Archive for the ‘Blacksmithing’ Category


Warning: A long post – so you might want to just flick through the pictures! Otherwise put the kettle on, get yourself a mug full and settle down to read on

In case you are wondering I do still have a polelathe – several in fact – and I used one yesterday. But summer has finally arrived, the wildflower meadows are in full colour and on the commons the bracken is growing as if there’s no tomorrow –  you could be forgiven for thinking that I’d forgotten all about my lathe at this time of year.

So with my  Scythe over my shoulder grim reaper style I set off for Wimpole Hall again for the Eastern Counties Scything Championships and some spoon carving to boot.

DSCF9324I’d been asked to run a spoon carving course again for beginners. Spoon carving is great fun and it doesn’t need a lot more than an axe and a couple of knives and once again the polelathe was left behind. I am getting polelathe withdrawal symptoms – occasionally my leg starts quivering uncontrollably – but moving on swiftly.

The spoon course seemed to go well and as often happened turned itself into a freeform afternoon/evening of whittling wood for all comers. And I use the term whittling advisedly and specifically. Not everyone seemed to have got the idea of a spoon, especially our Albanian friend Ded who seemed more focused upon removing wood quickly rather than the form and shape of the wood thats left behind.

DSCF9331Making up for Ded’s savage assault on the wood was John, who had not carved a spoon before and came on the course. I think his precision metalworking background is more than a little revealed by the attention to detail of his first spoon. Well done John – a worthy winner of the Spoon category in the craft competition as well.

DSCF9395Somehow John also found time over the weekend to fix the backdoor of my landrover (thank you John), linish the axe that Magnus made me (thank you again John), compete in the mowing and also bring down his vintage Field Marshal tractor to demonstrate the finger bar towed mower.

DSCF9359Not before time we’re onto the mowing. Unlike the Somerset championships where the area of grass is strictly limited by the site, at Wimpole hall there is a 3 mile avenue leading to the hall which is all unfertilised flower meadow! Mower’s heaven – or it can be hell if you leave it too late in the day and it’s all going wrong.

Simon Damant has been pushing us to take advantage and mow 1/4 acre plots and not just the tiny 5x5m plots which we usually compete to mow. Chris Riley mowed 1/4 acre using his straight snathe – and if there was an award for sheer mowing style – Chris would have won in my opinion.  This year several of us stepped up to the 1/4 acre challenge – and I’m very glad that I took the opportunity – I learnt a lot about my scythe and myself mowing out mowing for hours in the gentle rain on the Friday evening. Three hours and three minutes to be precise.

DSCF9416Plenty of other challenges at the weekend. How about trying your hand at shearing a sheep – the traditional way with a pair of clippers or sheep shears. Not satisfied with his assault with a knife on a lump of wood Ded had a go and Simon showed him how to do it.

DSCF9418The weekend allowed me to catch up with Magnus the sword smith. Basically if it has a sharp edge – Magnus will have made it and if by some chance he hasn’t – it won’t be long before he has. You may have seen a lot of his blades alreadywithout knowing it as Magnus does a lot of work for film and TV programmes making reproduction or original designs. As a result Magnus has an approach to tool design which I find fascinating and which allows his creative bent a fairly free reign. It’s always interesting to see what Magnus is upto and this time was no exception – he’s been making some lovely little carving axes.

DSCF9430Here’s one with a traditional ‘Kentish’ style to the head but with some tomahawk influence in the weight, shaping and the tapered eye socket. Couldn’t resist buying it. He’s also made a small bearded carving axe – you’ll see more of it before long as I also bought it on the spot.

DSCF9439The problem with the Sunday afternoon competition plots, particularly the 5x5m championships is that there is a lot of nervous waiting around and then a couple of minutes of violent activity. I’m not a sprinter by nature and so the larger plots seem to suit me much better.

Nerves didn’t seem to worry Chris Earl much though. A retired farmer (if you can retire as a farmer) from Grantham, Chris brought along his Rumanian Scythe but I talked him into showing off his skills with my vintage English Nash Universal Scythe and he entered the competitions.

He also seems to have the knack of resting on the scythe. I think you’d have to agree that the English Scythe is so much better as a leaning post than the Austrian scythe?

DSCF9481A few more scything photos to prove that we did more than stand around photogenically resting on them. Arthur was a newcomer to the scythe at the start of the weekend but produced a good showing mowing in the competion being awarded best novice for his 10×10 plot.

DSCF9520 Andi Rickard mowing her 10x10m plot. Andi appears to be powered up by a secret weapon – home made pemmican. Rocket fuel for mowing I reckon. No wonder she’s the ladies champion, though it’s always a closely fought battle with the tricky grass at Wimpole. Having tried the pemmican I am converted and I just need to find some time to make some!

DSCF9488Richard Brown competes hard with his Austrian Scythe and has in the recent past been the overall winner at Wimpole. He gave it everything and produced a fast time with an excellent quality of cut. A time of 1:49 and a quality of 7.5 – which under the conditions is an amazing combination of speed and quality.

DSCF9489But in the end Wimpole’s evil little fescue grasses on a hot and windy Sunday afternoon brought him to his knees – literally.

DSCF9490Is Richard having a quick snooze or should we call an ambulance? Luckily Richard recovered swiftly just in time to take some more punishment.

DSCF9511Hard work all this standing around in the sun leaning on your scythe and waiting for something to happen.

DSCF9921So a great weekend, in really good company. Thank you everyone who made it so special! Oh and did I tell you I won a cup? I prefer the medals – but if there’s a cup on offer it would be rude to refuse wouldn’t it?

Having won the cup twice now, I am starting to look forward to somebody coming forward who can wield an English Scythe faster and perhaps more importantly with keep the quality at speed – though I don’t expect to yield without a fight.

Meanwhilst more scything ‘Bling’ to add to the collection, with a couple of spoons and the Magnificent Magnus Made small bearded carving axe. Come and try it and maybe Magnus will Make you one as well?


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Well, I am a little tardy with the second part of my bowlhook making article. But I’m going to assume that it’s better late than never. I covered the sourcing of the metal (old car springs) and the straightening and preparation of the rod earlier. You can find the article here Forging again – I’m talking more bowl hooks. A very quick disclaimer – I am not a metalworker, nor a metallurgist. My basic understanding is enough for me to make basic tools that I use as a greenwood worker and I am describing the process as I use it – not necessarily correctly!

The business end of the tool, the hook, is formed by tapering out the end of the rod until there is a flattened surface about an inch in length and an eighth of an inch in thickness. Though the dimensions are all a part of the development and sometimes they will vary depending upon how I plan to use the hook.

To work the metal most easily it needs to be at a bright heat, more than red, a very bright orange – but not yellow. The next step from yellow is when the metal starts to burn and turns into a sparkler. Very pretty but you’ve ruined it and will need to start again. Steel will do this very easily – I assume that results from the carbon in the iron, so be careful.

Before making the tapered end it’s a good idea to make the tang on the other end of the tool. This gets me into the habit of beating a taper into the metal before I mess up the first of the hooks and also to learn to gauge how quickly the hearth heats the steel to the right temperature. It doesn’t really matter if the tang turns into a sparkler.

I persuaded my Blacksmith friend, John, to make one of the tapered ends to compare his work with my attempts, whilst Robert another blacksmith looks on – no shortage of advice there then!

John’s tool has much better definition and evenness in the shape and is less dented – and as you’d expect he used a fraction of the number of hammer blows that I did to achieve the same result. But mine is certainly useable and the point of this comparison is to show that you can achieve a perfectly useable result for a tool without needing to be a professional blacksmith.

At this stage the tapered ends are cooled very slowly by the edge of the fire – perhaps about 30minutes to cool down from cherry red and are not quenched except perhaps just to ensure its cold enough to handle. By cooling it so slowly the iron is annealed which keeps arrangement of the iron and carbon in the material so that the metal is at it’s softest, important for the next stage.  While one tool is cooling the next one can be worked. You should just about be able to see one iron in the fire and one just to the side of it cooling down.

With the steel annealed the bevel can be added to the tapered end of the tool. If the metal is soft enough this can be done with a file, though not all steels will soften enough for this, as I discovered and this bevel was added added by a flap wheel disc on a grinder. The bevel angle is somewhere between 20 and 30 degrees.

The most critical stage is to form the hook on the end of the tool. You only get one chance to do this and subsequent attempts tend to result in a less than perfect shape – though the hook might still be quite useable. The tip needs to be at orange heat (it will heat up very fast when its this thin) and then swiftly bent.

Having spent hours preparing the ends you are suddenly faced with a minute of work which is either going to work or ruin it. So don’t rush it at this stage. I originally used a pair of pliers for this – but I can’t find a good pair again and have taken to forming the curve around another piece of iron rod.  Notice that the curve is offset which helps the use of the hook on the inside of the bowl, so the first bend is on the shank backwards (which I do with pliers) followed by tapping the end gently around the former.

The final stage is to temper the tool. Correct temper will ensure that the tool keeps a sharp edge, but is not so brittle that it breaks too easily.

It’s a two stage process. First the tool is heated to an orange heat, hot enough that the iron and carbon molecules form a material known as Austenite, and not surprisingly this first stage is called Austenising. The tool is rapidly quenched in water or iron to trap the iron and carbon in this form – at this point the steel is extremely brittle and unusable. If you knock it hard it should shatter -but don’t try it with the tool you are tempering!

The second stage is to reheat the tool to a precise temperature to balance the characteristics of  toughness with brittleness and this is tempering the steel.

To do this precisely an oven is a good idea. There is another, less precise method which is to guage the temper by reference to the colour of the steel. This needs plenty of light and a bright polished surface on the tool. A blowtorch is a good way to do this. Using the hearth is probably going to be the least precise method for guaging the temper but it was a bright day and I was keen to try this for once as virtually all blacksmiths would have used this method originally.

There is another madness in my method – and that’s because I don’t actually know the constituents of my material. I know it’s a hard spring steel as it remained too hard to file even when annealed. Also the springs cracked on the vehicle rather than sagged. So for this temper I am going to err on the side of softness to avoid a tool which might break on the lathe – and the downside is that I might have to sharpen more often. But even when annealed it was fairly hard so I think it’s the right way to go with this steel.  Since I have enough of the steel for dozens of tools I can afford to take time to learn this by experiment, so it’s of less importance to me to be able to accurately determine the temperature.

Initially the bright polished end of the tool is silver but you soon see a yellow or straw colour creeping along the shank. But this is still too brittle a temper. Somewhat anti-intuitively the steel is tempered softer as you continue to heat it. I am holding the tool so that the shank receives most of the heat in the heart of the fire and the heat is then moving along towards the tip – the tip will reach temperature really quickly as it has very little heat capacity.

The tip reaches a blue temperature – as soon as it starts to turn blue I quench the tip to prevent it overheating and oversoftening. However it is only an approximation as the tool would need to be held at the correct temperature for some time to ensure that as much of the steel as possible is converted from its brittle form (and why an oven would be an improvement) but with an unknown steel I think it’s a good enough way to start out.

So that’s it. One rusty car spring converted into a range of potentially very useful lathe tools. On this occasion I managed to reform a couple of tools I was unhappy with as well as make a prototype curved knife for bottoming the bowls in a very full day.

I am very grateful to the blacksmiths at the old Kiln Forge for allowing me to disrupt their day. We ended in the traditional way by heating some water on the hearth in a giant ladle for a good hand wash.

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This week is seems that I have been doing everything and anything except turning wood on the polelathe and I’m getting more than a bit paranoid about it. But for the last 3 years I’ve managed to spend a day at the Old Kiln Forge (Rural Life Museum, Tilford) talking plenty of bowl hooks. Last year I produced a couple of hooks that improved my bowl turning and I had a fairly clear idea of what I wanted to do this year so better to do it before the season starts in earnest and I also have to fit with my blacksmithing mentors.

The forge is really coming together. It’s the little things that make the difference and I can sense that this smithy is both loved and used!

My visit to the museum also included the opportunity to drop off this old Avery fuel pump (last used on Haslemere High Street for dispensing Paraffin I’m told – and that must have been a few years ago) to its new home. And on Sunday I’m teaching polelathe turning at the museum so it was a chance to check the setup and preparations as well. But that didn’t get in the way of the metal bashing too much and I got plenty done.

The aim of the session was to make an improved bowl hook for turning bowls on the pole lathe – the search for the ultimate bowl hook is probably just a manifestation of the inevitable gear freak in me. Here’s one of last years in use on the lathe. You can see how the shape of the hook allows working into the deep curve of the bowl and it’s evolved to suit working sideways into a bowl held between centres – but there are few things on this one that I don’t quite like, for example, the tip is too long for undercutting the central core easily.

I was going to put all the bowl hooks (if you’ll pardon the expression) into one post but it was taking a long time to write and I’ll lessen the pain on you by splitting it into more manageable chunks (maybe). A bit like the material I was using, which started life as a coil spring – a 1987 Range Rover coil spring to be exact and first needs to be split into chunks.

In this post I’ll look at the preparation of the material and issues with reusing old metal. It’s invariably the wrong shape to start with and you’re never quite sure what it is. But this can be simply overcome with a hammer (also known as Landrover Special Took No1).

There are several ways to shape the material. I cut a couple of rings off the coil using an angle grinder which makes it more manageable in the fire – you can see the rest of the coil to the left of the fire.

But essentially you just need to heat the metal to make it malleable and easier to bend. It’s not necessary to heat it right up to a bright yellow but its very easy to bend at that heat and here John shows me how to strighten the coil with a minimum of blows from the hammer.

But given a chance he’d prefer to straighten out the spring in one piece with no nasty angle grinders and here Robert gets on with unwinding the coil whilst I’m making up the first hook.

Instead of a hammer Robert does most of the work by using a cunning yoke shape that fits into the hardy hole on the anvil (The hardy hole is the square hole on the top of the anvil).

Using  old springs is a natural place to start for making sharp tools that will keep their edge. Unlike normal mild steel which is relatively soft, Spring Steel has a high level of carbon and will become very hard (and possibly also very brittle) when worked and tempered in the right way.

The first and easiest way to test the steel you have is to try filing it. If it won’t file then its a harder steel than mild steel (does depend upon your file of course). Another way is to put it on a grinding wheel and compare with mildsteel. A harder steel will produce lots more sparks on the wheel.

By using Spring Steel you already know it must be high carbon but unfortunately you don’t know just how much carbon is in the spring steel you have, nor whether small amounts of other metals, magnesium and cobalt for example have been added to give the spring its characteristics. So buying in fresh stock metal to a known specification is a more consistent way to achieve results – tool steel 01 is the commonly used spec. Though its important to remember that consistency and specification are not the same as performance.  It just means its always the same.

But 4 coil springs gives you a lot of metal to try out – it will probably make me enough bowl hooks for life! So I can afford to try out a few and when I find the right springs keep the rest of the set to make more tools. As it happens these range rover springs cracked in service, a hint that they will likely be plenty hard enough for me to use.

When you forge high carbon steel you will soon learn not to heat it too hot. This is probably around the limit -as soon as you achieve bright yellow going towards white hot the steel starts to burn and becomes a sparkler. You’ll know when you see it. This is another test for your steel – mild steel with little or no carbon will not burn in this way. Unfortunately when this happens you will ruin the steel, but you can always cut a bit off or use that end for the tang (handle end) of the tool.

The job is finished using a hide hammer which allows blows to straighten the rod along the flat(ish) top of the anvil without squashing the crossection of the rod. Again a minimum of blows to achieve the job not only saves your back, but also time and burns up less of the hide hammer – though the smell of the roasting leather mixed with the normal hot metal and coke smell of the forge is a bonus.

There is something undeniably satisfying about making your own tools – especially when you are reusing old metal and giving it a new lease of life. It can take a long time to prepare the material for use – but if like me you don’t bash metal too often it’s not a bad way of getting to grips with things again before getting to the business end of the tool, which I’ll look at in another post.

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The Steam apple pressing weekend at the New Forest Cider farm in Burley (the heart of the New Forest) is a little gem of a show and a great way to mark the end of the season.  In amonst the apples and cider presses are a range of traditional crafts and displays.


The apples are a traditional cider variety, Kingston Black, from the farms orchard and the centre piece of the show are the traditional cider mills and presses. The mills (scratters) are driven by either a steam engine or an old stationary engine.


The farms own vintage press is a big oak twin screw press and the apple pomace is arranged in straw covered cheeses, perhaps the most traditional way to press the apples.


The biggest press is a trailer mounted mobile press, originally made in Gloucestershire, with a central scratter and a press on either side all belt driven from an over head shaft. If you can spot a tiny white wedge shape to the right of the central belt wheel it’s the ash wedge I made quickly to keep one of the drive cogs engaged (or disengaged).


Here’s a press and mill from Cleveland in Somerset.


It’s becoming something of a tradition to include a picture of an industrious Mr Jameson so here goes, perhaps the last one of the season.


Although low on stock of turned treen and other items it’s the end of the season and I decided to spend the weekend working on bowls. Blessed by good weather and in very cramped pitches (it’s a small site with a lot going on) I decided to forego a shelter and work in the open. The lathe worked well and I turned out several bowls that I had been meaning to get around to.


Amongst them were a couple of small bowls from some wood I was given as Whitebeam although I didn’t see the tree. The wood was not very attractive for spindle turning and I put it aside and almost disposed of it in the firewood pile before deciding to try turning as a bowl. The part seasoned wood, originally pale,  seems to have turned quite brown. Anyone else turned whitebeam?


Another steam driven attraction is the rack saw, powered by local steam engine Robey from Ringwood. I noticed the racksaw is towed on the road by a Trantor tractor (which used to be owned by Alan Waters – small world this one) which had to be jump started by a neat looking series 3 landrover as the sharp frost on Saturday morning took its toll on the battery. Before long I was deep in a landrover restoration conversation.  Cider, steam, wood and landrovers, what more could you ask for…..?


…Except perhaps a hot cup of tea from the biggest kettle I’ve seen in a while, well probably ever, just about fits onto the blacksmith’s portable farrier’s forge.


We had a range of woodturning lathes on display and Rod Poynting was demonstrating with his treadle lathe


During the weekend I noticed a distinct level of pressure being applied by the Forest of Dean chapter for me to turn a Wassail bowl. Here is one turned by Chas and although a lot of the work was done on a power lathe it takes a lot of carving to put in the fluted edge or lips. I’ll think about it!


Amongst the craft displays was a complete set of coopering tools, something you don’t see too often these days. Even better was to see them in use by the grand daughter of the original owner (sorry I’ve forgotten your name!) – here starting to shave a slat for a barrel – perhaps the barrel next year!


Unlike many shows which are very commercial in nature, and I do have to try to be reasonably commercial for most of the season, this show doesn’t really have a commerical bone in its body. It’s a great opportunity to get together with like minded people in a wide range of traditional crafts and share experiences and information. What a shame it couldn’t last for another week – but sometimes it’s better to quite whilst you are ahead.

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This round has been contributed by my friend Jules over at Dunsfold. Jules is a talented blacksmith and works from his forge at home where he has been making a copy of this tool – hence there are two of them. Answers please on a postcard, or as a comment……..

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I couldn’t resist it. I can hear the groans from here.  I am always suprised how many sayings are related to blacksmithing, ‘Going at it hammer and tongs’ being one of them. So I spent the afternoon with John at his Forge in Tilford which means I am talking bowlhooks again.

John and Nick have done a lot of work improving the facilities at the forge and it is looking very good these days with new layout benches and more tools in use. Unfortunately, a technical hitch with recharging my camera batteries meant that the recharged ones ran out, and predictably my spares were dead, so you will be pleased to hear that I don’t have a lot of pictures of old landrover springs being turned into bowlhooks this time.

The forge was busy, with both hearths in use, as Andy was being tutored by John and seemed grateful that somebody else would be struggling more than he would!

John allowed me to interrupt his work, some of which I managed to snap – I really liked this pair of door handles commissioned for a music room.

and some ornamental scrollwork for a gate.

I did manage to make a coupe of monster bowl hooks with John’s help. By coincidence, or was it synchronicity Toni, another pole and bowl turner (Bygone Toni on Youtube and at his website http://myweb.tiscali.co.uk/bygonecountryskills/ ) was visiting the museum and we had useful discussions on the merits of bowlhook design and how to sharpen them – some of which I was able to use as I made these tools. I haven’t seen Toni since I met him at a Kew Gardens show some years ago and I was extremely impressed with the work he does, so it was good to make contact and I look forward to catching up with him again.

On this occasion I decided to make them with the bevel on the outside of the curve for a change. Though in one case I forgot that was my intention so inadvertantly put the bevel on the wrong side and bent it in reverse, so it looks a little weird – but I don’t think that will affect it’s performance and I’m looking forward to trying it out in the next few days.

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It would be more accurate to say that I didn’t temper my tools properly in the first place. This winter I am keen to make good use of my hook tools and so last Sunday I took time off from my planking project and went over to the forge at the Tilford Rural Life Museum.

The musuem is between Farnham and Haslemere. It may seem strange for Surrey to have a rural life centre but its well worth a visit for its extensive collections of tools and rural items. (Tilford Rural Life Museum ) They have a great collection of Moss edge tools (local blacksmiths and much prized items). They even have a big wheel lathe there that I have been told is useable. The collection was started by one of the founders of the Tilhill forestry company, which I assume started life on a hill in nearby Tilford. It would have been open heathland until Tilhill started – I hear that the original Tilhill plantation is now an RSPB reserve and being returned to heathland again.

Hook tools are often used by pole lathe turners for bowls and is one area where pole lathe and power lathe turners differ in the tools they use. The photo shows the first hook tools that I made a year ago for small items such as goblets and egg cups. I made a batch and one is really suited to goblets but its been hard work as I failed to get the temper of the tool right and its been losing its edge really quickly.


John and Nick are the blacksmiths who work from the forge at Tilford and John helped me to improve the temper on my hook tools. Sorry about the rotten photos John.

Edge tools are tempered by heating the edge to a specific heat and then quenching (or cooling) rapidly to ‘freeze’ the metal orientation at that temper. You can do this scientifically in an oven by setting the temperature, or it can be done as originally by buffing the metal to a dull shine and then watching the colour of the metal closely.

John decided to retemper the tool by heating it in the forge until it was bright orange or dull yellow and then quenching just the hooked tip. This allows the heat in the thicker stem to flow back into the hooked tip and you can see the colours of the tip turn. After some tests we decided to temper to straw just before the very tip turned blue. As the tip turned clearly straw and just before it turned to blue John then quenched the whole tool. Comparing filing of the edge before and after retempering the tool is harder than before. During the last week I’ve been using the tool and my impression is that it’s sharper and keeps its edge much longer – but sometimes all it needs is a good feeling, so its not an objective measurement.
It was also a Landrover day at the Museum so I got to park inside for a change. Here is a row of Series II Landrovers drawn up for inspection – most look immaculate, The tatty one at the other end is mine. Next year I am hoping for a prize for tattiest Landrover so I can win!


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