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Reflections

Tool manufacturing a specialty for 19th century blacksmith shops : Reflections : Oswego Ledger-Sentinel : Hometown Newspaper for Oswego and Montgomery, Illinois
Tool manufacturing a specialty for 19th century blacksmith shops
3/29/2012

Until the first years of the 20th century, every town, village and hamlet had at least one blacksmith shop. Small crossroads hamlets might only have one shop, but busy towns and villages each had several shops in which blacksmiths often specialized in either farrier work or regular blacksmithing.

Farriers are the fellows who make and apply horse and ox shoes, while blacksmiths specialized in tool manufacture and repair. Blacksmiths in small hamlets, however, couldn't afford to specialize and did a little bit of everything.

In the old blacksmith's shop, it was the forge itself that made the blacksmith's work possible. In fact, the shop was built around the forge to keep out the weather.

Most early forges were made of stone, including the chimney and the hood above the fire. The base of the forge was a flat-topped masonry block about two and a half feet tall, with a square fire hole on top, just a little to the front of center. A grate set in the hole held charcoal. The opening continued down a foot or so to supply an ash pit, reached for cleanout through an iron door in the side of the forge. In the back of the forge, just below the level of the grate, the hollow true iron, through which air was forced to create the intense heat needed to work iron, was cemented into place

Today, forges use hand-cranked or motor-driven fans to supply the air needed to create that heat. Years ago, the air blast was supplied by a huge bellows which the blacksmith worked by hand via a long lever-type handle. Many smiths used a helper, known as the blower and striker, to pull on the bellows and to help with hammering.

The main tool used by the smith was his anvil, which stood about four feet in front of the forge, just about the right distance to service with the long tongs used to pull hot iron out of the fire. The anvil, a huge mass of forged iron, usually rested on the butt of a large log set on the floor of the smithy, usually lining up with the left-hand edge of the forge as the smith faced the fire.

Interestingly enough, the anvil has hardly changed its shape in the last 2,000 years or so. Its spreading base atop which sits a large rectangular bar for flattening, a tapered blunt point on one end of the bar over which iron can be bent, and a square hole in the bar for the bases of various tools is as evident on brand new anvils as they are on those used by smiths during the Revolutionary War-and for hundreds of years before that.

Once he acquired his anvil and hammer, a smith could make all his other tools, as well as tools needed by other artisans from cobblers to carpenters.

Perhaps the most important tool made by pioneer smiths was the American felling ax. The axes of the earliest settlers resembled oversized, long-handled tomahawks. The blade was long, narrow, and badly balanced. Sometime around 1700, some bright smith added a small poll, or hammerhead, to the traditional ax, improving its balance. About 80 years later the broad bladed poll ax that we know today as the American ax was developed. Along with the change in head design, a recurved helve, or handle, was added to make chopping easier.

To make an ax, a pioneer smith cut two identical flat pieces of iron to the approximate shape of the ax-to-be. The two pieces were made with opposing bevels on the blade end of the ax head. First the two poll ends of the head pieces were put into the forge, and his blower and striker pulled on the forge's bellows, stoking the fire. Soon blower became striker as the smith took the white-hot pieces of iron to his anvil. The smith held the two pieces in place with tongs while the striker hammered them until the softened metal fused, welding the two halves together. Welding was also done at the blade end of the head, but the workers were careful not to close, the seam where the eye for the handle would go or to disturb the V-groove in the blade end of the ax head.

During that era, steel was too expensive to be used for the whole head, so only a small piece of high-carbon steel was inserted into the V-groove to become the sharp cutting edge of the ax. The smith then hammer-welded the steel bit into place, ready for later tempering and sharpening.

After heating in the forge, other hammer blows thinned and shaped the ax head. After heating once again, a tapered tool called a swage was driven between the two welded layers, which opened and shaped the eye for the handle. After final shaping, the whole ax head was heated red hot one more time and then dumped into cold water. This process hardened the soft iron from which most of the head was made, but it made the steel cutting edge brittle, so it had to be tempered. The smith carefully heated the steel edge in the forge, watching its color. The steel's pale straw color darkened with more heat to a strong yellow, and then to brown. When purple spots appeared in the brown, the steel had reached 510 degrees, and the smith quenched it in water. The steel bit was now fully hardened and would hold a good edge through many sharpenings.

The small village blacksmith later became almost purely a farrier, making and installing horse and oxen shoes, including the nails to hold them in place, although still doing a little tool manufacturing and repair. Many of their shops changed over to auto repair after World War I.

Nowadays everything we use made from iron and steel is produced by machines. But there was a time that every kitchen knife, every ax, every sickle and scythe used in the field, and every nail in a house was made by hand in the smith's shop using forge and anvil.




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