I came up with the idea for this possible hobby article during a recent visit to Blowing Rock, North Carolina.
My friend Ashton Naylor retired from the Army about a decade ago.
He initially took a job with a defense contractor, but quickly figured out he didn’t want a second career of writing proposals and calling old friends to discuss the defense business.
Luckily, Ashton discovered how to learn blacksmithing when he was in the Army and founded Naylor Forge.
So, by the time he fully retired, he was able to fill his days making knives, tomahawks, and all other manners of metal goods that interested him.
Are you creative? Do you like to work with your hands? Did you recently stumble onto an episode of History Channel’s Forged in Fire and think to yourself, “I could do that!”
If so, keep reading this article on how to learn blacksmithing.
A blacksmith is someone that works with metals such as iron or steel to create useful items like knives, tools, fences, gates, hinges, hooks, hangers, furniture, and so on.
Traditionally they’ve done the “heavy” metalwork while whitesmiths have focused on smaller items such as jewelry using precious metals like gold or silver.
Blacksmiths use heat and force to shape metal into desired objects.
If becoming a blacksmith sounds fun, you’ll need to know and buy a few things to get started on your how to learn blacksmithing journey.
How Do I Start Blacksmithing?
It seems you’ve already begun if you’re reading this article.
You can continue internet research to make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into. If you use the search term “Blacksmithing,” articles and videos will pop right up.
If you’re a bit old fashioned, Amazon has several book options to include, “Forged: A Guide to Becoming a Blacksmith,” by Liam Hoffman.
You’ll probably stumble on it, but “Essential Craftsmen” is an easy to follow YouTube Channel packed with information, as well as “Black Bear Forge.”
And for the younger reader, modern blacksmiths such as “Alec Steele,” are entertaining and informative.
Once you’ve completed your initial research, try to find a working smith in your area to observe and ask questions.
We’re lucky to have a preserved blacksmith forge in Alabama’s Constitutional Village not far from our house.
The volunteer village blacksmiths, like my friend David, are happy to spend the day talking to anyone that’s interested, while they produce simple items such as nails.
This basic period forge is an excellent example of the minimum equipment required to get started.
What Blacksmithing Tools Do I Need?
OK, I’m ready to give it a try, what tools do I really need?
It all starts with a forge, anvil, vice, tongs, hammer, gloves, and water container.
Conceptually, the process is simple. Heat and mold your metal into the desired shape, then cool and finish. It’s that easy!
What that overly simplified example leaves out, is repeated heating, hammering, bending, and shaping in a hot shop.
You can literally spend as much as you want building your shop if you expand to power hammers, hydraulic forging presses, CNC machines, and so forth.
But in the beginning, a simple forge, anvil, vice, tongs, hammer, gloves, and water container are all you really need.
How Much Space Will a Forge Take?
The forge itself isn’t that big, but it puts off a lot of heat.
When you’re starting out, you won’t need much space, but if you continue, and acquire more equipment this might change.
A lot of people get their start in the garage. You could also forge in your backyard if you don’t have a garage.
Public spaces aren’t a good idea because the forge and metal are extremely hot and could cause serious injury if someone is too curious.
Where Can I Learn Blacksmithing?
Can I just take a blacksmithing course or classes somewhere?
You’ll need to do an internet search again to see if there are any classes near you.
Blacksmithing has made a comeback in recent years, so chances are, you shouldn’t have to travel too far.
Your search should produce formal and informal training opportunities. If you live in Northern California for example, “The Crucible” is a West Oakland nonprofit that offers blacksmith courses.
If you can’t travel to California, look for other nonprofits and community colleges that have similar programs closer to you.
The other way to get started is to find an individual blacksmith that’s willing to teach and/or mentor you.
Many blacksmiths have followed this path. For Ashton, his initial entry into blacksmithing was facilitated by Master Blade Smith Charlie Ochs, from Largo, Florida.
Sure, some blacksmiths are too busy to take on new people, but in general, blacksmiths are passionate about what they do.
They love to talk about it, teach it, and ultimately pass it on to subsequent generations.
So, if you’re willing to learn, put yourself out there and find a blacksmith teacher, coach, and mentor.
Is Blacksmithing Physically Demanding?
The simple answer is yes, blacksmiths work is physically demanding.
If you’re used to watching TV, playing video games, or cruising social media, then yes, it’s more physically demanding than any of those activities.
But it’s not so physically demanding that you won’t be able to do it. The great thing about artisan blacksmithing is that you can choose what to make.
If you don’t want to swing a heavy hammer all day, then make smaller items that only need a small hammer.
It’ll still be hot, but after a few hundred swings, your arm and shoulder will thank you for choosing a 1lb hammer instead of a 2.5lb hammer.
If you can afford it, they even have power hammers to do the heavy pounding.
The Naylor Forge power hammer is from 1911, so if you really like smithing, chances are you might be able to find an affordable power hammer early in your blacksmithing journey.
What Basic Blacksmithing Techniques Are Most Important?
Blacksmithing skills are straightforward.
That’s because the smithing process is built on forging, drawing, bending, upsetting, punching, welding, and finishing techniques at its core.
Forging – shaping metal by hammering.
Drawing – lengthening metal.
Bending – heating iron to forging heat and hammering over the edge or horn of an anvil or inserting a bending fork.
Upsetting – making metal thicker.
Punching – making a hole or decorative pattern.
Welding – joining two metals.
Finishing – hardening, filing, brushing, grinding, oiling, waxing, etc. for aesthetics or to protect the metal.
What Materials are Involved?
Of course, blacksmiths work with metal. But depending on the design, wood, leatherwork, and other materials may be required.
Simply put, the type of materials involved in blacksmithing depend on your particular project.
But that doesn’t answer the question, so here’s a bit on types and sourcing of metal.
You’ll often hear 1/4” round and square to denote steel you might need for many early projects. Specifically, 1/4″ x 3/4″ or 1” x 20’ are useful measurements for general steel projects.
Again, available material measurements vary, so you’ll need to ask or figure out what the best starting size is for whatever you want to make.
You can buy your mild or tool steel at a steel warehouse, or talk to local welding shops about where they get materials if a warehouse isn’t convenient.
If neither of those are an option, you can get limited steel from a retail home center chain for small projects. Albeit, at a much higher price.
If you’re just starting, ask the supplier or welding shop for remnants to save money.
Some smiths also use scrap material, but often these reclaimed materials aren’t suitable if you’re trying to source supplies for a specific project.
If instead, you’re willing to let the source material drive your design, well then, feel free to scrounge for rusty old metal wherever you can find it.
But understand, the varying grades and unknown condition of reclaimed steel make buying new steel a much better option if you can afford it.
New steel is also safer, since blended materials, paints, rustproofing, etc. on reclaimed steel can put off toxic chemicals that you don’t want to breathe.
You’ll also see designations such as 01, 4140, 5160, A2, W-2, and so on. These letters and numbers represent steel grades.
There are numerous articles and charts available, but at the outset, you’ll probably feel overwhelmed by all the different grades.
To get an idea of basic knife steel grades, see Terence Bell’s article, “Compare 20 Grades of Knife Steel.”
Artist Blacksmiths versus a Professional Blacksmith?
This comparison is largely what it sounds like. As a beginning hobbyist you’ll fall into the artist blacksmith category.
Don’t be fooled, artist blacksmiths can run successful businesses, but this category is largely doing things by hand.
A professional blacksmith on the other hand, may be more concerned with numbers and throughput, possibly on an industrial scale.
CNC machines and other high-tech tools can significantly increase production and standardization, but products tend to lose that handmade look and feel.
Warning, this terminology isn’t standardized.
So, I don’t recommend telling an artist blacksmith that he or she isn’t a professional. Not a good start to a possible mentor mentee relationship!
What Blacksmiths Association Should I Join?
There are numerous blacksmith groups you can join. The Artist-Blacksmith’s Association of North America has some helpful resources to get you started.
There are regional organizations such as the Northwest Blacksmith Association or Appalachian Blacksmiths Association.
And some states even have their own organizations such as the Alabama Forge Council, Michigan Artist Blacksmith Association, or the Blacksmith Association of Missouri.
Before you decide on which one to join, talk to the local blacksmiths that you met through your initial research.
Ultimately, you’ll want to be associated with the same groups as your friends and mentors.
If you’re retired and looking for a hobby to exercise your creativity, how to learn blacksmithing may be of interest.
You can get started without putting in a lot of time or money to see if you like it.
If you do like it, the sky’s the limit for what you can design and create with little more than a simple forge, anvil, vice, tongs, hammer, gloves, and water container.
If you have any questions on how to learn blacksmithing, shoot my friend Ashton an email at Naylor Forge.