Thursday, April 20, 2006

[random] What would you do...

One summer during college I built a forge in my backyard. Admittedly, this was not your typical suburban backyard. I was still living with my parents, and they own a small farmstead in central MA - seven acres located an hour or so west of Boston, 20 minutes or so east of Worcester. Their house, built in 1740, sits well off the road, unusual in New England Colonial-era houses. Standing at the top of the driveway, looking down towards the house, one can see why: at one time, their driveway was the road. A faint echo of it still curls up the hill behind their house, faint stone walls and a slightly sunken trace extending up through oaks, maples, an apple orchard long gone to scrub. When the trees are bare, it is easy to picture - that trace lines up perfectly with the driveway, the shortest distance between two points, demarcated by fallen rows of granite. It's a very different place now. The farm is still there, but it's an anachronistic island. There's been a lot of development in town. Highway noise is a constant background hum, and Boston-bound commuters start backing up on the on ramp to I-495 at 6AM. There are McMansions, and "horse people" (there were always people who owned horses, even some who made a living at it, but none of them were "horse people"). There are biotech executives and doctors, there's a mall, there's even a small mosque in the neighboring town that serves the Saudi and Pakistani physicians who work at UMass Medical Center. Women in burqas come to buy honey from my parents' hives, while well-heeled homeowners buy their plants and produce. For good or ill, it's not the same place where I grew up by a long shot. So why a forge? Actually, I have a family history of blacksmithing. My great-great-grandfather was a smith, and for years a family legend was that the shop in which he worked was the inspiration for Longfellow's poem "The Village Smithy"; Henry Ford eventually purchased the smithy and moved it to Dearborn Village as part of his attempt to collect as many American icons as possible. (Many sites claim this privilege - for instance, the Maine Historical Society refers to Cambridge, MA being home to "the spreading chestnut tree", as do others. Ford clearly thought otherwise, choosing a site in the Blackstone Valley (from Chestnut Hill Road). As it turned out for us, the shop he purchased and moved to his Michigan museum was that of my grandfather's rival. Heh. Myths die hard...) But then there's the magic of the forge itself. The smithy at Sturbridge Village (a recreation of early Industrial Revolution-era life in New England) has always been my favorite part: the smell of the coal smoke, the sparks, the sound. Raw iron, firm and unyielding, heated to incandescence - it grudgingly allows itself to be shaped, coaxed into sinewey forms. Delicate filigree or stout knife blade; wrought hooks and forge horseshoes: the same tools produce them all. My dad and I took a class together at Sturbridge - under the tutelage of one of their interpreters, we learned how to build and maintain a coal fire, what the proper color should be when the iron is ready to be forged, how to hold the tools, the names of the parts of an anvil. Over the course of the day, we made a couple of wrought iron wall hooks since the making of a hook utilizes most basic smithing techniques: draw and taper both ends of your square stock - one end will be the spike that will be driven into the wall, the other will be formed into the "j" of the hook; fold the spike end at a 90° angle; about an inch below the bend, twist the shank that will sit against the wall for a decorative detail - a couple of inches done with the vise and some tongs will look quite nice. A couple of inches or so below the twist in the shank, shape the curve of the hook itself; as a final detail, recurve the tapered tip of the hook so that it curls back out over itself - don't want to poke through whatever you hang on the hook, right? Each step requires heating and hammering, pivot from fire to forge and back to fire once the glow subsides and the iron grows sluggish under your blows. With a roar of steam, plunge the hook into a bucket of water, stealing the last of the iron's fire. Examine the hook - keep or discard as its condition merits, then start again. All that to make a hook. That's the preindustrial version of your $3-at-the-local-big-box-hardware-retailer wall hook. But it was fun. Dirty, sweaty, and noisy, but definitely fun. I knew I'd have to do that again. But how to do it without paying for another class? I knew I'd have to build my own forge. Given the family history (and a predisposition for collecting antiques), we already had an anvil that was in decent shape, along w/ a squirrel-cage fan (a hand-cranked blower that you'd use in lieu of a bellows). I had some plans from a book that my dad had, and was pleasantly surprised to find that the other parts were readily available. Here's what you need: Ten or so cinder blocks upon which to stand the firepit of the forge. One car tire rim (for the firepit), some black iron plumbing fittings (to connect the blower to the axle hole at the bottom of the firepit), a couple big handfuls of gravel (to put into the firepit to make it somewhat more bowl-shaped) and some furnace cement (to line the firepit and make it nice & smooth & heat-reflective), and presto! Once the refractory cement cures, you've got yourself a primitive but fully functional forge. Get yourself some laundry Borax for flux and a heavy ball peen hammer (if you can't find a 'real' cross peen smith's hammer), and you're ready to go. If you don't already have the anvil & blower, you can make do with a segment of railroad track (often available free as scrap) and a cheapo hair dryer. The hardest part was finding a source for brown coal (the soft, high-sulfur, makes-acid-rain-when-burned-in-industrial-quantities kind) because you can't forge with hard coal. So what did I make that summer? Mostly I made a mess, and a lot of noise. I learned that you can burn steel, that forge welding is bloody hard, and that I need to learn to start small: there is no shame in starting small (but I don't think I've quite absorbed that lesson yet). But I also learned first hand why so many cultures revere smiths - there's something approaching magic in coaxing forth function and form from raw iron and steel. You can't force the metal - you can't make it do anything - if you want your piece to last. And in addition to these valuable life lessons and metaphors, there's an even more practical side to this experience: I've got a head start on my new career path when Peak Oil comes to pass. </sickHumor>


Anonymous karen m said...

Hey, there's a lot to be said for alternate career paths. Wish I had thought of one... :(

That's some really interesting stuff. When we lived at my grandparent's house in western PA, there was an unending supply of soft coal - that's pretty much what's left there even today. I think my granddad even had a forge himself, although he mostly welded from what I remember.

Do you have the space to build a forge where you are now?

4/21/2006 06:46:00 AM  
Blogger protected static said...

I didn't say I was any good at it - just that I've got a jump on having some low tech skills to fall back on... ;-)

Here's hoping I don't need them any time soon.

As for space - maybe, just maybe, if I used a propane furnace instead of a coal or wood charcoal fire. But the noise - that's another matter altogether.

If fences make good neighbors, a forge as neighbor would have to be the crazy alcoholic who sleeps in his grubby underwear on his front porch.

4/21/2006 07:51:00 AM  

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