2020 has been a year for learning new hobbies and skills as we find ways to stay sane during the pandemic. We are never too old or too young to try something new. My 8-year old grandson loves hammering on hot steel. This weekend he was down for American Thanksgiving and we had a lot of fun in the old forge.
And now, here is a slo-mo video. (I love how the hammer ringing on the anvil sounds in slo-mo!)
I happened to be cleaning my shop the other day and found this ugly old thing…
It’s the first knife I ever made, forged from an old lawn mower blade. I don’t think it could have been any uglier if I’d planned it that way, but at the time I was pretty excited – not so much with the results but with successfully completing the forging process to make something.
My first forge was as crude as my first knife was ugly. For a forge I used a fire pit in the backyard, with a steel pipe stuck in it and a hairdryer taped to the other end for a makeshift blower. For those not familiar with the art, a simple fire alone will get hot enough to roast hotdogs, but not enough to heat steel so that it can be forged. Forging requires that you heat steel to the point that it will be soft enough that you can change its shape with a hammer. To get a fire that hot you have to blow air into it somehow. Blowing air is what turns a fire into a forge.
With my first ever ‘forge’ I heated my chunk of lawn mower blade to a bright yellow and hammered away. After a few hammer blows the steel cools off and will no longer be soft enough to manipulate its shape with a hammer. Back into the fire it goes, bringing it up to a bright yellow, and then returning it to the anvil for more hammer blows. For forge tongs I used a pair of old plyers and my anvil was a chunk of old ‘I’ beam I picked up for a couple of bucks at a garage sale.
This process went on for a while until I had the shape of a crude knife. I heat treated it, and finished the handle with some chunks of hardwood I found laying around the garage. For pins I used bits of metal from a clothes hanger.
Lawn mower blades are usually made from good tool steel, with enough carbon that it can be hardened to hold a sharp edge if properly heat treated. So while not very pretty, my knife is sharp and very serviceable – but I am not expecting to win any awards with it.
I still remember how exciting it was just to see hot steel move under my hammer blows and realizing I could manipulate and shape it. It was a lot of fun, even if my first few attempts turned out ugly.
I don’t think people should quit if their first attempt, or even first several attempts, don’t work out so well. Don’t be discourage by failure or ugly results. Fortunately, persistence pays off and if you keep at it, you will get better. Here is a picture of a knife I recently made, using the same process of forging. I forged this paring knife from the leaf spring of a car, and the handle material came from the wood of a honey locust tree in my backyard.
This year has been one for the history books, as the entire world has been in lockdown and millions of people around the planet are in some form of self-isolation.
I haven’t seen friends or family in weeks. My wife and I don’t have any kids at home – they’ve all grown and left the nest. But three of them live only 10 minutes away across town (we have six all together) and we haven’t been able to visit them in weeks. Covid is no joke, and we are taking this seriously. So we are going to tough it out through the isolation until it is safe once again.
One of the ways I’ve been coping with the stress of self-isolation is to spend a lot of time hammering on hot steel. It is amazingly therapeutic, and you don’t have to spend thousands of dollars on a shrink over Zoom.
My wife expressed some concern that during these times of elevated stress, I’ve turned to making sharp objects for fun. But I told her not to worry…really… I’m reasonably certain I’m not going to snap…I think…
All kidding aside, knife making can be a fun and rewarding hobby. One of its positive points is that it has a very low cost entry point. You don’t have to spend much, if any, money to get started. It does not require specialized tools or expensive equipment unless you want to go pro. You can get by with basic tools – which is all you need to do this as a hobby. If you are even a moderately handy person you likely already have most of what you need in your shop. A low cost entry point means no harm done if you want to try it and then decide it’s not for you.
Someone gave me a rack of deer antlers they found in the woods a couple of weeks ago and I used it to make this knife. The blade is cable Damascus I forged a while back from a piece of steel cable. The bolster is brass and leather.
The best way to get through this pandemic is to take up a hobby. Don’t just sit around watching the news or obsessing on social media. Learn to make something with your hands. Take up cooking, baking bread, wood working, painting, pottery…anything you think you’ll enjoy that other people can enjoy as well. It will keep you sane.