As a librarian, research is my thing. If someone asks for information, I usually point them to a book or some other credible resource. I hunt down information and hand it off to whoever needs it and think nothing of it.
Sometimes, though, “credible resources” aren’t so credible, especially when it comes to blacksmithing books.
Ever since I got started, I’ve been reading every book I can get my hands on, and nearly every one of them is thrown down in frustration. The smithing books have ranged from “The $50 Knife Shop” to “The Backyard Blacksmith,” among others, and I’ve been finding them just as frustrating as I am finding them useful.
I stopped buying books on the topic because of the sheer amount of crap I was getting after reading the first book. The sad part? These were all suggested readings from my classes!
If you’re interested in getting into blacksmithing, you might want to be warned that most of the books are not as useful as you’d think.
Nearly every book on the topic tends to open with basic techniques, which is great. Knowing the difference between full-faced blows and hammer techniques to create a bevel is useful. Having an introduction into parts of the forge is brilliant. An entire page taken up for a colored metal temperature chart (with numbers) so you know what colors to look for when forging, welding, or heat treating is absolutely necessary.
But sometimes, they get a bit too technical, or they don’t explain how something is done. For example, I still haven’t figured out how to make an ax-shaped object because the books describing the technique don’t make sense nor define the terms.
Some of the books also assume that you are only using coal. I’ve lost track of the number of books that I’ve read that disregard propane forges outside of mentioning they exist. As someone who uses propane (and hopefully will be getting a waste fuel burner in the near future), I found this both frustrating and disheartening, as a chunk of the book is dedicated to fire maintenance but nothing about how a propane forge would work. There’s always a section discussing how to forge weld with coal, but nothing on forge welding with propane. Again, rather a frustrating situation.
There’s also the case that many of these books will assume that you are either rolling in money or plan on doing this for a living. Sure, blacksmithing is expensive (just look at the price for a new anvil), but some of the tools that are suggested are pretty crazy. One of the books, “The Backyard Blacksmith” goes into discussion about using plasma cutters. In fact, a number of books on the topic talk about how plasma cutters make things easy, especially when you can have it automated with a computer. Keep in mind that a cheap, hand-controlled plasma cutter costs over $300, and other “suggested” tools like power hammers and CNC machines run into the thousands of dollars range. I love what I do when I’m in the shop, but that’s not the kind money I have sitting around for a hobby, and surely not the sort of thing I’d be promoting a beginner to buy.
A large number of books also assume you have access to other tools and materials, as well as specific types of knowledge. Some titles really try to empower the soon-to-be blacksmith by offering ways to make your own tools at home or to re-purpose materials. Problem is, if you don’t have experience taking apart a motor, lack access to a welder, and lack a basic toolbox, you aren’t going to get far.
I do mean that seriously. When a making a suggested tool involves tearing apart a washing machine from the 1950s, removing the motor, ensuring that it is still wired correctly to a power supply, re-purposing or fabricating wheels, and welding a frame together. . .yeah, there’s a bit of a problem here in the form of a steep learning curve with regards to unrelated skills. Useful skills, but unrelated all the same.
Titles of said books don’t help much, either. One of the titles I mentioned before is called “The Backyard Blacksmith.” I bought it because I was, literally, setting up my forge in the backyard, and was hoping this would have some useful information. The only “backyard” element in the entire book rests within the projects: a glass/drink holder, a snake decoration, tree hook, and a gate latch (among others). Outside of the projects, there was nothing “backyard” about the book. Another, “The $50 Knife Shop” was originally written in the 70s, so prices aren’t accurate (i.e. the burner they suggest is about $10 right there).
All of that said, you are probably wondering where I’m learning anything at all in all of this. To be honest, it’s pretty limited.
One part is the internet. Scary thought, I know, but stay with me here. The best resources I found are the various blacksmithing forums (my favorite being IForgeIron); these are normally hotbeds for information as you have smiths from all over the world congregating online to share information and talk about projects. Instructables can be good, but some of them are unbelievable crap in the long run, so do your research! (For example, I once saw an instructable on how to make a knife. . .and they used mild steel. It was awful.)
Another part would be within books, but limit it. Look at book reviews, see if you can read the book first (your local library is great for this sort of thing, especially with Interlibrary Loan), and check for a sampling of the book via Google Books if it’s available. If you think the information is too redundant compared to what you’ve been looking at already, then ignore it. Honestly, the only good part with some of my books are the projects, but they are seldom worth the $30 price tag for a handful of projects.
Next up are classes. If you can find a local craft school or even a local blacksmith, they are usually able to get you set up at a forge to try it out. ABANA (Artist Blacksmith Association of America) has local chapters, which means there’s probably a local group of blacksmiths not far from you if you know where to look. Trust me: experience with people makes so much of a difference with learning in this field.
Classes can also include working with a local smith that knows what they are talking about. Amusingly enough, you can find people offering classes on Craigslist (I found at least two when I was in NJ), and sometimes those one-on-one classes are the best.
If you enjoy Renn Faires and/or are a member of the SCA, check out those events for blacksmiths. Sometimes, if they know you are serious, they’ll be willing to help you with a class (if you pay, of course). Otherwise, they may be willing to give you some input or insight on your projects.
Once you get started on blacksmithing, be sure you tell just about everyone you meet. This isn’t bragging; honestly, you’d be surprised at what people can do for you. I mentioned it to people in NJ, and I was given phone numbers of local smiths and local pickers to help me get tools. I mentioned it to coworkers and I’d suddenly have metal sitting on my doorstep because they didn’t need it anymore (not always useful metal, mind you, but still metal!). I mentioned it to my fellow SCAdians, and now I’m chatting with other metalworkers to see if we can get some hammer-ins to share skills (I focused on blades, one of the guys does more “practical” work, someone else does art, etc). Trust me: the more people that know, the better chances you have at finding tools or people to work with.
Another thing to do once you know you are interested: get some clay and a hammer and start working. It will give you an idea with regards to how your hammer blows will change the metal, which is important when you are working with heated steel and need to make each heat count.
In the end, just be smart about it. Books are great, but they aren’t the end-all. You’ll learn the most by doing, and you’ll be surprised with how little you really need to get rolling. As my first instructor has told me: all you need is something to heat the metal, something to hold the metal, something to hit the metal, and something to hit the metal on. Anything else is optional depending on your work. Good words to live by as you start to get into it.