, scrubbing until the water would evenly sheet off the little rectangles. They then got rinsed in clean water and rested in a tub of water and citric acid to prevent any oxidation during the rest of the cleaning process. Once every piece was painstakingly cleaned, they were dried and stacked in alternating layers.
We prepped the clamp plates with Boron Nitride paint, aka weld-r-white. This is very important, as it prevents the copper or brass sheets from adhering to the steel plates during the heating cycle. Also important, enough that I am going to do this in all caps: DO NOT USE WITE-OUT TO DO THIS. And once again: DO NOT USE WITE-OUT TO PREVENT ADHESION IN FORGE WELDING. The reason is that it contains titanium dioxide which is toxic especially when it off-gases at high temperature. Fun anecdote: when someone called to talk to the folks who manufacture wite-out and talk to them about its use as a resist they freaked out quite a bit and started repeatedly warning against doing that.
Cleaned sheets and resist painted plates combine to form...! More work. Once the alternating stacked sheets were clamped with the plates at high pressure, the whole rig was inserted into a bag made of heat treat foil. A tiny amount of charcoal was added, and the whole thing sealed up. Why you ask? The bag and charcoal act together to consume existing oxygen and prevent additional getting to the sheets and oxidizing them, which would inhibit the diffusion process.
The most tedious part of this entire class was the next step, cleaning up the billet. In the studio available to us, this meant cutting the billet into a roughly rectangular shape once more using a jeweler's saw. This was to make sure that any possible delaminations existing on the edges wouldn't make their way into the final piece once it had been rolled to thickness.
To fit inside the guides of the rolling mills available to us, we had to use the hydraulic presses to squish them down to just below the maximum thickness the mills could handle. After some pressing, the pieces would work harden and need to be annealed to continue working without introduction stress cracks. Less sad with copper and brass, because they're fairly inexpensive, but a billet with gold that cracks will ruin your day.
Roll, anneal, repeat. At this point, you can introduce patterning into the billet in an near endless variety. I chose to use a rolling blank to pattern one section with a flame texture, the whole thing was then ground flush, the other I just used a carbide burr to grind in a design of a starburst (which looks bad, but that was second to the point of the class). The piece I ground a design into was then rolled flat to raise material into the negative space.
The patterned final piece can be manipulated into whatever your final product will be; I left mine as vaguely square sheets because I intend to raise them into ride bells for bikers.
Now, this whole rambling post of mine gets condensed into "and then I did it a second time" because I had enough class time to make a billet of silver and shibuichi. Shibuichi is a rose-colored (at least the pieces of alloy I had were) alloy of primarily copper and some silver. This piece was rolled out about .25" thickness, I intend to do a manipulation technique called guribori for a guard and pommel. Guribori is basically carving away a design into the material, but leaving that negative space to have the stacked layers visible in the carving itself; it's a simple process that I find very lovely.
I'm fortunate to have taken the class, and picked up some equipment from Rio Grande to help me get a small setup going at my own shop. I knew I wouldn't have much time in 2017 to experiment with it, but I wanted to be prepared the moment I had an inkling and opportunity. Fortunate that I did, because I have a "potential apprentice" who wants to get into doing mokume with me at the shop.
That concludes, without going into exacting detail, what we did in class and my generally positive experience with everyone involved. I would suggest looking into Chris and Jim's work, they have some excellent pieces. If this strikes your fancy, maybe even take the class; I would certainly like to do it at least one more time with a clear goal of what I'm making and why.
Oh, and this is also when I started to realize I was known more for my pajama pants and chops than the actual blades I make. To each his own, eh?
This will be the first post in a series about my classes, events, and travels for the year of 2017. I'll wax a little nostalgic and get into my reasons and logic behind the decision to run myself into the ground with education, and then go into analyses and pictures (what could be salvaged from my phone) of the individual classes.
Every year comes with its own series of hardships and problems, as well as victories and accomplishments. Simply boiling it down to a "good year" or "bad year" is insufficient. So I want to explain that it was the "bad" of 2016 that prompted me to run myself to the very limits furthering my education. A little background might help, so let me wax nostalgic.
I had been reading and making BSOs (blade shaped objects, aka poorly shaped mild steel) with stock removal or MIG welding as long as I could remember. I first researched blacksmithing in elementary school for a report on "future careers." An ex-girlfriend of mine when I was around 16 or so bought me a copy of Complete Bladesmith by Jim Hrisoulas as well as Renaissance/Medieval Swordsmanship(s) by John Clements.
I started physically smithing and knowing what I was doing in 2009 after my father died. I quickly made it routine to take yearly blacksmith workshops in Camp Verde with Gordon Williams, and Knifemaking ones with Ray Rybar, starting in either 2010 or 2011. It was at this point I realized that all the theoreticals I could read weren't worth squat compared to a weekend of hands-on training with someone who knew what they were doing, and more importantly, what I was doing wrong.
Armed with my new knowledge and experience, I dove into the deep end and bought myself a forge and anvil. Needless to say, I could make a functional knife with a handle and did so for many friends. They weren't pretty, but even those early attempts are still in circulation and nobody has broken one. I even taught the little bit I knew to close friends who would come over and play in the little smithy I set up. I kept taking classes, learning from Frank Christensen (more on this guy and his glorious facial hair later), Ken Sparks, and Sam Troxell via the Mesa Arts Center, and driving down to Tucson to spend a couple weekends learning from Tai Goo. I could write another long series about my experiences there, maybe another day, moving on now.
Fast-forwarding to 2016, I was just starting to join the online smithing community on FB when Forged in Fire did an open casting call. I was encouraged, to a point of not really being given a choice, to apply and see what happened.
Spoiler alert? I was accepted and you can see me in Episode 3 of Season 3. I think it's been a broadcast episode long enough to avoid further spoiler warnings, I was the first man voted off the island. It was the correct call by the judges, and I completely agree. Thankfully, I was not in a position where the prize money would make or break me, and I feel it definitely was more useful to one of the gents I met on my episode.
That didn't make my losing any easier, though. At first, I was proud that I had managed to get on an episode and finish a blade with the time constraints and challenge requirements laid out. I made the mistake of dwelling on it and internalizing the failure as a personal character fault, and was not in a good head space for a while. I did learn, for good or ill, I was very much my father's son: sheer bull-headed stubbornness both allowed me to finish and kept me from finishing within requirements. Even Dave Baker called me on this, and all I could offer was a helpless shrug and "risk verses reward." comment.
As it always seems to, it took a few outside perspectives to break through the fog of my malaise. I now had a benchmark to measure against, something I had lacked just making blades for friends and family or my own amusement. Once I pulled my head out of my own ass, I decided I was going to learn everything I could from whoever I could. My failure wasn't actually a failure, it would be the boot-to-ass I needed to get in gear.
2017 then became my year abroad, and it's already planned to bleed over a little bit into 2018 but definitely not so severely. I spent at least as much time traveling and in class as I did at home, and this put a strain on my relationship with everyone back home. I want to take a moment, though, to thank everyone for being supportive and excited on my behalf during this process. I probably would have died of exhaustion in a random airport terminal without you.
So, this little series of blog posts will serve multiple purposes. I want to highlight what I've learned for posterity, selfishly so I can say "I've done this." as well as to promote the teachers and institutions that I was able to learn from. As well I want to share some of the stories and moments I found touching, and call out the friends I've made along the way.
I had the opportunity to test a pair of knives, courtesy of Michael Kerley from 7th Dragon Knifeworks. I want to start this review by saying that I know and like Mike, we play Star Craft together (he's vastly better than me, which I don't like). Obviously, there is some bias towards positive attitudes, but my opinions are based on physical tests and usage in my own home and kitchen. I feel it important to mention that I was not paid for this test, both blades are actually making a circuit around the US with a dozen or so different folks and I was fortunate enough to be on that list.
That being said, lets start at the very beginning. I received the box containing the two knives pictured from the previous gentleman in the circuit, wrapped up in some plastic-wrap with what looked and smelled like cosmoline beneath it. I carefully cleaned both blades (read: vigorously scrubbed with a scotch brite and soap) to make sure they were cleaned of residue. During this time I was impressed by how thin they were made and how comfortable they felt in the hand. Also, keep in mind, these had seen use by Mike and a handful of guys in circulation before it got to me.
I'm going to break this down into an individual review of each knife, especially because I tested the gyuto against one I have from a teacher of mine.
Straight from the wiki entry: "The chef's knife for professional Western cuisine. For vegetables, it is used to chop or thrust cut like a nakiri near the heel, to rock-chop stiffer produce in the belly, and to make fine cuts at the tip. For meat, it is used to saw back and forth for large cuts, to pull cut for softer meats and for a better surface finish, and to push cut for more sinewy meat. There is usually a slope from heel to the tip which causes the wrist to point down and shoulder to raise up to make cuts."
I was excited to try a gyuto from Mike because I, as previously stated, own one from my teacher Taro Asano. This was an excellent chance for me to compare an American and a Japanese interpretation of the same knife. Below are images of the knives from 7th Dragon Knifeworks (https://www.facebook.com/7thdragonknifeworks/) and Asanokajiya (https://www.facebook.com/taroasanokajiya/) respectively.
As you can see, Mike's gyuto has a much more rounded and gentle shape to the blade, with a sharp and angular handle. It's made from 1095 monosteel and there is a hamon present (despite the poor quality of my camera) and the blade was evenly ground and etched to show this. By comparison, Taro's gyuto has a sharp and angular blade with a rounded and more gentle handle. While there is an appearance of a hamon, it doesn't actually possess one. This is because only the cutting edge was polished, leaving the back half to two thirds evenly forged but retaining forge scale. Additionally, the image barely shows that there is a third transition right at the cutting edge itself; this comes from the gyuto being made of a Japanese laminate steel called shirogami.
Aesthetic choices of the craftsmen aside, both knives were comfortable to hold and use for the duration of whatever cutting I did. Not being a professional chef, I would claim based on my experience that both performed equally well except for one instance: Taro's gyuto would cut a loaf of bread without crushing it as much as Mike's did. With meat, vegetables, packaging (both plastic wrap and cardboard) both knives cut like a laser.
Result: serrated knives are bullshit and making a single edge to cut bread is not easy. Taro's gyuto is slightly better in that regards. Sentimentality towards teacher trumps sentimentality towards friend?
I asked Mike what exactly this knife was, and he told me it was a prototype for a line he's calling "gliders." I honestly couldn't give it a better name because it did just glide through everything. As it was explained: "The idea is to pinch the blade with your middle finger in the groove, and just enough handle for the other two fingers. Makes them stupidly light, and have great control for light duty use."
If I thought that gyuto was sharp, this little knife was terrifyingly so. Also, light duty? I did everything around the house I needed except chop firewood. Now, there are some admitted flaws in the prototype design direct from the maker, things I believe he's already addressed moving forward. For example, you can't really chop from tip to heel because the shape of the handle makes the knuckles hit the board a bit. For slicing cuts when you're pinching the blade though, there's nothing better.
If you notice in the picture, there's a chip out of the edge about a third of the way from the tip. This happened while it was in my care and I felt bad, but it was also a learning opportunity about the knife and maker. First thing, when I told Mike what happened (cat knocked it off, landed hard right on the edge) he wasn't really concerned or mad. Secondly, it told me that his differential heat treat on the blade was done very well. After falling three feet only a small portion of the edge chipped; the blade didn't crack or shatter.
Not only did it only break that small section, but I just steeled the blade a couple times and went on to cutting and it didn't negatively impact the performance. It remained, literally, sharp enough to slice a cardboard box with no effort (think Blue Apron delivery service size).
My only complaint about the blades is aesthetic, I'm not a fan of acrylic for handles. They are well shaped, fitted, polished, and the colors go well together...but it's still acrylic. I loved having them here at the house to use day-to-day until I dropped them in the post on to the next gentleman in line.
If you're looking for a good kitchen knife that will do whatever you ask, that looks and feels good, and won't break the bank then go talk to Mike Kerley. I've already commissioned two.
Well, here it is: make your own shield in five easy steps.*
*Disclaimer: This is not actual a how-to guide, merely an overview of the steps used in the system I was taught. If there's interest, I'll make an instructional video and walk through the steps while making a demo shield.
Tools: While this could conceivably be done with hand tools, it would be very labor and time intensive. We took advantage of several tools to help with the process: drill press, band saw, chop saw, belt sander, orbital sander.
There are other things you can do based on your preference like staining, burning, scarring, painting, etc. I left that out because it's window dressing to the fabrication.
Originally posted: Monday, February 10, 2014.
Edited for repost: Sunday, September 18, 2016.
A little description of the project: this is a charcoal burning forge designed for use in making knives of bowie size or smaller. It does not have a clean out drain or clinker-breaker like a coal or coke forge, and does not require the constant influx of air as a coke forge would. A simple hand crank blower is enough to provide air for this forge. The working area is approximately 14 inches long and 5 inches wide, allowing for the heat-treating of a complete knife below that length, or the blade only of a slightly larger piece.
The forge is made of simple parts that can be gathered cheaply (or in some cases, completely free), and assembled in an afternoon. The only time consuming part of the build will be allowing the adobe lining to dry before the first use of the forge.
The parts list for the forge is very small, and can be gathered or purchased fairly inexpensively. In some cases, you may know someone with acceptable substitutes that are willing to give them to you.
*You can use an electric blower and variable speed control in place of a hand crank blower. Use a 1" pipe floor flange and some neoprene to bolt and seal it to the blower, and thread onto the tuyere pipe.
Once you have all your pieces, either following this design or using your own, you'll need to begin assembling the parts. I'll walk through the fabrication of my design, but the steps are universal for this type of forge.
Fabrication will start with the washtub, so that it can be set aside to dry (if painted) while you finish the rest. Mine had to be at a certain height because I used rigid pipe to connect the tuyere to the blower. Mark, on center, for the tuyere; it should pass through the tub length-wise. Use a hole saw to cut a hole for the black pipe. A pilot hole and a pair of tin snips can be used if you don't have a hole saw handy.
Slide the tuyere into place to make sure that it is centered and runs level through the tub. While you have it fitted, mark the tuyere pipe for the eventual air holes. From the inside of the tub, mark the tuyere pipe inward 2 inches. Make sure to do this on both sides, and then remove the tuyere. You can set it aside for a few moments.
Now we'll make the slots in the tub to allow you to insert and remove the work piece. From the top and center of the hole you made, mark a line 2 inches upwards and 5 inches wide. From the edge of this line go straight up to the top of the tub. Once marked, cut out the notch with a cut off wheel or tin snips.
With both notches made, be sure to clean up the holes and notches so you don't cut yourself on any sharp burrs. At this time you can paint it if you prefer (I did), using a black matte high temperature paint. Either way, set the tub aside so we can focus on the tuyere.
Between the two lines you marked previously, mark a straight line length-wise down the pipe. Every inch down this line, mark or pre-punch a guide hole. Don't go over the line, and stay as close as possible to it as you can. Don't worry if your last hole is a little inside the line and doesn't quite match up. Now drill the holes you marked with a 1/4" bit through only this side of the pipe.
Once the tub has dried (or not, as you prefer), you can assemble all the pieces. Attach the fittings to the blower, and the tuyere, and put it through the tub. If you want an added measure of safety, you can screw a mounting bracket to the tuyere and the bottom of the tub.
The last step once all the piping has been installed is to mix up some adobe* and make the forge body. This is personal preference, but I'll include a picture of my design. I made two raised platforms from the tuyere to the bottom of the notch, and 2 inches out. From there, I made walls even with the sides of the notch on both sides. This gave me the 14"x5" approx work area.
Make sure to screw the end cap on the tuyere, and let the adobe dry out before adding your charcoal and lighting the forge.
* The original design for this forge mentioned an adobe recipe of 1/2 parts earthen clay, 1/2 parts sand, and a couple handfuls of ashes to help add refractory qualities. Mine ended up being closer to 1/3 clay, 1/3 sand, 1/3 dirt with many handfuls of ash. Look around and find a good recipe you feel comfortable with and experiment.
Lively, Tim. (2014, January.) Wash Tub Forge. Timlively.com. Retrieved April 14, 2014, from http://www.timlively.com.
Kampman, Igor. (2013, April 3.) Tim Lively Inspired Washtub Forge. Kampmanknives.blogspot.com. Retrieved April 14, 2014, from http://kampmanknives.blogspot.com.
metalhead0jtk. (2010, December 22.) Blacksmithing - Build a simple charcoal forge. youtube.com. Retrieved April 14, 2014, from http://youtube.com.
Originally posted: Monday, April 14, 2014.
A short video shot using my cellphone during the March 2013 Knifemaking Class at Pieh Tool Co, Camp Verde, Az. Shown is ABS Mastersmith Ray Ryber (more accurately, his hands) putting the filework into the spine of the tang.
Charcoal is an unsung workhorse, a material found in extremely varied and numerous fields and roles. In fact, it's likely that you've used it at some point and may even be unaware. What is charcoal? Basically, charcoal is the carbon and ash left behind from burned wood. It's made by burning wood in an oxygen-depleted environment, to prevent the creation of unwanted and nonburnable oxidation in the finished product. This finished product has many uses, including but certainly not limited to the following: cooking, blacksmithing and forging, heating, filtration, fertilizing, and medicinal purposes. The benefit of charcoal is the versatility of roles it can perform, beyond what you could get from simply burning wood. It is a valuable and useful tool that has benefits over other materials, but can also be perverted to have significant negative impacts.
Charcoal is produced by slow pyrolysis. Pyrolysis is an irreversible thermochemical decomposition of organic material at elevated temperatures and in the absence of oxygen. For making charcoal, this is usually done in the 200–300 °C (390–570 °F) range. Pyrolysis differs from other high-temperature processes like combustion and hydrolysis in that it usually does not involve reactions with oxygen, water, or any other reagents. In practice, it is not possible to achieve a completely oxygen-free atmosphere. Because some oxygen is present in any pyrolysis system, a small amount of oxidation occurs.
Traditional creation was accomplished, at least in Britain, using what's called a clamp. This is essentially a pile of wooden logs standing upright and leaning against a chimney of wooden stakes held by rope. The pile is completely covered by soil, straw, and the like to prevent air from entering, and ensuring the reducing environment. The clamp is lit by introducing burning fuel into the chimney, and allowed to burn down for around five days' time. During this time, the clamp was closely monitored to ensure the soil cover remained intact. Any cracks could allow oxygen into the system and reduce the yield, or spoil the result.
A more simple and modern method of producing charcoal involves a sealed metal container, such as a 55-gallon drum. This has the advantage of preventing fire from breaking through the covering, as was possible with the clamp. This does not mean, of course, that it should be lit and abandoned. Nor should it be done in an enclosed environment, for the fire poses a risk to combustible materials and also produces carbon monoxide: an odorless, colorless, and tasteless gas that is toxic in concentration.
In a DIY environment, once the materials had been gathered, the process is very simple. You would need a sealed metal container with a tight fitting lid, typically a 55-gallon drum would work well. You will also need cured wood to turn into charcoal, and extra wood to burn to produce the charcoal. Cured wood, which means it has been dried to reduce moisture content, can be bought or made yourself by leaving it outside stacked to allow air flow around the pieces. Cherry, oak, and hickory are all good choices, mesquite will work but has a tendency to pop quite violently and throw off sparks. The traditional Japanese white charcoal (binchō-tan) is made from white oak, and has been used for centuries.
Chop the cured wood into four-inch pieces; make sure you have enough to fill the drum to the top (but still replace the lid!) Fill the drum and fit the lid tightly, but don't try and get it "airtight"; you want to prevent the barrel from building up any pressure and rupturing. Take the extra wood and build a bonfire around the drum's base, and stack it up to the rim of the lid. You'll need to make sure you have enough fuel to burn for three to five hours to ensure a complete burn. Let the fire burn out completely and give the drum time to cool off before you approach and open it. You will now have small pieces of charcoal that can be broken up for use in various purposes.
This is only one method of making charcoal, here is a wikihow link that provides two methods with pictures: http://www.wikihow.com/Make-Charcoal. The second method, which I did not describe here, consumes far less fuel in the production. It does, however, take more materials and almost twice as long to complete.
There are several different types of charcoal, which can be broadly broken down into hardwood, briquettes, and biomass or extruded briquettes and logs. Hardwood charcoals, like the lumpcharcoal described above and the Japanese white and black charcoals, create high heat and can be used for cooking as well as forging applications. Briquettes are made of compressed sawdust and wood by-products, sometimes with a binding agent and additives mixed in. They best serve cooking and heating applications. Extruded and biomass charcoal, like Japanese ogatan, is similar to regular briquettes but made from sawdust and ground wood formed with heat and pressure.
Charcoal has been used for millenia in a range of purposes, but the most principle role has been as a metallurgical fuel. It is the traditional blacksmith's fuel for forging, and other applications where intense heat was required. It burns at very high temperatures, up to 2700 °C ( 4800 °F), which exceeds the melting point of iron. Because charcoal is porous, it is sensitive to air flow and thus the head generated by it can be controlled by limiting or increasing the air flow to the fire. It also produces an excellent reducing environment, limited oxygen in the forge, which prevents the metal from scaling and degrading. In this application it is superior to its counterpart, coal, because it lacks sulfur and is capable of burning hotter.
For many years, charcoal was used in blast furnaces, and millenia before that in foundries for the production of various grades of iron and steel, known as "cast iron", "pig iron", and "steel." It was only with industrialization that the use of cheaper coke fuel began, as the demand for charcoal was rapidly increasing beyond production capability. For centuries and continuing even in the modern age, traditional steel for Japanese swords, known as tamahagane, is still made using a tatara pit furnace. Over the course of 72 hours, charcoal and iron sand will be continuously added and burned in the pit to create approximately 2.5 tons of steel. In many places, charcoal was still used up until World War II to make high quality steel.
A wood gas generator, or gasifier, can burn charcoal or wood to produce combustible gasses that are then usable by gasoline powered machines. It does so by mixing atmospheric nitrogen with flammable gasses released during the fuel's combustion, such as carbon monoxide. These machines can range from a simple gasoline-powered generator to an automobile once converted. In fact, a Chinese engineer named Tang Zhongming developed an automobile powered by charcoal in 1931 that remained popular in his home country until the 1950s.
Regular charcoal or activated charcoal can both be used in filtration, odor absorption, and purification. Activated charcoal is a processed form of charcoal reheated in the presence of a gas to fill it with tiny pores that easily absorb organic compounds from liquids or gasses. When the organic compounds pass through the charcoal, they are removed from the original medium and held within the charcoal. You have most likely seen this being used in a water purifier available from most grocery stores without even knowing it. In addition to purifying and filtering, it can also aid in indigestion. Traditionally it was consumed in small biscuits to aid in relieving gastric problems, but today it can be taken via capsule or tablet. An interesting anecdote is the fact that some African monkeys, whom possess a leafy diet high in cyanide, have been observed consuming charcoal to absorb the cyanide and relive their indigestion. This is why it's modern medicinal use is primarily in the absorption of ingested poisons and toxins in the body.
As a fuel, charcoal is generally cleaner burning and free of impurities when compared with coal and coke. The major benefits that coal or coke have over charcoal is that, besides their undesirable sulfer content, they are cheaper to obtain and use. Charcoal, however, is a superior fuel because it lacks the sulfur and burns hotter. This esd "rediscovered" in 2010 when PKS charcoal (palm kernel shell) was determined to be a better alternative to fossil fuels for use in foundry electric arc furnaces. A Brazilian program for eco-friendly steel production was implemented after the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP15) in Copenhagen, Denmark. This program phased out the use of coal and coke in favor of wood from eucalyptus plantations.
While charcoal possesses many positive uses and benefits in certain applications, it also has some serious historical and potential drawbacks. For example, charcoal is cleaner burning and more pure as a fuel source than coal or coke. However, the irresponsible production of charcoal can rapidly lead to deforestation of an area as all suitable trees are harvested and burned. Most of the drawbacks could be alleviated with responsible and sustainable woodland management. With a little consideration and extra effort, charcoal can be a lasting and sustainable tool in many roles and industries.
Stoughton, Bradley Ph. B., B. S. (1934) The Metallurgy of Iron and Steel. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Book Company.
Kapp, Leon and Hiroko. (2012) The Art of the Japanese Sword. The Craft of Swordmaking and its Appreciation. Rutland, Vermont: Tuttle Publishing.
HQ, Department of the Army. (2012) FM 21-76 Reprint of Department of the Army Field Manual. U.S. Army Survival Manual. New York, NY: Mud Puddle Inc.
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Jr McLaws. (2013, Mar 16). amazing homemade gasifier uses wood pellets to run generator. Youtube.com. Retrieved April 11, 2014, from http://www.youtube.com.
Originally posted: Friday April 4, 2014